Regenerative agri: Gucci driving a Mzansi fashion revolution

Regenerative agriculture and the world of clothing and textile production are colliding. This movement aims to not only minimise damage caused during the growing and production process, but has the end goal of healing the environment in the long run

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Nicole Ludolph, Food For Mzansi Journalist

Regenerative agriculture has made its way into the global fashion conversation. While the last few years have seen most retailers dedicate at least some resources to sustainability, those on the forefront of fashion are realising that the industry needs to go further than just preventing damage to the environment. It needs to play an active role in healing the Earth, reports Nicole Ludolph.

South Africa is a major contributor of luxury fibres like mohair, used extensively by international premium fashion brands. Demand from these consumers have begun to drive a move towards regenerative agriculture in Mzansi’s livestock industries.

The Regenerative Agriculture Association of South Africa (RegenAg SA) defines regenerative agriculture as “farming with nature rather than against nature”. Conventional farming methods tend to work contrary to natural processes, and usually erode soil and contribute to greenhouse gas emissions.

In comparison, regenerative farming methods are more holistic. Farmers who employ these methods look at the entire ecosystem of their farm, ensuring that all their farming operations are integrated as far as possible.

Regenerative farming makes sure that carbon is retained in the soil instead of being released into the atmosphere. Farming operations feed into each other, creating a circular system, which goes beyond just sustainability, but revives the environment.

Where does fashion fit in?

Regeneration International, a global regeneration alliance, estimates that the clothing industry contributes up to 10% of global carbon emissions. The industry, worth $3 trillion-dollars, is deeply intertwined with agriculture.

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Fibre production like flax, hemp, cotton, etc. all feed into the apparel industry, as well as leather and wool production.

In South Africa, the wool and mohair industries are particularly important. According to the National Wool Growers Association of South Africa (NWGA), South Africa’s wool industry supplies 12% of the world’s apparel wool. Mohair South Africa estimates that the country produces 50% of the world’s mohair.

What’s going on in South Africa?

The Savory Institute has a number of regenerative hubs across the globe. The South African hub, located in the Eastern Cape, has been training and educating local farmers on how to manage their resources regeneratively. Their efforts are focused on beef, lamb and goat farming, as well as wool.

The institute runs the world’s first regenerative farming certification program, called Land to Market. Farmers who apply to be certified under this program are assessed using the institute’s Ecological Outcome Verification protocol. The protocol assesses factors like soil health, biodiversity, and ecosystem function of the farm.

Rolf Pretorius, one of South Africa’s hub leaders for the Savory Institute, has been working extensively with farmers around regenerative agriculture and holistic management.

He says that, while it is difficult to determine if regenerative farming will eventually be the standard in South Africa, he thinks that there is definitely a move in that direction.

“I think there’s more and more consumers becoming aware of (regeneratively farmed products). Because of that, the producers will have to change. The producers won’t change until the consumers change what they are looking for.

“So, although some of the more forward thinking farmers have already started down that road, it really won’t get to its full extent until the consumers are asking for those products.”

Pretorius says that in the last 18 months, there’s been a fairly big move towards regeneration by South African producers.

“Kering is actually doing more work in South Africa. Their consumers are an example of consumers that are demanding a regenerative product. Kering is working with Mohair SA to look at getting farmers enrolled into the program.

“So, I think slowly but surely, it will take hold. The industry has been driven by the fibre industry in particular, and also leather to some extent. It’s safe to say the fashion industry is driving the regenerative movement in South Africa.”

The Kering Group is an international luxury retailer that oversees brands like Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, and Gucci. In January 2021, they launched their Regenerative Fund for Nature, in partnership with Conservation International.

Kering has been at the forefront of regenerative fashion, first collaborating with the Savory Institute in 2018 as a “frontier founder” for the organisation’s Land to Market program.

What about the local fashion industry?

Pretorius says that there is not a big appetite from local fashion brands for wool or mohair products, likely due to the price of these materials.

“Most of the produce is sold overseas. When you walk around the stores in Johannesburg, you don’t really see wool everywhere. Whereas if you go to New Zealand, for instance, there’s wool everywhere. It’s more a price issue, and the usual inefficiencies that are causing that.”

In their report entitled “South African Cotton Textile Statistics”, Cotton SA found that cotton is the second most consumed fibre in the country, after polyester.

Tanya Aucamp, a Cotton SA spokesperson, says that “Cotton SA is the official implementing partner for the Better Cotton Initiative (BCI). Globally this is the fastest growing sustainable cotton standard.”

Approximately 50% of last year’s crop was BCI compliant. Part of the BCI principles are caring for soil health and biodiversity, but the initiative focuses on sustainability and not necessarily regeneration.

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