Regenerative Agriculture Can Change the Fashion Industry—And the World. But What Is It?

Emily Farra

“The word sustainable is like a dinosaur now,” Aras Baskauskas, the CEO of Los Angeles label Christy Dawn, tells me on a recent call. “What are we trying to sustain—the fires, the tornadoes, the mass extinction? We don’t need to be sustainable, we need to be regenerative.”

That conversation took place in early March, just before the coronavirus outbreak. Now, Baskauskas’s words feel almost prescient. Those natural disasters he mentioned are the result of our climate emergency, but so is the coronavirus; both are symptomatic of our fast-paced lifestyles and one-sided relationship with the planet. “We’ve forgotten that we are nature, and because of that, we’ve extracted from the earth without giving back,” he adds. “We take and don’t return.”

That’s true of many industries, but especially fashion. Even as we shift towards a more sustainable mindset, we can’t really say that anything we’re doing is “giving back” to the earth. If designers produce smaller collections and consumers buy fewer things, it’s certainly an improvement on what we’ve been doing for decades. But an industry that’s “less bad” than it was before isn’t saying much. Baskauskas and his wife, Christy Peterson, had that sharp realization last year. They’ve built Christy Dawn into a modest business known for its sustainable efforts, namely their use of leftover deadstock fabrics in lieu of producing new textiles. “For the first five years of our brand, we were super proud that we haven’t been part of the problem,” he said. “But it weighed on us that we weren’t part of the solution, either.”

“It’s really mimicking what nature does already. You never see just one crop in nature, you see a vast diversity. There’s a reason for that.”

That’s where the word regenerative comes in. Baskauskas first understood it in the context of food and agriculture: Regenerative farming is essentially the new organic or sustainable farming, but it goes a few steps further. In addition to omitting chemicals, regenerative agriculture actually replenishes and strengthens the plants, the soil, and the nature surrounding it. And because most of our clothes started as plants, “regenerative ag” is becoming a shiny new buzzword in the sustainable fashion conversation. Richard Malone picked up the International Woolmark Prize for his collaboration with a regenerative farm in India, and Eileen Fisher spoke at length about her new passion for regenerative farming in a recent Vogue interview. “I love this [topic] because this is one of the places where we can make a positive impact,” she said. “Rather than just pollute less or do less harm, we can actually kind of revive the earth through the process of making clothes.”

Unlike Fisher, few of us have ever set foot on a farm, and the conventional-versus-regenerative agriculture debate doesn’t exactly come up at fashion shows. The easiest way to understand regenerative agriculture is to first picture what you think of as a “typical farm”: It’s probably hundreds of acres of a single crop, like corn or cotton. It probably looks normal to your eye, though not entirely natural, because it isn’t: Most of those farms use pesticides and other conventional methods, like deep tilling. A regenerative farm is the complete inverse of that: Imagine acre upon acre of various different crops, many of them strategically planted to help each other grow and flourish. On a cotton farm, there might be rows of snap peas planted as “cover crops” to shade the soil so it stays cool, absorbs more water, and thus grows more microbiomes. Regenerative farms also implement “pollinator strips” of crops that attract bees and butterflies to the area, or they’ll add “trap crops” to divert pests from their hero crops in lieu of chemical pesticides. “It’s really mimicking what nature does already,” Baskauskas says. “You never see just one crop in nature, you see a vast diversity. There’s a reason for that.”

Regenerative farming produces stronger crops and provides a healthier way of life for farmers, but it’s the impact on soil that’s making it an environmental movement. Rich, nutrient-dense soil sequesters carbon from the atmosphere through a process most of us learned about as kids: photosynthesis. When plants photosynthesize, they capture carbon in the air and draw it back into the earth, where it becomes food for microorganisms and mycelia. It’s all part of earth’s natural cycle—the atmosphere has always traded carbon with the soil—but after the Industrial Revolution, humans have been releasing disproportionate amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. The cycle is no longer in harmony, and the carbon trapped in the atmosphere is now warming the planet. To make matters worse, modern-day farming practices have led to massive areas of stripped, barren land that can’t effectively absorb carbon.

<div class="caption"> A field of indigo plants at Fibershed’s Northern California farm. </div> <cite class="credit">Photo: Paige Green / Courtesy of Fibershed</cite>
A field of indigo plants at Fibershed’s Northern California farm.
Photo: Paige Green / Courtesy of Fibershed

We constantly hear about reducing our carbon emissions or new technology that captures carbon, but if the earth could just return to its natural, abundant state, it could fix the problem of global warming on its own. “Soil has lost 139 billion tons of CO2e through tillage, overgrazing, and churning it up to develop urban and suburban sprawl,” explains Rebecca Burgess, the founder of Fibershed, a non-profit that develops regenerative textile systems. “Of the available landmass that is not picked over, we have the ability to sink all of the carbon in our atmosphere, which is 109 billion tons. So we actually owe the soil more carbon than we need to sequester.”

