Fashion’s shift: Regenerative cotton booms
A shift to soil-preserving farming methods not only doubles carbon absorption, but revitalises the health and resilience of cotton crops
Izmir, Turkey — In between rows of sprouting cotton crops, the dried-out stems of wheat and sugar beet carpet a stretch of farmland near Turkey’s Aegean coast, helping to lock in soil nutrients and moisture – even in the scorching heat.
In nearby fields, where cotton is being grown without the protective blanket, the plants wilt and wither under the sun.
“Healthier soil means healthier cotton,” said Basak Erdem, the farm manager of cotton fields owned and run by cotton manufacturer Soktas, which is based in the Soke municipality of Aydin province.
The European Commission wants all planned regulations requiring fashion companies to produce clothes in a more sustainable way to be in place by 2028
Four years since Soktas first converted 2.47 acres of land for regenerative farming — using nature-based methods to restore the land and improve its carbon storage capacity — the soil absorbs more than 18 tonnes of carbon per hectare a year.
That is equivalent to the annual greenhouse gas emissions of about 15 petrol-powered cars, according to a calculator from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
“Every year, we see the results improve,” Erdem told the Thomson Reuters Foundation during a tour of the company’s fields.
Soktas was first introduced to regenerative agriculture in 2018 by the Stella McCartney label, which buys from the company, and now has 222 acres of regenerative land.
Notorious for its intense use of natural resources and high waste output, the fashion industry has stepped up efforts in recent years to reduce its environmental impact and carbon footprint, with the UN’s Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action setting an industry-wide target to decarbonise by 2050.
While efforts have focused on reducing waste, brands and designers are increasingly endorsing projects in regenerative agriculture to help reduce the emissions produced in the manufacture of classic textiles, such as cotton and wool.
A pilot regenerative cotton project in Turkey, set up by Textile Exchange, a nonprofit working with the fashion and textile industries to help reduce the environmental impact of materials, found that up to 15 times more carbon was stored in the soil compared to carbon sequestration in general.
“The soil becomes more spongy and lively,” said Gokce Okulu, cotton manager at Textile Exchange, adding that carbon-absorbing organic matter is killed in conventional farming by over-ploughing the earth.
Regenerative farming uses little to no tilling of the soil to help maintain its biological makeup, in addition to growing a cover crop to shield the ground, said Okulu.
Thanks to the cover crop of wheat, beans and sugar beet at Soktas fields, the soil’s organic matter content has doubled in four years, and each year the cotton needs less fertiliser and water, said Erdem.
According to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), demand for cotton produced sustainably, which accounted for nearly 20% of the global cotton supply in 2020, is increasing.
The largest sustainable cotton initiatives are Better Cotton, Fairtrade, and Organic, but Jules Lennon, fashion lead at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, said interest in regenerative cotton is growing, with leading denim producers Bossa and DNM among brands initiating partnerships.
“We’ve seen an absolute hub of activity that we’ve never seen before,” Lennon said.
“But first, we really need to prioritise keeping existing products in use,” said Lennon, explaining that to transition to a circular economy, the industry needs to reduce the need for virgin materials by prioritising recycling and reuse.
“Whatever [needs] remain, we want to come from regenerative sources,” said Lennon.
The European Commission wants all planned regulations requiring fashion companies to produce clothes in a more sustainable way to be in place by 2028.
There are now 16 pieces of legislation in the works, which could set minimum standards of durability and recyclability for any product entering the EU and require fashion companies to collect textile waste.
“Given the significance of the EU as a market, this could mean a big push to change overall sourcing practices,” said Anita Chester, head of materials at the Laudes Foundation, a philanthropic organisation that helps fund the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s coverage of the green transition.
Little action has been taken to legislate on regenerative farming as it is still in the early stages of adoption, but some existing policies, such as the EU’s proposed Soil Health Law, would help to support the transition, added Chester.
Standards and certifications are starting to emerge, such as from the Regenerative Organic Alliance or regenagri, but brands and designers must invest in farmers to help them transition to regenerative agriculture, said Chester.
“Nothing can be regenerative if it’s not just. You have to build community resilience by rewarding the farmers for their stewardship of nature and the services they provide in helping us combat climate change,” said Chester.
Zeynep Kayhan, a board member at Soktas, said it is hard to convince some brands to switch to regenerative cotton, because it is more expensive.
In addition to the extra costs of soil tests, certification and investing in no-till machinery, regenerative farms initially lose profit on lower yields — before the soil has improved — and swapping a secondary farmable crop in the winter for a cover crop that is not harvested, said Kayhan.
“It’s more expensive to do the transition, but in time, because you need [fewer] inputs, there will come a point when it will level off,” said Kayhan.
Improving soil health also helps to stave off the impacts of climate change that are hitting the cotton sector.
Research by WTW insurers shows that half of all cotton-growing regions will be at increased threat from climate risks, such as water stress and extreme weather, by 2040.
“Water retention becomes even more important going forward, because you need less water if you know the soil can keep its water and nutrients,” said Kayhan.
In the spring, heavy rains damaged cotton seeds at Soktas, but the healthier soil in the regenerative plots helped the farmers to replant the seeds quickly, said Erdem.
“If all farmers did regenerative farming, then the climate could change,” said Erdem.
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