It feels like the new year has brought a new topic into the sustainability and environmental spotlight; regenerative agriculture. Following livestock’s lambasting around its links to illegal deforestation, it’s understandable that this would be the priority for many companies wishing to make a positive sustainability impact as well as ethical sourcing decisions around their raw material supply.

And it’s a good area to focus on; by sourcing from responsible, farms that practice regenerative agricultural methods, both the meat and leather industries can get off on the right foot with an ethical, environmentally positive product. After that comes the well-established issues of traceability, green tanning methods, water/chemical recycling and using more renewable energy, and so on.

It’s important to recognise that this is not a new idea and it’s an issue that many companies have made great strides on in recent years. However, regenerative agriculture is not yet as clearly laid out and easily understood as many seem to assume it is, and that needs to change if our industry is going to take advantage of the opportunities that it offers.

Pinning it down

Good progress in this area has come in the form of Textile Exchange’s new regenerative agriculture report, titled the Regenerative Agriculture Landscape Analysis and sponsored by such giants as Kering, J.Crew and Madewell, and CottonConnect.

In the words of Textile Exchange, this report is the first of its kind that gives the fashion and textile industry a framework and toolkit to credibly understand, implement and describe the benefits of work in the regenerative agriculture space. It emphasises regenerative agriculture’s roots in Indigenous and Native practices and promotes a holistic approach that puts humans and ecosystems at the centre.

In a key takeaway from the report, Textile Exchange acknowledged that although regenerative agriculture is an important and beneficial cause for companies to pursue, it is at present undefined and complex. As a nuanced subject, it calls for a holistic approach depending on the industry and company priorities and the strategy must be adapted as such.

For now, Textile Exchange has summed regenerative agriculture up by focusing on what it should do, including:

• Minimise and ideally eliminate external inputs and maximise on-farm inputs

• Integrate livestock whenever possible given the cropping system

• Reduce tillage to preserve life in the soil by utilising no-, minimal-, or conservation-tillage)

• Aim for and monitor a broad and holistic set of outcomes including soil health, biodiversity, animal welfare, social justice, and the economic well-being of farmers and communities.

Alongside this, in order to further advance regenerative agriculture as a meaningful investment opportunity, and one which will allow companies to make a noticeable difference, industries must work together across the board to develop approaches and understanding.

Credit where it’s due

Regenerative agriculture also comes with its own set of complicated social ties and, as Textile Exchange says, “programs should be rooted in justice, equity, and livelihoods. Indigenous advocates call for an acknowledgement of the Indigenous roots of regenerative agriculture and of past and current racial injustice to underpin future work.”

It’s vital to recognise that although regenerative agriculture is the hot topic of the day, it is far from a new concept and, while it is very important that it becomes a global focus, it’s also key that we recognise the contributions of Indigenous people in keeping these practices alive across the world.

Quoted in the Textile Exchange report, Nishanth Chopra, founder of India-based clothing brand Oshadi, said “A lot of people think [regenerative agriculture] is disruptive, but it’s not—people have been doing this for generations.” As the report expresses: “Indigenous Peoples make up only 6.2% of the global population, but they are the stewards of 80% of the remaining biodiversity.”

Much needed support

However, this is a good time for companies throughout the leather industry to get involved with regenerative agriculture projects that apply to them. Although the term is wide, plenty of regenerative farming projects today directly involve livestock and thus sources for hides and skins. These projects are also in a strong position to receive funding and support from the giants within the fashion industry, few of which are without a major environmentally focused charitable arm, whether these are voluntary or mandated by regional tax codes.

One such example is Kering’s Regenerative Fund for Nature, which the company launched with Conservation International at the beginning of 2021. So far, this project has supported seven projects in Argentina, France, India, Mongolia, South Africa and Spain, with three of these projects supporting the leather industry. These include Solidaridad’s work in Argentina, where the company is working with Creole and indigenous smallholder cattle producers to promote sustainable management of grazing lands as well as restoring native forests and their vegetation.

We can expect this trend to continue and for regenerative agriculture projects to increase in number, likely becoming a popular choice for funding support from companies like Kering. After all, why wouldn’t they spend their money supporting causes that can then bring ethical and sustainable materials back around for use in their products?

I have no doubt that regenerative agriculture will be a major aspect of the sustainability conversation in 2022 as these projects develop, and the leather industry must seize the opportunities they pose for the supply chain.

Tom Hogarth, Deputy Editor