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Regenerative Agriculture the Linchpin for a Sustainable Fashion Future

New report reveals how emulating nature’s lessons in the fashion industry can enhance ecosystems to boost biodiversity, build soil, support communities, and clean up existing pollution.

What a circular economy looks like and ideas on how to get there are constantly evolving, informed by experts all over the world. Now, the Biomimicry Institute aims to add to the evolution by answering the question: What would the fashion industry look like if it acted like a natural ecosystem?

The Nature of Fashion: Moving Towards a Regenerative System — a new report from the Institute, with support from the Laudes Foundation (formerly C&A Foundation), offers a dramatic yet entirely possible approach for investors, funders, innovators and fashion brands to enable a new fashion industry to thrive, while respecting our planetary boundaries and operating in synchronicity with local economies.

The report offers an in-depth analysis of the material flows that underpin natural systems, compares them to the flawed industrial system that exists today, and explains how the fashion industry can work with existing technology and nature to jump-start the transition right now — by leveraging these natural material flows, rather than working against them.

The Nature of Fashion echoes the findings of a similarly bold report that environmental NGO Canopy released back in January, which outlined a 10-year plan to save the world’s forests and avert the climate crisis — by overhauling the textile and paper industries to remove 50 percent of forest fiber (which fabrics such as rayon and viscose come from) from pulp manufacturing, and replace it with next-generation alternative fibers such as agricultural residues.

The Biomimicry Institute report highlights materials innovation by companies including Allbirds, which makes its shoe upper from Merino wool and the foam sole through fermentation; and Werewool, which uses the protein DNA from sources such as coraloyster shells and jellyfish — to create next-generation fabrics without harming the organism. And mushrooms hold a lot of promise as a biodegradable textile source — MycoWorks, MycoTex and Fungi Fashion are just a few companies transforming fungi into fabric.

The Nature of Fashion also highlights agricultural residues as a major solution for a responsible fashion industry. The report highlights the work of Circular Systems’ Agraloop™ Biorefinery, which transforms ag waste into fibers useful for yarn, paper and textile manufacturing. The company claims that six crops — oil-seed hemp, oil-seed flax, banana, pineapple leaves, rice straw and sugarcane bark — currently offer more than 250M tons of fiber per year, or enough to meet 2.5 times the current global fiber demand. The system also produces organic fertilizer and, by removing plant waste that would otherwise be left to rot or be burned, it reduces agricultural greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution. Scaling of these and similar technologies would go a long way towards addressing existing waste streams without the need for developing any new land.

The Biomimicry Institute not only points to regenerative agriculture as a leading source for the alternative-materials market — it could be the nexus for symbiotic, regenerative ecosystems that could benefit multiple industries: The report quotes Rebecca Burgess, Executive Director at Fibershed, who posits: “It could be fairly easily assumed that [an] integrated agricultural system would healthfully yield wool, hemp, wheat, lamb and dairy; and would generate an additional 112 million tons of natural fiber per year in (the US) alone, without converting any additional land to agriculture.”

Naturally, the report argues that we must phase out non-compostable, petroleum-based materials. Infinitely recyclable plastic is often cited as a holy grail of a circular economy, and a material that many textile producers and brands have embraced. But even the most durable plastics eventually leak into the biosphere — and textiles made from recycled plastic still shed plastic microfibers into the world’s water supply at an alarming rate; and they contain toxic chemicals that were never meant to be worn close to the skin.

Companies such as Worn Again have developed technologies to separate previously unrecyclable polyester blend textiles; but the report warns that new fibers, however recyclable, should not be developed if they do not naturally decompose (though, we’re pretty excited about the potential of Fairbric’s Airwear, which converts CO2 emissions into sustainable polyester). As the report points out, polyester currently has a cost advantage rooted in oil subsidies, scale and decades of invested R&D. By shifting those economic drivers and increasing R&D, the industry can make natural fibers — such as color-grown cotton, hemp and even green nettles — cost competitive.

Speaking of cotton, it’s an incredibly land- and water-intensive crop, which makes it inherently unsustainable as a linchpin for a regenerative fashion supply chain. But companies such as GALY are growing cotton in a lab — and it grows 10x faster, using only 20 percent of the resources of conventional cotton production.

A key insight from the report is that the “leaky loops” observed in nature also present an opportunity. Decomposition is inevitable, yet we failed to account for it when designing our systems. Embracing decomposition will lead to new business models and opportunities, and can help us clean up existing waste in the process.

The Biomimicry Institute, together with leading fashion collaboratives and circular economy consortia, will engage in pilot projects that create resiliency in the supply chain while contributing to ecosystem restoration and local jobs. The pilots will focus on bio-compatible fibers, from sourcing through decomposition.

Read more and download the report here.

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