How Fashion Can Have A Positive Impact On Biodiversity

Stephanie Steele Friday, 31 January 2020

As part of the seminar programme at the Future Fabrics Expo over the last couple of days (29th-30th January 2020), topics of conversation and discussion were excitingly about regenerative economies and restoration of our planet. Fashion is finally starting to consider the impact it is having on the land, so in this session those working in responsible standards and also in fashion business came together to discuss how fashion can have a positive impact in saving the oceans, restoring biodiversity and improving soil health.

This session was on Day 2 of the 9th Future Fabrics Expo as part of the seminar series in partnership with Parley. Panellist were Phoebe English (designer), Hanna Denes from Textile Exchange and Sarah Compson of Soil Association, moderated by Jessica Sweidan of Synchronicity Earth.


Systems-based approach to regeneration

Sarah Compson, International Developement Manager at Soil Association - a systems-based approach is needed in order to restore our planet. Systems thinking places a recipe, of sorts, at the heart, where each step needs to be followed in order to get to a solution. So in terms of regeneration, there are standards and management tools in place that have been ascertained over time and experience, but the missing pieces need to be discovered to create something more efficient and holistic.

Hanna Denes, Senior Standards Manager at Textile Exchange - the Responsible Wool Standard only looks at pasture-based farming, though we should also be looking to factory farming as per Compassion In World Farming's research into how big agriculture trickles down to the pastures. Hanna explains that wool grown on land in class 4 & 5 is not suitable for crops, so making use of "wasted" pasture that could benefit from the sheep's grazing. It is about an interaction between wildlife, predators, the stocking ratio of animals and addition of native herbivores that releases pressure on grazing.

"It is about land sharing, not land sparing." ~ Sarah Compson

Phoebe English, womens and menswear designer - she went on a regenerative agriculture "retreat", a gathering of professors, farmers, artists, activists, cheesemaker and more, that was transformative in understanding the wool processing. Unfortunately the information was lacking here, i.e. in mentioning but not explaining what wet cleaning is and why it is good or bad, so it felt less than inspirational. However, the full audio recording from that gathering is available from the wonderful Farmerama radio. It's worth noting that if ever an opporitunity should arise where you as a fashion business owner or maker can visit a farm, then go do it as you'll massively learn more than just reading about something!

Factors that upset the system

The system itself could be corrupt, geographical location and biodiversity (or lack of).

Sarah - in showing a life cycle assessment of conventionally-cultivated cotton to organically-cultivated cotton, the Soil Association could see that it's not necessarily the finished product that is regenerative, i.e. the sale of it, but the process to get there. She mentions certifications being only a third-party guarantee, and that, "it's not the cow, it's the how" as a response to veganism. We're focussed on end products, and yet when it comes to values, it's often more to do with the stages to get to that end product. We could say the same for regenerated ocean plastic; we still end up with a plastic product, but we're increasing conservation work and raising awareness through doing so.

Hanna - In the Preferred Fiber and Materials Report 2019, geographical location was heavily taken in to account. What can be regenerative or positive in one area, may not work for another.

Sarah - adds that biodiversity factors are not there yet, meaning there is a still a lot to be implemented. You can read Soil Association's Biodiversity Report 2000 that scrutinises the effect on biodiversity that organic farming has.

The five most (agreed upon) major threats to biodiversity are:

  • Climate change
  • Deforestation
  • Overexploitation
  • Pollution
  • Invasive species

Jessica Sweidan, co-founder Synchronicity Earth - "Avoid, minimise, restore, compensate". For a net positive effect on biodiversity, should compensation be the last step? Synchronicity Earth are a philanthropic organisation that fund conservation and regenerative projects that embed biodiversity.

What is biodiversity? All of the myriad life we have on the planet - plants, animals, fungi and micro-organisms - that ensure we can survive. Without diversity, the chain is disrupted.

Data collection

Hanna - with organic cotton it is possible to see that there is a premium product, with a better system of land use, and better health. How do you measure the outcome of land management in order to reward farmers? Is it based on the meat quality, the amount of fibre, tonnage of grain, number of butterflies?

Sarah - data collected shows that there is 50% more wildlife on organic farms. You could replicate this for fibre-producing farms. We need to create new metrics and measurements that suit, but use existing evidence to point these in the right direction. Brands signing up to sustainable cotton initiatives like Better Cotton, with a goal of 2025 means investment will be put in these places to improve on data.

Sarah believes that biodiversity should be an aspect of product labelling. If you have biodiversity on your farm, then you're doing something right. Especially as Hanna pointed out, farmers do get excited when they find out where their products go, so isn't is proper for those end customers to receive the full information and story?

Phoebe - unfortunately, another comment from Phoebe riled me up when she mentioned she believes hemp is difficult to farm in Britain. Completely confounded where information for this kind of thought would come from and does skim over the intricacies; in actual fact, hemp grows very readily on these isles, and farms do exist, but it is the infrastructure and importantly the legislation that prevents it from being openly and commercially grown. It would however increase biodiversity, food and fibre production and soil health were it to be able to be grown - even if smallholders could gain a licence, it's the perfect plant for companion cropping with vegetables.

"Organic is standardised, regenerative is still a principle." ~ Sarah Compson

Conclusion

Regenerative agriculture is a new phrase, and so is only starting to become a framework in which standards and certifications can be implemented for verification and management of data, as per Hanna's query on how you can measure outcomes.

The seminar didn't actually touch upon ocean diversity, however, it should be known that whatever we do on land will leach into the oceans. It's geography 101. Regenerative land, means better water conservation, means no chemical effluent, means circular systems, means nice happy planet all round.

Please note, this post is based on notes rather than a full transcript so ideas have been flushed out.


Additional reading

If you're interested in getting in-depth in to what makes a farm certifiably organic, you can read the Soil Association's Farming and Growing Standards Guide.