In other words, it’s totally doable. And while it sounds scientific, it’s also radically simple. When Baskauskas and Peterson decided they wanted to move beyond deadstock sourcing and get involved with this movement, they reached out to Burgess, who then connected them with Nishanth Chopra, the founder of Oshadi Studio. Together, they worked with a family of farmers in India to transform a conventional sesame and sugarcane farm into a regenerative cotton farm. The land was bare and essentially devoid of life, and there were plenty of naysayers who didn’t think it could be fixed—but with time, they rebuilt the soil and grew so much cotton and botanical dye plants that farmers in the surrounding area have asked if they can do the same. In September, the first collection of dresses spun from that cotton will debut on the Christy Dawn website.

“This isn’t big enough to change the whole world, but it’s big enough to change our own world,” Baskauskas says. “And it’s big enough that if we do it really well and get the right people writing about it, much bigger brands will jump on board, and consumers will demand it.” The caveat is that designers will need to invest serious time and money into these farms, as Christy Dawn did, because it takes multiple years to become regenerative. It goes against fashion’s traditional way of thinking, where things are expected to be done quickly and cheaply—and it’s unlikely that many brands have set aside an agriculture budget. In the midst of a pandemic, some might be cutting their sustainability budgets altogether. But if they’re willing to think longterm and take the leap, investing in regenerative farming methods is the best thing they can do for the planet.

<div class="caption"> Christy Dawn designer Christy Peterson on the farm in India. </div> <cite class="credit">Photo: Ashish Chandra / Courtesy of Christy Dawn</cite>
Christy Dawn designer Christy Peterson on the farm in India.
Photo: Ashish Chandra / Courtesy of Christy Dawn

Patagonia is out ahead of the movement, unsurprisingly. The company spearheaded organic cotton in the early ’90s and has just released its first collection of T-shirts made from regenerative organic cotton from farms in India. “When we realized the power of soil sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, it was a real aha! moment,” Helena Barbour, the head of Patagonia’s sportswear, explains. “It’s very dramatic to find something that doesn’t just mitigate a problem, or reduce the impact of a problem, but it actually does something good.” Patagonia has now partnered with hundreds of farmers, many of whom are in India, where the debt cycle of agriculture can be especially harsh. “We had the chance to travel to India to see these regenerative farms, and they’re little paradises,” she says. “They’re very biodiverse, they use beneficial insects, they have animals living on the farm… Just standing there and looking around at the birds and insects and dozens and dozens of varieties of crops was deeply moving, I have to say.”

Barbour adds that while the conversation is new, the techniques are steeped in tradition. “Many of the farmers in India said this was like going back to their traditional practices, which is very exciting,” she says. “They said their great-grandfathers used to farm like this, but then they just got approached by all the chemical companies [selling] synthetic fertilizers.”

“I do believe fashion is where we can mainstream regenerative ag. I think in some ways, it’s more poised than the food industry to lead [the conversation], because fashion is more permanent. You don’t know what I ate for breakfast, but you know what I’m wearing.”

Matthew Sheffer, the managing director of Hudson Carbon just outside of New York, says those synthetics actually decrease a plant’s ability to absorb nutrients, meaning a vegetable we eat today has a fraction of the magnesium or vitamin A it would have had 50 ago. But why did we start using those chemicals, anyway? It goes all the way back to World War II, when much of the world relied on the United States for food. The plains became farmland to meet demand, and ammunition manufacturers began producing synthetic nitrogen, which increased crop yields by five times. Seventy-five years later, “we’re still stuck in this mentality that we have to produce as much food as we possibly can for as little cost, without seeing the environment as part of the equation,” Sheffer says. “That’s really where we went wrong.”

<div class="caption"> Cotton grown on the farm in India is dyed and spun into a jacquard by a local weaver, and will eventually become a Christy Dawn dress. </div> <cite class="credit">Photo: Ashish Chandra / Courtesy of Christy Dawn</cite>
Cotton grown on the farm in India is dyed and spun into a jacquard by a local weaver, and will eventually become a Christy Dawn dress.
Photo: Ashish Chandra / Courtesy of Christy Dawn

The farm at Hudson Carbon began as a commodity soybean and corn farm until 2013, when Ben Dobson came on to manage the farm’s transition to organic farming. Now, it’s an “on-farm soil laboratory,” where they conduct soil carbon research and are building a new “marketplace” for carbon capture. Unlike traditional carbon offsetting schemes, Hudson Carbon will sell “offsets” to companies who want to support regenerative agriculture; their money will go directly to the farms. Set to launch this spring, it could serve as a jumping-off point for designers who want to support but don’t have the resources to invest in their own farming project just yet. Their involvement—and educating their customers about it—will be key to speeding up this movement and eventually influencing policy decisions.

“I do believe fashion is where we can mainstream regenerative ag,” Burgess says. “I think in some ways, it’s more poised than the food industry to lead [the conversation], because fashion is more permanent. You don’t know what I ate for breakfast, but you know what I’m wearing. There will need to be some risk-taking on the brand level, and we have to educate the consumer. It might look like a steep hurdle right now, but we just shut the whole world down voluntarily. I think we can figure this out.”

Originally Appeared on Vogue