September 26, 2023

Minimizing the harm that fashion’s big corporate supply chains inflict on the environment is all well and good — and necessary.

But transforming that ecological footprint from a negative to a positive? 

That’s next level. And that’s the promise of “regenerative agriculture.”

Frank Zambrelli went deep on the topic, leading a discussion on collaborative solutions for the industry to consider at the WWD Sustainability Forum.   

Zambrelli — who is managing director of retail ESG at Accenture and executive director of the Responsible Business Coalition at Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business — framed the conversation as a “a call to our industry…to take a closer look and maybe take some action.”

La Rhea Pepper, catalyst and cofounder at the Textile Exchange, said there is a lot that fashion brands can do. 

“So many of the fibers that we live in, love in are land-based,” Pepper said. “That means they’re cotton, they’re hemp, they’re linen, wool, mohair, cashmere. So these land-based fibers really have an opportunity to deliver positive impacts to mitigate and reverse climate change, especially when we look at how we take care of and steward our land.”

Since its founding 2002, the Textile Exchange has worked to educate and mobilize fashion to take on regenerative agricultural practices, in part through reports that seek to clarify the challenges in the area and point the way forward.  

“We’re working with the broader community to kind of access and provide consistent data on key impacts,” Pepper said. “We need to know more than they were doing good things. We need to be able to really measure and create consistent methodology. And so we have the regenerative community working on that.

“We must go beyond doing less harm in these supply chains to really delivering positive impacts,” Pepper said.

The Textile Exchange works closely with industry executives and companies, including J. Crew Group, which is led by chief executive officer Libby Wadle. 

Pepper lauded the work that Wadle and the company have done so far.  

“They’re certainly off to a good start,” Pepper said. “They started to work in the right place. They’re talking to farmers to create the transformational change we want to see in agriculture. We’re going to need this type of leadership and willingness to take action.”

Regenerative agriculture is not so much one specific farming technique, but a broader way of viewing and working with the very start of the fashion supply chain.

“Regenerative is a philosophical approach to agriculture that really works in alignment with natural systems, recognizing the value and resilience of interconnected and mutually beneficial ecosystems versus what we’ve seen in the past [which] is a chemically intensive extractive agricultural system.”

Pepper pointed to J. Crew’s work, which started with investments in soil health, as “the first step in driving transformation.”

The funds are paid directly to farmers, helping them cover the costs of investing in, for instance, cover crops, which are typically not harvested and add biomass above and below the ground, reducing erosion and enhancing the soil. 

That is not the kind of work that J. Crew was historically  known for, although Wadle is working hard to change that.

“The truth is that our company wasn’t built with sustainability at the forefront like many companies like ours,” the CEO said. “But about six years ago, we sat down and we made a clear decision to really transform our business to lessen our impact on the planet and make choices that support and take care of our community.”

The process began with “rigorous public commitments” and the follow-through to meet those goals, an approach that led J. Crew to work with the Textile Exchange as well as the Federation of Southern Cooperative, which offers resources and assistance to Black farmers and land owners. 

It’s work that requires J. Crew — and retail on a whole — to develop some new muscles. 

“The power of organizations coming together around this work has been super inspiring to us and incredibly impactful,” Wadle said. “We all work in an industry, in retail and apparel, that is notoriously competitive and it’s really, really fantastic and honestly refreshing to come together with one common goal of doing better.” 

In a world of whiz-bang technology, giving farmers the resources to periodically plant other crops to feed the soil might sound basic, but Zambrelli remarked on the “simplicity” and power of the overall approach. 

Zambrelli described it as “identifying a large issue area, understanding the range of potential solutions and going after it, even if that means building a solution.”

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