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Regenerative fashion: building life-affirming supply ecosystems

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By Susana Gago

· 4 min read

The textile industry and the environment

Approximately two-thirds of all textiles today are synthetic, primarily made of petroleum-based organic polymers like polyester, polyamide, and acrylic. These fibres are released into the environment during manufacturing, laundering, and disposal, with a staggering 85% of textiles ending up in landfills or being incinerated rather than reused. Unlike natural fabrics that can biodegrade quickly and easily in healthy soil, plastics resist degradation for decades or even centuries. 

This environmental issue is compounded by the pollution created by the textile industry at every stage of production. According to a report by the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, textile production is responsible for greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 1.2 billion metric tons per year, or roughly 5% of all emissions, comparable to the entire output of Russia. 

Two-thirds of environmental impact takes place at the very beginning of the supply chain at the raw material level. If we want to be efficient in reducing our environmental impact, we have to act on that. 

Regenerative agriculture

The easiest way to understand regenerative agriculture is to first picture what you think of as a “typical farm”: 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 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, 

The way forward: regenerative fashion?

Regenerative fashion aims to address the environmental problems associated with the textile industry by producing organic, fully recyclable natural fibres like banana, lotus, corn, wool, alpaca, flax, and hemp sustainably managed on farms. Natural dye plants like indigo and madder can also be grown. Structures can be created to harvest, clean, mill, and manufacture these materials in the same region, creating income and employment opportunities for the local economy. Such structures existed across the world until chemical pesticides and fertilizers were only introduced by corporations like Bayer and Monsanto. 

Once textile manufacturing plants are designed to have a neutral or reduced carbon footprint and prioritize environmental health, the entire system can be considered regenerative. The clothing produced can be considered "climate beneficial" and supportive of local economies, with the potential to increase biodiversity above and below the soil surface, improve water holding capacity,  and sequester carbon at greater depths, mitigating the harmful effects of atmospheric CO2. 

Other than that, regenerative fashion has a host of benefits for the local community. By educating local families on agroforestry systems and giving them the option and opportunities to produce and sell their fiber production, it creates strong livelihoods, resilient and ready for the future. It allows for the further regeneration of deserted monoculture land with textile farming using agroforestry systems to improve the land and livelihood of local people. Thus, it connects the supply chain.

Final thoughts

The success of the project could not only improve the ecosystem, livelihood, and economic value,  but it will also demonstrate the importance of agroforestry for textile companies, which creates more companies that follow the method of regenerative agroforestry systems. Also, by making the process more transparent it will raise awareness among the local communities and consumers which can increase consumer demand for these products.  

By increasing consumer demand for regenerative fashion clothing, regenerative fashion forces more business industries to follow the organic method of textile production, ultimately benefiting the whole ecosystem. 

To embark on these regenerative practices, we must focus our attention on long-term people planet-profit goals over short-term profit only. 

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 author

Susana Gago is the founder of UNAKTI, a female-led ecosystem dedicated to cultivating high-value medicinal and aromatic plants, and transforming them into pure raw materials for the Cosmetic, Health & Wellness industries. As part of her job at UNAKTI, she collaborates with local women farmers and communities, empowering them through regenerative medicinal forest cultivation to step up into leadership roles within their families and communities. 

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