The hottest new buzzword in fashion was borrowed from a group of people more likely to be spotted at a grain silo than at fashion week: farmers.

“Regenerative agriculture” is a term that was coined in the 1980s and that started gaining real momentum in 2017. It is used to describe a series of farming practices that prioritise soil health, biodiversity and holistic ecosystem restoration. Because proponents claim it can pull carbon out of the air and store it in the soil, making it a potential climate solution, it’s started to garner widespread attention even among people who don’t take an active interest in farming.

Partly for that reason, “regenerative” has become a descriptor that’s moved beyond agriculture and started cropping up more and more often in the world of fashion. Luxury heavy-hitters such as Prada, Gucci and Stella McCartney, independent designers Marine Serre and Mara Hoffman, and outdoor outfitters Timberland and Patagonia have all started using variations on the term in their PR and marketing. As brands look to demonstrate their environmental commitments without relying too heavily on the word “sustainable”, which has become so diluted from overuse that its meaning is vague at best, “regenerative” is becoming an increasingly popular label for brands looking to position themselves on the cutting edge.

“‘Sustainability’ is so much about reducing impact, whereas ‘regenerative’ gives you that aspect of not just being less bad, but actually having a positive impact,” says Carol Shu, senior manager of global sustainability at the North Face. The North Face was an early adopter of the term, partnering in 2017 with the non-profit Fibershed to create a collection of regeneratively farmed wool beanies.

For Shu, the term regenerative is still tied explicitly to agriculture: when the North Face uses the term, it’s talking about products made from fibres such as cotton or wool that were farmed in a particular way. Practices include planting cover crops so the soil is not left bare, carefully managing how long animals stay on a given patch of land so that they neither under- nor overgraze it, and tilling infrequently or not at all so that seeds can be planted with minimal soil disturbance.

But fashion brands are employing the word to refer to a host of sustainability initiatives, not all of them tied to agriculture. Instagram-beloved sweatsuit maker Pangaia defines the seaweed, eucalyptus and wild flowers it uses in its clothing as “regenerative resources” because they can “naturally regrow to [their] full size after part of [them] has been removed.” Then there’s the term “regenerated”: Prada describes its products created from recycled ocean plastic as being made of “regenerated nylon”, while French designer Marine Serre claims to use “regenerated fabrics” in a manner that equates the term with upcycling.

Different brands using variations on the word to mean different things may not seem like a big deal. But for those deeply invested in the regenerative farming movement as a way to right the well-documented environmental wrongs of mainstream agriculture, it’s cause for concern.

“I worry that if everybody starts adopting the term regenerative and it becomes watered down and meaningless, we’re going to lose the power of the concept,” explains Elizabeth Whitlow, executive director of the Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA). “Then it will just become the next version of ‘sustainable’ or ‘natural.’”

Whitlow’s organisation has spent the last three years working on a Regenerative Organic Certification (ROC) alongside leaders from brands including Patagonia and soap maker Dr Bronner’s. The group’s hope is that creating a regenerative certification will make it harder for the word to be greenwashed. The ROA is particularly concerned with big companies that might want to adopt one or two of the many practices associated with regenerative farming and then use the term to describe their otherwise conventionally grown crops.

It’s not hard to see the logic behind the ROA’s actions from a branding perspective: Patagonia’s claim that the cotton in its T-shirts is regenerative will hold a lot less weight if an industrial agribusiness with a bad reputation is making the same claim.

But not everyone sees this as the best approach. Rebecca Burgess is the founder of Fibershed, the fibre-farming non-profit that the North Face partnered with. According to Burgess, ROC certification is very difficult and expensive for many growers she works with to attain.

Even if they don’t align perfectly on that issue, though, Burgess and Whitlow both agree that applying “regenerative” or “regenerated” to materials that emerge from nonliving systems — such as ocean plastic that’s turned into nylon — is problematic.

“To me, regenerative [or regenerated] is about biological systems that are able to self-renew,” says Burgess. “So what are we doing talking about mechanical systems as regenerative? They’re degenerative by nature.”

In the case of nylon made from discarded fishing nets, brands often use “regenerated” as a stand-in for “recycled”. Working with recycled rather than virgin synthetics makes ecological sense insofar as it keeps old materials out of landfill and reduces demand for the newly drilled crude oil traditional nylon is made from. But since clothes made from synthetics shed microplastics every time they’re washed or even worn, the plastic often just ends up back in the ocean in the form of a “plastic smog” made of particles small enough to be eaten by fish that then travel up the food chain to the human dinner plate. Such a process still falls short of Burgess’s vision of regeneration.

Even as some segments of the agricultural sector are worried about the greenwashing or dilution of the word “regenerative”, others think that framing the regenerative movement as the gold standard when it comes to doing right by the Earth misses the point. Co-founder of Sylvanaqua Farms Chris Newman is a grower who believes, like Burgess and Whitlow, that the conventional agriculture system is damaging: but he thinks that real solutions are far too connected to specific geographies to ever be standardised and labelled — practices that work on his farm in Virginia, for example, might be irrelevant for a grower in India.

“Regenerative is about to mean nothing,” he says. “That's what you're going to get when you try to replace an intimate relationship between a community and its food or fashion production with a label so that people don't have to think about where the things they consume come from.”

According to Newman, one of regenerative agriculture’s other big problems is that it borrows practices from indigenous, colonised or otherwise marginalised cultures, but too often leaves the actual people of those cultures, and the world views core to creating those practices in the first place, behind. For brands looking to avoid the kinds of racism controversies that have plagued Gucci, Prada and more over the past few years, understanding this critique is key.

From Newman’s point of view, the fact that indigenous people make up less than 5 per cent of the global population but protect more than 80 per cent of the world’s biodiversity supports the idea that doing right by the planet and by indigenous people aren’t two separate issues. Recognising those people as the real experts, and then funding and elevating their work accordingly, seem to him the obvious next steps.

Whichever point of view clothing brands resonate with most, understanding the complexities the word regenerative has inherited from the world of agriculture will be important for navigating the movement’s growing momentum in fashion. Brands can start by acknowledging that agriculture matters deeply and that the way it is being practised in much of the world is destructive. Labels that financially back and partner with those working on agricultural solutions could have a significantly positive impact, especially on smaller players.

“To say we’ve already screwed this word, that it’s just as bad and greenwashed and meaningless as ‘sustainable,’ kind of breaks my heart, because in agriculture, we’re just getting started,” says Burgess. “I don’t know what else people want to call it. But either way we need to heal these systems.”

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