Fashion and Farming’s Indelible Bond

05. March, 2021

A conservation biologist steering sustainability and sourcing for a luxury fashion group? You better believe Helen Crowley, Head of Sustainable Sourcing & Nature Initiatives for Kering’s 14 luxury brands such as Gucci and Balenciaga, gets some surprised reactions. In her defense, she has always loved nice shoes—even when doing field work.

A little over a decade ago, Crowley read a job posting for Kering (then PPR), which called for applicant backgrounds in conservation and ecosystem services. That's what got her focused on corporate sustainability approaches. She had already completed five years of doctoral and postdoctoral work, studying the ecology of marsupials in Australia (and her home, Tasmania) and fur seals in the subantarctic, followed by nearly two decades working in conservation and development projects across Africa, including Madagascar. “I could see, firsthand, how immediate and impactful conservation projects were, on the ground,” Crowley says. And she also saw the link with businesses, how supply chain and sourcing decisions could have either an incredibly positive or incredibly negative impact on global biodiversity, conservation, and even rural livelihoods.

This is especially true, Crowley says, when it comes to clothes, shoes, and jewelry. The fashion industry is ultimately dependent on primary production industries: agriculture, mining, and forestry. Out of those three, it’s most dependent on agriculture, what with the wool, cashmere, leather, mohair, and other raw materials of which agriculture provides a constant stream. This means all fashion brands have a vested interest in how healthy the world’s soils are, how sustainable food production is, and how economically resilient farmers are.

But how often is this relationship grasped and supported? Kering’s job posting appeared like a signal to Crowley – an endeavor to get their whole arms around the issue. “Any company wanting to staff up a sustainability department with a conservationist biologist,” Crowley says, “is a company ready to get serious about understanding nature and how its business interfaces with nature.”

Today, according to Crowley, the ideal scenario for sustainability is broad:

“The value of a product should not only be based on the quality of its fiber, but also the sustainability of its production, equity for its producer, and efficiency of its supply chain. The factors creating the product are as important as the product itself.”

Given this, regenerative farming has become the space to watch, says Crowley. “It is the ultimate nature-based solution.” “When done right, regenerative approaches can deliver so much—restored soils enable more economic and nutritious food production, wildlife friendly approaches can support coexistence of wildlife and agriculture, reduced chemical inputs can keep waterways clean, and all of this contributes to mitigate climate change—while producing a high-quality product.”

In the last three years, as the connection between climate and the environment has become more apparent throughout the sustainability space, the progress towards resilient land through regenerative farming has accelerated. This includes work between Kering and Conservation International to launch the Regenerative Fund for Nature. The fund's goal is to support the transition of 1 million hectares (or almost 2.5 million acres) to regenerative farming practices over the next five years with a focus on leather, cashmere, cotton, and wool production.

“By doing something like this, others in the space can see a proof of concept for how and why we need to catalyze a transformation to more regenerative practices and how being in the business of fashion really means being in the business of nature,” says Crowley. There is still a lot of progress to be made, experimentation to be done, and results to be presented to build on the interest and success we have found thus far, she mentions.

“Soil needs to be thought of more broadly, by more people, as a public good. Soil fertility is important to everyone’s well-being,” she says. “There is such limitless possibility for what nature can deliver to us, how restorative it can be, when given half a chance.”

“It’s also why we are so supportive of efforts by mission-aligned organizations like Indigo Ag, which brings technology and science together to scale practice adoption and measure and verify results,” Crowley says. “Regenerative land management decisions, like planting cover crops or reducing tillage, may be ancient and based on fundamental soil health principles, but they’ve fallen out of favor in some regions and on some farms for so long that access to information on their adoption and optimization are limited. The power of nature is something I respect, as a biologist; but also I know it’s a matter of supporting research and discovery, showing results through supporting new practices so that can catalyze wider acceptance and adoption.”

This January, with the global conservation organization Conservation International, Kering was proud to launch the Regenerative Fund for Nature. The goal of the fund is to support the transition of 1 million hectares (or almost 2.5 million acres) to regenerative farming practices over the next five years.

All of this leads Crowley to ask two questions in particular: “What’s important to you? And, if a you care about a future world where nature and people can thrive, the next question should be – how can I help that happen? The answer does lie, in part, in what you wear and what you eat. Think about where it comes from—the soil, the work of farmers. It is a lot more than just a piece of clothing. We have a short time to make the change we need happen for our futures – you can be part of that by being informed and making choices every day. Everything you do matters, but don’t see that as a burden see that as empowerment.”

Consumers and brand leaders have the choice to join Crowley in considering these critical topics, advancing beneficial farming practices, and driving the farming we need.

For Farmers For Supporters