Patagonia: Regenerative agriculture is the next sustainability frontier for fashion and food

EXCLUSIVE: Patagonia's vice president for social & environmental responsibility has told of how she witnessed a "groundswell" in regenerative farming in recent months, of a scale that has been unprecedented during her 10+ years working across supply chains.

Patagonia: Regenerative agriculture is the next sustainability frontier for fashion and food

Pictured: An ROC-certified

Cara Chacon spoke exclusively to edie after the outdoor clothing brand launched a new range of cotton T-shirts sourced from farms promoting sustainable agriculture methods, in a step towards its ambition of sourcing 100% regenerative cotton and hemp by 2030.

Cotton used to make the products is sourced from a string of 150 farms in India which have been certified by the Regenerative Organic Alliance – a non-profit certification scheme with net-positive requirements for soil health, animal welfare and human rights. While the farms covered by the scheme at present are standalone, smallholder businesses, Chacon believes that collaboration between smallholders will only grow in the coming years, in tandem with a shift to regenerative practices at large farms.

“Most of the world’s farmers are smallholder farmers – if we could convert all of them to regenerative organic, it would be a game-changer,” Chacon said, noting the fact that some estimates place the number of smallholder farmers globally at 525 million.

“But for big agriculture and the large farms, it can be done. We can retrofit machinery to plant inter-crops and cover crops to address some of the challenges associated with these models, for example.”

Some big companies are already making such changes, indicating that regenerative agriculture could soon cease being a lofty idea and become, instead, a reality in the corporate space. Danone is allocating up to $20m (£15m) to help farms across North America implement regenerative practices, for example, while General Mills has a 2030 goal to advance regenerative practices on one million acres of land. In the fashion sector, Timberland recently unveiled an ambition to only source regenerative leather, cotton, wool and sugarcane by 2030, in the same week that Tommy Hilfiger said it would increase its sourcing of such materials.

Chacon admitted that she had seen more business action to scale up processes like inter-cropping, cover-cropping, rotational grazing and low-till planting – a method which minimises soil disturbance – from businesses based in the US than in Europe. This may simply be down to the US having larger amounts of farmland to play with. It is, according to Investopedia, the world’s second-largest producer of food and home to perhaps the most mechanised and industrialised agricultural industry in the world.

But Chacon remains “optimistic” that regenerative models will scale up globally in the coming years – out of necessity if not forward-looking ambition.

“Farmers are facing droughts, heavy rains and other unpredictable weather as a result of climate change, which makes it hard to know when to plant,” she argued. “They need new solutions; the conventional way just isn’t serving them as well as it used to.”

Seeds of change

The benefits of shifting to regenerative models are clear. One study found that regenerative plots are 78% more profitable than their traditional counterparts and, as such, they provide an opportunity to improve farmer welfare. By allowing the soil to recover and different crops to grow, regenerative plots also sequester carbon. Given that the agri-food sector accounts for more than one-fifth of global annual emissions, abating these models is essential in the transition to net-zero.

Nonetheless, this approach is still the exception, rather than the norm – ‘business-as-usual’ has not allowed it to scale.

Patagonia’s own approach to scaling regenerative agriculture across its supply chains is multi-faceted. As a member of the Regenerative Organic Alliance board, the outdoor brand sits alongside Dr Bronner’s, Compassion in World Farming, Demeter, the Fair World Project and others. It also has several separate collaborations with organisations such as Ecological Land Cooperative, Soil Hub, DEAFAL and Soil Heroes.

These collaborations help Patagonia to work with farmers directly, both remotely and in-person, Chacon explained. In the weeks and months between visits from Patagonia, which are now less frequent because of Covid-19, local partners can provide training and more effectively troubleshoot any arising issues.

Patagonia has experience using this model. In the 1990s, when it pledged to switch to 100% certified organic cotton, there simply was not enough being grown globally to meet its needs. Now, production is growing exponentially and stands at almost 181,000 tonnes per year.

Despite this experience – and the fact that Patagonia’s regenerative organic targets and initiatives have strong buy-in at the executive level – Chacon said that she will “not sugar coat the fact that it is hard work”.

Her top tip for other professionals wishing to scale up net-positive initiatives is to start a trial led by a product line representative. Once its benefits become clear, she explained, this should ignite a “ripple effect” and “scale naturally” across a larger proportion of your company’s products.

“Product line teams are looking for new innovations and new marketing stories, so this is very interesting to them,” Chacon said. “Even if they are not very interested in sustainability themselves, this makes sense, because young consumers buying products want more meaning behind them.”

This approach seems to be faring well at The North Face, which, after launching a beanie with a ‘net-negative’ carbon footprint in 2017, is scaling up ‘climate-beneficial’ methods of wool production.

While only time will tell if regenerative agriculture scales rapidly enough for land use to be transformed in line with the Paris Agreement, there is clearly a growing interest from big, incumbent businesses to partner with more nimble start-ups and with local public sector partners.

Several key policy changes are coming in this area, too. The UK’s Agriculture Bill will see farmers and land managers handed subsidies for conserving and improving natural resources, while the EU is reportedly considering mandatory organic standards.  Should Joe Biden win the 2020 US election, “significant investment” will be made into improving soil health.

At present, however, land use – predominantly for agriculture – accounts for some 23% of all human-made emissions generated annually and is a key driver of biodiversity loss, according to the IPCC. It is also acutely exposed to physical climate risks such as extreme weather.

Sarah George

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