Walking on the verge of a B-road in Cambridgeshire, I tread between clumps of mud, crumpled beer cans, and crisp packets. I’m surrounded by miles of agricultural fields and sleepy villages. Cars swoosh past at 60mph, and I imagine them, admiring my sleek derbys, puffer jacket, and matte rucksack, thinking that I’m a long way from that-there London. They’d be right. Fashion — the runways, pristine shops in desirable neighborhoods, glossy editorials, and the unreality of an influencers’ Instagram feed — does exist a long way away from agriculture.
While over 60% of global textiles produced are non-agricultural synthetics, whipped up in a maelstrom of petrochemical heat, its involvement with agriculture is calamitous. Just take the cotton plantations that effectively drank up the The Aral Sea through the latter half of the 20th Century, the waterways that were poisoned, and the farmers who took the brunt of the pesticide and herbicide use. It’s with this in mind that I get off the litter-strewn B-road and arrive at Margent Farm: an organic, regenerative hemp farm.
It’s pouring down with rain when I meet Steve Barron, co-owner of the farm (who happens to be a famous movie director). “We've taken everything away and not really put much back. There’s ecological disasters everywhere you look. Air, sea, soil, the human body — so it inspired me. Maybe it's something green, maybe something in a farm.” It’s hard to get much more green and farm-like than a hemp farm. Now a novel and exciting sight for fashion tourists like me, once upon a time “in 1535, Henry VIII required all farmers to sow quarter of an acre of hemp for every 60 acres they owned.” It was commonplace.
Barron decided on hemp because it has “one of the biggest biomasses you can get in farmland” and sucks a great amount of carbon into the soil. It requires a third of the water that cotton takes to grow, and has no need for herbicides or pesticides. Its long roots also help with soil de-compaction which brings more water into the soil, and lets the microbiome flourish. It is a fantastic regenerative rotation crop, as well as a useful fiber. Local farmer Mike Radford consulted on achieving its organic status in 2016, making use of cover cropping, margins to let wildlife flourish, and experimenting growing hemp through a cover crop. He is now even considering livestock integration. “Regenerative farming is just good practice,” says Barron. “That's all it is, is good practice. What are you going to do that's best for the soil?”
When I started seeing the word “regenerative agriculture” bandied about by brands, it got me curious. Regenerative or holistic farming is an assortment of techniques that seek to restore soil health including little or no tilling, no chemical usage, cover cropping, holistic planned livestock grazing ideally with crop integration so the animals can fertilize and mimic natural herd movements, maximum soil coverage, crop rotation, and continuous living matter. Comprehensive studies suggest that by using these methods, agricultural land can suck humongous amounts of carbon back into the soil in a process known as drawback, much to the bubbling excitement to both the food and fashion industries.
Other studies of regenerative farming show an increased resilience to drought and flooding, profitability through product variety, less affected by input price fluctuations, more biodiversity, better soil microbiome density, mycorrhizal fungal health, greater insect counts, and positively affecting the aesthetics of the landscape. Some studies suggest regeneratively farmed food is more nutritious, and the wine, beer, and cider tastier. Timberland’s Senior Manager of Environmental Stewardship, Zack Angelini, says in no uncertain terms: “[Regenerative farming] has the potential to reverse the environmental degradation we’ve experienced over the decades.”
Last year, Margent Farm collaborated with fashion designer Ally Capellino to release a hemp tote bag. There was just one massive problem: Margent Farm could not produce that hemp. Due to an inability to process and weave the hemp in the UK, it had to be imported from Asia. The farm’s total hemp contribution came in the form of the unwoven label on the front. The bag acted as a gateway to discussion about hemp production in the UK and was launched under the headline, “Can a Bag Spark a Debate?”
While the regenerative hemp farming scene in the UK might not be swimming in the mainstream for now, elsewhere across the globe, these ideas are whipping up a “soil-centric revolution” in fashion, to use the words of soil scientist Professor Rattan Lal.
Patagonia was among the first brands to develop regenerative cotton pilot in India from 2018. They started with 150 farms, now at over 800, and are expected to launch their first Regenerative Organic Certified products this Spring 2022. In January 2021, Kering launched the Regenerative Fund for Nature, a €5 million initiative to transform one million hectares into regenerative agricultural land. October 2021 saw the Ralph Lauren Corporate Foundation and The Soil Health Institute launch a regenerative cotton initiative, and they join the likes of Timberland, Burberry, Eileen Fisher, and New Balance, all dabbling in other regenerative materials like leather.
Jo Dawson, CEO of Woolkeepers and HD Wool, is at the helm of a more wooly UK revolution, supplying regeneratively farmed wool insulation to the likes of The North Face, Finisterre, and 7L. By using the “Land to Market” EOV (Ecological Outcome Verification) program, Dawson’s farms can claim to be regenerative by capturing the data of short term indicators and recognizing annual improvement. You might well farm with holistic and regenerative practices, but until you get your data, the claims are unsubstantiated.
The trouble with these short term indicators is that it doesn’t necessarily translate for brands. It’s difficult for brands to say we’re doing good work in the sustainability field, if their only evidence is, "Look at how many earthworms we have now." The longer term indicators are more important, carbon capture being the main one. “They want to know what their impact is in sourcing materials from these operators around the world,” says Megan Mekiljohn of The Savory Institute. That’s the meat of the issue.
Certification is another issue, because it’s expensive due to the technical complexity of the measurements. Dawson warns that too often, switching to regenerative is like a leap into the unknown. It is experimental and comes with the risk of making no money, or even losing money in the short term. He says there needs to be more financial and social support for farmers, who are often stressed and lonely and can therefore revert to poor practices. Without the funds, support, and access to crystal clear data, regenerative agriculture might end up moving at the pace of a pesticide-free snail; note how only 1% of global cotton production is organic, let alone regenerative. “I would like the fashion industry to really understand fundamentally, it's an agricultural-based industry,” Meiklejohn says.
Dawson pushes this awakening further. “Something has to change. Fashion’s got a very powerful voice and it needs to direct some of its funding to drive positive change in the natural systems.”
I think back to the trashy verge in Cambridgeshire surrounded by wind-whipped farmlands, muddy rivers, and bleak skies. If fashion is to embrace regenerative practices, it would set itself on a journey out from the city, to the farmlands, to greener, wilder, carbon-hoovering pastures. Margent Farm is a mere seed, a thought experiment, but perhaps it is saying something wider: that positive change in fashion will only be found by acknowledging its dirt.
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