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Regenerative agriculture won’t solve the fashion industry’s pollution problems

The fashion industry is focusing on crops when it should be focusing on its business model.

Cotton Crop

The regenerative agriculture fund aims to transform 247 million acres of land into sustainable fields that produce wool, leather, cotton and cashmere by 2025. 

Investing in regenerative agriculture is the latest trend in fashion. This year, the Kering Luxury Group — home to brands such as Gucci, Bottega Veneta, Balenciaga and Alexander McQueen — has co-founded a regenerative agriculture fund. It aims to transform 247 million acres of land into sustainable fields that produce wool, leather, cotton and cashmere by 2025. 

The North Face, Burberry, Timberland, Patagonia, Stella McCartney, Eileen Fisher, Mara Hoffman, Allbirds and Christy Dawn are also among the growing list of brands supporting regenerative farmers. 

It’s no surprise that fashion brands feel pressured to do better. The sector emits 4 to 10 percent of annual global greenhouse gas emissions, more than the entire economies of France, Germany and the United Kingdom combined. The industry is the second-biggest consumer of water worldwide and produces 20 percent of global wastewater

Other impacts include the dumping of millions of tons of plastic fibers into the ocean and the regular burning of unsold products worth millions of dollars. Violating the rights of women and children in developing countries is just as much part of many companies’ business models. But change is on its way and industry leaders count on regenerative agriculture as an essential element of a more responsible fashion future. 

Polluting less isn’t enough 

Many brands have been working to reduce their pollution for years. They participate in initiatives such as the Sustainable Apparel Coalition and the UN Alliance for Sustainable Fashion or work in partnership with social and environmental nonprofits. Sustainability approaches range from implementing less wasteful production practices to funding the development of circular textile models and improving working conditions. These strategies have helped brands reduce their pollution. But they haven’t offered them the chance to be nature-positive. 

This is where regenerative agriculture comes to play. Investing in crop and rangeland practices that promise to revive soils, clean up waterways, protect biodiversity and mitigate climate change offers brand leaders the opportunity to be part of the solution rather than just contributing less to the problem, Vogue reports. Companies want to move from sustainability to regeneration. 

I’d like to view this as an exciting opportunity for agriculture. In the U.S. alone, the average consumer buys 68 garments per year, five times more than in 1980. Sourcing the raw materials for this ever-growing industry from regenerative farms would encompass a large-scale transformation. But just because a shirt is made from regeneratively grown cotton doesn’t make it a sustainable product. 

Making strategic land-use choices

Every kind of agricultural production comes with a land-use tradeoff. Instead of producing cotton, the farmland could be used to grow food or serve as a protected area. And then there are the water and fertilizer inputs once the decision is made to grow a crop. 

If we want to restore the health of our planet, we need to think harder about how to use the land. Today, agriculture already controls 50 percent of the world’s habitable land. A thousand years ago, we farmed less than 4 percent, leaving the rest to nature. This encroachment on natural habitat is the biggest driver of the extinction crisis and one of the largest contributors to climate change. 

Brands such as H&M and Zara produce between 12 and 24 collections each year. Up to 85% of these products end up in landfills.

Conserving land is better than farming it regeneratively. Long-standing research into the question of land-sparing versus land-sharing concludes that land-sparing produces superior outcomes for wild species. We should use as little land as possible for agriculture, dedicating "spared" areas completely to biodiversity rather than incorporating conservation practices into agriculture if they demand larger growing areas. 

The more we consume, and the more land we use, the harder it will be to regenerate natural systems rich in biodiversity and sequestered carbon. Farmland should be strategically used for producing the food, fiber and fuel most essential to supporting the lives of a growing global population. The remaining land should be restored and rewilded, allowing ecosystems to recover. How does producing fast fashion fit in here? Instead of encouraging consumers to buy ever more products by offering guilt-free, regeneratively produced clothes, the fashion industry first and foremost needs to slow the fashion cycle. 

Transformative adaptation — the way forward?  

The fashion industry’s problem made me think of the need for transformative adaptation, which Jim Giles wrote about in Food Weekly a few weeks ago. The World Resources Institute (WRI) uses the term to describe the need for systemic changes in agricultural practices, responding to climate risk, that will safeguard the resilience of smallholder operations and food supply chains. Farmers in Bagerhat District, Bangladesh, for example, have shifted from rice production to aquaculture in response to increased groundwater salinity.

In the face of the climate crisis, we don’t only need to think about how sectors bearing climate risks need to transform, but also those causing the risk. For the meat industry, this means investing heavily in alternative proteins and encouraging consumption shifts toward less and better meat. The fashion industry needs to fundamentally rethink its business model, too. 

Priority efforts should focus on lowering consumption by producing durable and timeless clothing, mainstreaming the adoption of slow fashion and instituting repair and reuse models. As demand for fast fashion won’t vanish overnight, the industry also needs to reduce its impact across the entire product lifecycle. Regenerative agriculture can only be a small piece of the industry’s sustainability puzzle. 

A few brands are already taking steps in the right direction. Levi’s most recent spring campaign, "Buy better, wear longer," called out the unsustainable level of fashion production and consumption. Jen Sey, brand president, encouraged consumers to "be more intentional about their apparel choices: to wear each item longer, for example, to buy SecondHand, or to use our in-store Tailor Shops to extend the life of their garments." Patagonia also has long been a supporter of less consumption, championing reuse and recycle models with its second hand shop and recrafted collection

In its entirety, however, the industry has a long way to go. Brands such as H&M and Zara produce between 12 and 24 collections each year. Up to 85 percent of these products end up in landfills. Reducing overproduction and waste should be on top of fashion companies’ to-do lists. As a consumer, I’ll also make sure to think two or three times before clicking on my next "confirm order" button.   

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