- A small number of brands have managed to reduce their impact on Earth’s biodiversity and, in some cases, helped to restore what has been lost.
- Some labels are sourcing fibre from eco-friendly producers, but the costs can be up to 40 per cent higher than conventional methods.
- Brands should consider adding new material to the baskets of fibres they utilise to reduce stress on the ecosystem.
Last week, Vogue Business covered the fashion industry’s impact on the sharp decline in biodiversity over the past four decades. Here, we explore how some brands are gradually shifting to protect key species and ecosystems. Read part one here.
In August, dozens of brands signed up for the Fashion Pact, a Kering-led initiative where labels pledged to minimise their harm to the environment. The fashion industry has made numerous commitments to sustainability in recent years, but the accord was notable because brands agreed to measure their biodiversity impacts before laying out specific actions to prevent future loss of important ecosystems.
This was also the first time that so many boldfaced names had agreed to tackle the issue on such a scale. “We are able to make beautiful products [because] most of our raw materials come directly from nature,” says Marie-Claire Daveu, chief sustainability officer for Kering.
To protect biodiversity meaningfully is a significant lift, but a handful of brands have shown that they can reduce their negative impact, and in some cases, start to restore what’s been lost. Kering has started integrating biodiversity conservation in both manufacturing and raw material sourcing, where much of the industry’s direct impacts have been identified. Removing heavy metals from a manufacturing process, for example, will mean cleaner water leaving the facility, which benefits plants and animals downstream.
The luxury group, like some of its counterparts, is approaching biodiversity with the help of the growing number of organisations focused on conservation challenges. Eileen Fisher, Stella McCartney and Inditex are among the 200 companies to have joined forest protection organisation Canopy’s initiative to transform viscose and rayon production, which has helped fuel deforestation. “We have this incredible ability to build a fence at the top of the cliff, rather than a hospital at the bottom,” says Canopy founder and executive director Nicole Rycroft.
Linking fashion back to the soil
Much effort has been focused on improving practices on farms. The Wildlife Friendly Enterprise Network is currently working with producers of mohair, cashmere, raffia and some wools to ensure wildlife and the ecosystems they depend on can thrive alongside or as part of their operations. When identifying opportunities, it takes into account criteria like the existing biodiversity at a site — are rare or threatened species present? — and how frequently a brand uses the material in question.
“If you aren’t buying much fibre and your purchases aren’t regular, it’s hard to ask people to make dramatic changes to the way they run their operations,” says founder Julie Stein. (Her organisation’s work made an appearance at Paris Fashion Week for AW19 when it helped source the merino wool used by Maydi, an Argentine label created by Hermès and Isabel Marant veteran Maria Abdala-Zolezzi.)
Brands are also working with organisations to attain biodiversity protection certification that consumers increasingly want to see. While any farmer can theoretically adopt regenerative practices, farmers need brands — and customers — to be on board because it takes time and can be costly for them to shift their practices.
The Regenerative Organic Alliance, for instance, is developing a certificate for regenerative agriculture, which can gradually restore below-ground diversity. The programme, currently in a pilot phase, is focused mainly on food to start, but Patagonia is a founding partner and has set a goal for all of its cotton and hemp to be regenerative-certified.
LaRhea Pepper, managing director of Textile Exchange, which helps member brands source fibre from more environmentally friendly avenues, says brands tend to see cost increases of between 20 to 40 per cent as a result of shifting suppliers or practices. The exact magnitude depends on the quantity and quality of the material and the changes involved; the increase tends to be smallest for brands already using high-quality materials. (While some brands pass the costs onto customers, others reserve the more sustainable fibres for special eco-collections or absorb them.)
“I think the burden is on all of us to understand that we have to pay more for our food [and clothing],” says Elizabeth Whitlow, executive director of the Regenerative Organic Alliance. “And if brands need to take a little bit of a loss…”
Diversifying the fibre basket
While regenerative agriculture and forest-friendly farms can go a long way, the fashion industry should also consider expanding its material portfolio, so it isn’t dependent on a handful of materials that need to be produced in unsustainable quantities. (It could also potentially help to buffer brands against commodity market swings.) Diversifying the fibre basket, as Canopy’s Rycroft calls it, increasingly includes using fibres from agricultural wastes or recycled materials. It also means a wider array of agricultural sourcing — and a growing number of brands and designers are doing that, if at a small scale.
In Brazil, Farfarm is experimenting with growing fibres in agroforestry systems, meaning farmers incorporate trees onto their farms. Aside from improving the health of the soil, trees provide habitat or foraging, breeding and migration opportunities for wildlife. Farfarm is testing jute, pineapple, banana, ramie and other fibres native to Brazil, and working on growing different varieties of cotton using agroforestry. So far, yields are only about a fifth of those generated by the conventional cotton monoculture farms, according to founder Beto Bina. But the farmers are growing other fruits and vegetables, which can supplement income while regenerating the landscape. The project can’t operate at scale yet, but it is working on a pilot cotton project with Brazilian fast fashion retailer Renner.
Meanwhile, French shoe brand Veja has also been exploring how to build biodiversity conservation into its supplier contracts. It now pays native rubber tappers both for the raw material they harvest and for the conservation of the ecosystem that provides it. Veja co-founder François-Ghislain Morillion says the rubber trees don’t survive if the forest doesn’t remain intact.“We came to the idea that at some point, we need to pay for the service of preserving the forest,” he says.
Veja also buys its cotton from farmers who, as part of their contracts, can only plant the cotton as one in a variety of crops. “It cannot be monoculture,” says Morillion.
In California, farmer Sally Fox has been developing and growing naturally coloured cotton for decades. Her product allows brands to avoid dyeing cotton fabric, a chemical- and water-intensive process. Sarah Danu, whose namesake brand only uses Fox’s cotton, says the coloured cotton has a number of built-in advantages over traditional white. These include being rich in tannins, which resists mould and pests. “Due to these tannins and its higher wax content, it has a denser feel, which I find more wearable than white cotton,” she says.
Expanding the types of fibres they work with also allows brands to link their products directly with biodiversity since it tends to involve supporting less-common crops and animals. For instance, instead of using just a couple of breeds of Merino sheep for wool brands can look to other types. Others are turning to alpacas as an alternative to cashmere. At an even more niche level, London menswear label Tengri is working with yak fibre. (Yak are said to have a lighter ecological footprint than goats because they graze the top of grass, rather than eat from the roots, allowing the soil to remain intact and wildlife to co-exist.)
Kering’s Daveu wouldn’t share costs involved in the group’s efforts to boost sustainability but says that it’s a necessary cost of doing business and an integral element of how it sources raw materials, on par with evaluating things like quality. (It has incorporated biodiversity into its Environmental Profit & Loss accounting.) She says the luxury group is exploring, with partner nonprofit organisations, the possibility of a science-based target for biodiversity, which currently exists to combat climate change.
“If you don’t have biodiversity tomorrow, companies won’t be able to produce what we’re producing now,” says Daveu. “If we don’t have the bees to [pollinate] the flowers, you see the beginning of the end.”