Patagonia is in business to save our home planet. It’s a zinger of a mission statement, wouldn’t you agree? It’s clear in purpose, yet ambiguous in practice. What are we saving? How do we save it? Can we truly save it all? Is big business and capitalism really the answer to our environmental crisis? Can we really keep extracting and producing and selling all while causing no unnecessary harm’?
Well, we have to start somewhere. And Patagonia is changing the landscape, not only in the political and capitalistic sense of the word, but also physically. What do I mean when I say that Patagonia is changing the physical landscape?
I’m talking about farming. Industrial agriculture contributes to a whopping 30% of carbon emissions, 70% of fresh water use, and 60% loss of biodiversity. Overall, that accounts for 25% of total emissions driving climate change. Fiber production, the raw materials used to make our clothing, is no exception to these statistics.
During the industrial revolution and beyond, growth was the name of the game, especially in the agricultural sector. Unchecked, unparalleled growth with the goal of feeding everyone in the most productive and efficient way possible. And it worked. During this process of industrialization, agriculture grew more in a single lifetime than the entirety of world agriculture did in 7,000 years. And it poses an important question: with a resource so finite as land (I mean finite in the sense that we cannot create more land once we use up and destroy what’s left), is this level of growth sustainable? The answer is no. Definitely not.
Now, where does a clothing brand like Patagonia fit into this conversation?
We’re talking cotton. Back in the 1990’s, Patagonia carried out an independent assessment of the environmental impacts of their most commonly used fibers. To everyone’s surprise, cotton, the most “natural” of all fabrics used, stood out as the most impactful. This assessment revealed that conventional (non-organic) cotton contributes 22.5% of chemical insecticides and 10% of pesticides used in the entire agricultural industry. How can a company claim environmental responsibility while they actively contribute to the degradation of such a vast array of farmland?
Scientists, farmers, indigenous land practitioners all agree that ‘business as usual’ is a direct threat to the future prosperity of humankind. Now, where do we start when we tackle a giant like the agriculture industry?
Naturally, we start at the foundation: soil. Soil is the basis of everything we grow and eat and produce. It is the catalyst for the cycle of life. Our current farming practices use pesticides and other chemicals to kill off existing life on a piece of land to make room for whatever it is that we want to grow and produce. This system of tailoring the landscape to fit our marginal needs sucks the life and nutrients right out of the soil.
In 1994, Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard made the provocative decision in 1994 to cut all conventional cotton from the sportswear line within 18 months, or they would stop selling sportswear altogether. This was the brand’s first successful and sustained supply chain shift. It truly created an industry wide ripple effect by revealing the toxic and harmful effects of the conventional cotton industry, and created a viable market for organic cotton to move into. Eliminating the use of chemicals in the cultivation of our clothing products is a great first step. But what about the land already affected by years of chemical farming?
Now, here’s where the solution comes in. It’s called regenerative farming.
When I hear the word regenerate, I think of rebirth, of replacing something that has been lost. Regenerative farming builds off of the best practices of organic farming (no synthetic pesticides, no fertilizers, no GMO’s, no antibiotics, no growth hormones) to reintroduce the cycle of life back into farming. It means putting the health of the land at the forefront. It means revitalizing the landscape that has endured so much abuse from industrial farming.
In 2017, Patagonia, along with a group of farmers, other business leaders, and experts in regenerative farming launched the Regenerative Organic Certified Pilot Program, which aims to assist small scale farmers in their transition to regenerative farming.
The program’s vision is as follows:
“We envision a world free of poisonous chemicals, factory farming, exploitation and income inequality, soil degradation, habitat destruction, pollution, short-term thinking, corporate bullies, greenwashing, and fake food.
Instead, we imagine a world in which farmers, brands, policymakers, educators, researchers, and individuals join together to create a healthy food system that respects land and animals, empowers people, and restores communities and ecosystems through regenerative organic farming.”
Regenerative organic farming takes a holistic approach to agriculture, and respects the diverse needs of the land in order to produce optimally. It respects the current needs of farmers and the land, but doesn’t compromise the ability of future farmers to utilize the land in the same manner of productivity. At its core, it’s sustainable farming.
The Regenerative Organic Certified program outlines a three pillar framework for achieving regenerative agriculture:
1. Soil Health
This means the use of cover crops, which adds resilience to the soil and avoids the creation of fallow lands prone to erosion and run-off. It means the use of compost, using the “waste” from the farm and turning it into a natural fertilizer, avoiding pesticides. It means systematically rotating crops on a yearly basis, allowing for natural nutrients to build back on their own. It means reducing or eliminating the need for tilling (digging and turning the topsoil) which helps the soil retain water and nutrients.
2. Animal Welfare
This means reintroducing well-managed animal grazing to food and fiber agriculture, which improves plant growth over time. It means giving animals the freedom to express normal behavior, avoid pain, discomfort and hunger which in turn leads to a happier, healthier, stress free animal.
3. Social Fairness
This means supporting the very people who tend to our food system. It means living wages, good working conditions, long term commitments, accountability. It means no forced labor, protection against harsh treatment and discrimination. It means that the farmers have a voice in the conversation and a seat at the table when it comes to decision making. It means empowering the people who make up the backbone of our society.
The combination of these practices have been used by indigenous peoples for generations. It is a traditional way to tend to the land and those who depend on the land, human and non-human. It creates a resilient system that can bounce back from use and abuse to support its patrons for generation upon generation. It is also one of the greatest tools we have to draw down carbon from the atmosphere and store it in farmland. We can quite literally start reversing climate change through better agricultural practices.
Can one cotton t-shirt really solve our environmental crisis? No, but changing the practice of farming as we know it just might put us on the right track.
Check out our Road to Regenerative line, which features cotton sourced from pilot farms in India who are actively engaged in the Regenerative Organic Certified program, as well as our Cotton in Conversion line, sourced from farmers who are actively converting to regenerative organic cotton farming.
-Zoe Spett, Patagonia Burlington