What is Regenerative Fashion?
TL;DR This article breaks down what regenerative agriculture is and who pioneered this approach, how we can shift to a more regenerative fashion system, plus three brands and five nonprofits to support.
Regenerative fashion refers to clothing made in ways that support circularity — either through the used economy by upcycling materials otherwise discarded or through the soil-to-soil cycle of regenerative agriculture, which will be the focus of this article.
As many consumers today are already aware, agrochemical-laden conventional farming is not only harmful to the ecosystem but also to people’s health. But did you know that organic farming — agriculture without the use of synthetic pesticides — can cause land degradation and contribute to climate change just the same?
Facing our climate crisis and the sixth mass extinction, environmental fashion activists often say, “The most sustainable clothes are the ones that you already own or that already exist through the second hand market.”
With statistics such as how the fashion sector ‘was responsible for some 2.1 billion metric tons of greenhouse-gas emissions in 2018, about 4 percent of the global total,’ it’s understandable how one would come to these conclusions. And to be fair, our culture of materialism and disposability is a big problem: 25 billion pounds of textiles are produced every year in the U.S., and the average American throws away 70 pounds of clothing annually.
To counter overconsumption, shopping second hand and making the most of everything we already have are indeed among the best things we can do to support sustainability with our fashion choices.
But the idea that every purchase of something new must have negative impacts — no matter how ‘sustainably’ the item was made — sits on the assumption that all forms of agriculture and production necessarily cause some degree of destruction to the Earth. This misguided belief leads to a reductionist mindset that all we can do is to lower our negative ecological footprints — by consuming less or not consuming anything ‘new’ at all. The assumption is false, though, as proven by farming and Indigenous land stewardship practices that are restorative, regenerative, and biodiversity-enhancing.
Going from degenerative to regenerative agriculture
Because conventional agriculture (and even some of organic agriculture) values chemistry over biology and efficiency over diversity, it tends to view farming as a mathematical equation of inputs and outputs — overlooking the need to care for the living soil ecology and the diversity of life on the land. With the primary purpose of production, conventional farming focuses on extracting as much as possible from the Earth at all costs — without listening deeply to the landscape, establishing reciprocity, and supporting the land’s ecological processes. Such extractive, controlling, and disruptive modes of farming inevitably lead to degeneration — biodiversity loss, water runoff, pollution, and carbon emissions from the soil erosion.
When we buy less of what’s produced through degenerative agriculture, we can reduce our negative impacts. But we can go beyond doing less bad. When our purchases, nonprofit donations, and political engagements support farmers and land stewards practicing regenerative farming and ecosystem restoration, we can actually aid the process of our planetary healing and the reversal of climate change.
Here are just some examples of what we can accomplish through regenerative agriculture: draw down carbon into the soil, enrich biodiversity, provide habitat for wildlife, restore the water cycle, and revive the ecosystems’ inherent capacities to recreate abundance. These practices are rooted in traditional biocultural knowledge and Indigenous science and can include agroforestry, silvopasture, permaculture, aquaculture, wetland restoration, and so forth. But rather than apply a one-size-fits-all solution to caring for the Earth across the globe, every bioregion — with its own climate, flora and fauna, and natural elements — requires its own sets of place-based, regenerative land stewardship practices. This is why supporting Indigenous-led and community-based conservation efforts are critical!
How to look for regenerative fashion
Shopping for second hand or upcycled clothing is always a good way to support circularity through the used economy.
While some organic farms may already practice regenerative agriculture, it’s currently impossible to tell whether they do with the existing organic certifications. Regenerative Organic Alliance, building on existing organic labels, will soon roll out a new certification to help consumers distinguish regeneratively grown goods.
Meanwhile, we can look for brands that:
1. mention, explicitly, their companies’ support for regenerative agriculture, soil health, ecosystem restoration, or Indigenous-led land stewardship;
2. have full transparency of their fair labor practices and supply chains at all levels, including the regenerative farms they source their raw materials from
3. and prioritize things like organic, biodegradable fibers, bioregionally suited fiber varieties, nontoxic and/or botanical dyes, regional production, and/or traditional craftsmanship.
A Regenerative Fashion Brand to Support
Harvest & Mill
Working towards the Fibershed model of regional farming and manufacturing, Harvest & Mill makes its clothing in Northern California — using organic cotton grown in North Carolina. They use non-toxic, natural dyes, and also work with naturally colored cotton.
An acknowledgment of the pioneers of regenerative fashion
Besides the formalized brands we can find online, many Indigenous or traditional artisans and makers around the globe — the true pioneers of regenerative fashion — also make clothes using locally, wild-harvested or regeneratively grown fibers, natural dyes, and generational craftsmanship techniques. In fact, many of them are working to preserve their regional textile systems against the forces of economic globalization.
While we may not be able to find all of their products in online shops, it is important to acknowledge their contributions to sustainability outside of the mainstream fashion sphere — where fame, popularity, and success often depend on the financial resources that companies have to market their brands and imagery.
Taking our fashion activism beyond conscious consumerism
The final recommendation I’d love to give is to take our fashion activism beyond what we choose to purchase. Look out for policies that encourage and help farmers to integrate regenerative practices into their farmland stewardship, and support nonprofits working on regenerative agriculture and Indigenous-led, biocultural land restoration, such as:
- Fibershed, a leader in the movement towards reestablishing regional, regenerative textile systems, is Made Trade’s nonprofit partner through 1% For the Planet. In order to maximize the carbon sequestration potentials and restorative impacts of fashion, the ideal scenario is to combine regeneratively grown fibers with localized manufacturing. This is Fibershed’s vision and goal.
- Regenerative Agriculture Alliance is a coalition of people and organizations working to support regenerative agriculture through decolonized and indigenized understandings of caring for the Earth.
- Cultural Survival is dedicated to protecting and advancing Indigenous peoples’ rights and cultures worldwide. Making up less than 5% of our global population, Indigenous peoples steward 80% of Earth’s biodiversity. In order to safeguard the earth with place-based ecological knowledge, supporting Indigenous rights must be a part of our goals of protecting and restoring our ecosystems and lands.
- Nature Rights Council, an Indigenous-led organization, is working to ensure ‘a sustainable future through advocacy, education and social change, emphasizing traditional ecological knowledge.’
- Recognizing that languages and cultures have co-evolved with our diverse bioregions around the globe, equipping Indigenous communities with the place-based knowledge needed to protect our varied landscapes across the planet, Terralingua actively works to protect biocultural diversity — a term which bridges biodiversity and cultural diversity.