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Cultivating sustainable style: the pathway to regenerative fashion

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By Alfred Oliveri, Diego Balverde

· 4 min read

The First Commandment

"If you're gonna buy - and you are going to buy - buy for the long term. Good clothing can almost last forever, and it's not necessary to wash them that often."

If fast fashion isn't working, let's try to slow it down a bit.

It's clear that fast fashion is directly contributing to ocean pollution, and everything in between - from how it's made, by whom, and at what price - raises significant ethical concerns.

What is regenerative fashion?

The solution appears to lie in increasing regenerative agriculture compared to the conventional fashion industry to reduce its carbon footprint.

Regenerative fashion refers to clothing made in a way that supports circularity, either through recycling materials that would otherwise go to waste or through the soil-to-soil cycling of regenerative agriculture.

Few of us have likely set foot on a farm, and the conventional vs. regenerative farming debate doesn't typically come up at fashion shows.

Regenerative agriculture

This form of agriculture focuses on soil health by strategically planting various crops to help each other grow and flourish. It also incorporates practices like "pollinator strips" to attract bees and butterflies and "trap crops" to deflect pests instead of relying on chemical pesticides.

The use of heavy machinery, fertilizers, and pesticides to maximize food production is contributing to soil degradation and loss. At this rate, there won't be enough fertile soil left to feed the world. Additionally, intensive agriculture releases CO2 stored in the soil into the atmosphere, accounting for more than a third of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Regenerative measures include:

  1. Minimizing soil plowing to conserve CO2, improve water uptake, and maintain vital fungal communities in the soil.
  2. Implementing crop rotation to enhance biodiversity and using animal manure and compost to replenish soil nutrients.
  3. Transferring grazing animals to different pastures.

Net zero: is it possible?

Regenerative agriculture improves and maintains soil health by restoring its carbon content, thereby increasing productivity. Estimates suggest that annual regenerative cultivation could reduce or sequester between 14.5 and 22 gigatons of CO2 by 2050.

Regenerative agriculture has the potential to reverse climate change, possibly sequestering more than 100% of current annual CO2 emissions through widely available and affordable organic management practices.

The connection between agriculture and fashion is deeply rooted in the fashion industry's dependence on farming systems - from the land that produces cotton crops to the sheep that yield wool. Cotton, the most widely used fiber in the world, consumes vast amounts of pesticides and herbicides, putting immense pressure on water resources and the environment. However, the most common fiber is synthetic, with polyester being derived from petroleum.

Farm to cupboard

Regenerative agriculture, or agroecology, involves working in harmony with nature using indigenous ecological knowledge. It employs techniques such as crop rotation, minimal or no tillage, cover crops, and intercropping, along with natural compost, to reduce carbon, enhance biodiversity, enrich the soil, and improve water systems.

Fashion brands are now investing in this restorative system as they address their environmental impacts and strive to become climate-positive rather than merely carbon-neutral. Some are adopting a "farm to cupboard" concept similar to the food industry's approach.

Goals and challenges

Customers can trace their garments back to the farms that grew the materials. It's estimated that around 50% of the environmental impacts of a fashion product occur during the fiber production phase, which is directly related to agriculture and grazing in the case of natural fibers.

Starting with a closer examination of cotton production practices, we find that cotton, the most widely used natural fiber in textiles, accounts for one-third of all manufactured fibers globally. However, conventional plow-based cotton cultivation, relying on deep tillage and pesticides/herbicides, increases soil erosion, disrupts soil organisms, and releases significant carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Similar concerns apply to grazing, a source of materials like leather and wool. Intensive grazing leads to overgrazing, inhibiting plant recovery and soil regeneration, thereby hindering continuous food production.

Cradle-to-cradle principles

These principles guide the transformation towards regenerative fashion. A circular economy, as defined by The Ellen MacArthur Foundation based on cradle-to-cradle principles, aims to regenerate natural systems at every step of a product's life cycle. It encompasses:

  • Guaranteeing the health of materials to preserve natural systems' capacity.
  • Producing with renewable energy to eliminate undesirable emissions.
  • Ensuring water quality, a fundamental premise for ecosystem functioning.
  • Securing soil health to sequester carbon and prevent pollution and water runoff.

This approach promotes human health and the proper functioning of natural and technical cycles.


"A healthy environment can provide more stable income for farmers around the world."

Cultivating regenerative natural fibers can yield multiple crops per year, promote soil health, and provide sustainable income sources for farmers and ranchers.

"Still, I can't help but wonder if shedding light on how crops are grown is simply another way for brands to greenwash customers."

Is this indeed the root of the problem or the solution to the pollution caused by the fashion industry? Or should we be looking elsewhere?

illuminem Voices is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of leading Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.

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About the authors

Alfred Olivieri is the Founder of House of Chef, a network sharing the love of cooking around the world. He has a background in theatre and entertainment.

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Dr. Diego Balverde is an Economist at the European Central Bank and has extensive experience in climate finance. He is currently also an Advisory Member of the Council of Foreign Trade at The World Bank. Diego is very active on the international sustainability stage having attended COP27 as a Circular economy for Climate Change specialist and will also be attending the G20 Conference in India as part of the Energy, Sustainability and Climate Task Force. Diego holds a PhD in Foreign trade from Chapman University and an MBA degree from Cambridge Judge Business School.

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