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This season marks the beginning of “Spring Fashion Weeks” around the globe. From New York to Paris to Hong Kong, the fashion world showcases its creative progress on the runway—and increasingly makes pledges for how to make the industry more sustainable across the supply chain. Considering the large dependence on raw materials from agriculture—cotton, wool, leather, feathers—companies such as VF Corporation, Kering, Ralph Lauren, J. Crew, Nike, Allbirds, Levi’s, and Stella McCartney have been outspoken in their calls to support a shift to more sustainable agriculture. Carbon farming practices, such as cover crops and reduced tillage, promote long-term soil health and farm profitability, while reducing and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
“We really want to support the farmers and growers that share our environmental values, and see the benefits of carbon farming and regenerative land management practices. We hope that it sends a demand signal as well, to other growers who might be on the fence or might just be learning about regenerative practices.”
- Carol Shu, Senior Manager of Global Sustainability at The North Face
One of the companies leading the charge is The North Face (TNF), an outdoor recreation brand that scores high nods for both performance and street style thanks in part to collaborations with Gucci and also Supreme, which its parent company, VF Corporation, now owns.
“As one of the world's largest outdoor brands, we know it's our responsibility to reduce our impact on the environment,” says Carol Shu, Senior Manager of Global Sustainability. “We're excited to partner with Indigo Ag to source cotton this way for the first time in our supply chain.”
In 2019, VF Corporation, launched science-based targets. One of its new targets is that 100% of the top materials for apparel will be recycled, regeneratively sourced, or responsibly sourced renewable by 2025. To achieve this ambitious goal in just a few years, TNF worked with Indigo to source cotton grown with farming practices that prioritize soil health and environmental stewardship, such as no-till and cover crops, as well as purchasing agricultural carbon credits.
“Consumers are understanding the connection between soil health and biodiversity on landscapes. And if we can make that connection from a natural environment to the product they're wearing, that's a great opportunity for us to do some education,” says Shu. TNF’s first regeneratively-sourced cotton apparel will be available in Spring 2023.
“This opportunity allows us to look deeper in our supply chain, more with tier three, who is our yarn spinner, but also further down tier four, tier five, which is our grower. So making that connection is huge for us because it enables us to look at the origin of our product, right to the growers and the farmers,” says Keiko Stinton, Materials Manager at TNF.
To understand the process and make it personal, members of the TNF team did a farm field visit in October 2021 in Texas and Kansas. They met two of the farmers sourcing their cotton, experienced the beauty and bounty of harvest, and watched a cotton gin at work.
“We want to do a better job of stewarding the land—it’s all interconnected,” says Oklahoma farmer Eric Kahle, who is one of the farmers supplying regenerative cotton to The North Face and toured the team around his fields. The family farm, which grows cotton, corn, and wheat, has been using regenerative practices for years to deal with erosion, weed suppression, and other agronomic problems in a way that was more “in sync with nature.” These practices drive greater resilience to drought, water retention, and access to nutrients. “The process of healing the land and making the crops healthier, it's not just more profitable, but it's also better for the entire environment.”
Today, only a small percentage of farmers have made the transition from conventional farming to carbon farming. Reasons for this include that the change may require changing decades-long habits, as well as the upfront costs and time it takes to see results. “We really want to support the farmers and growers that share our environmental values, and see the benefits of carbon farming and regenerative land management practices,” says Shu. “We hope that it sends a demand signal as well, to other growers who might be on the fence or might just be learning about regenerative practices.”
As TNF breaks new ground, the company hopes to be a catalyst for change among their peers. “Our goal is to have other brands adopt this regenerative cotton as well, to really scale our usage across VF, not just at The North Face,” says Shu. “We hope that the entire apparel industry sees this as a really valuable solution to climate change, that they can actually have a pretty big impact on just by where they're sourcing their raw materials.”