The North Face appears to be the latest apparel brand to launch a regenerative cotton project.
With the climate crisis a hot-button issue for fashion, regenerative farming practices that are known to draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and restore soil health and biodiversity are drawing interest. The practices include cover cropping, reducing tillage and holistic livestock management.
The VF-owned brand is following in the steps of Timberland’s regenerative leather, in pursuit of regenerative cotton farming practices. In the new partnership, The North Face will team with Boston-based, nature-based solutions company Indigo Ag, a company that modernizes ancient practices with the advent of microbiology and digital technology. The North Face’s regenerative cotton collection will hit store shelves in fall 2022, although details are still in the works.
“Projects like this help us dive deeper into our supply chain. We’re doing it at a scale we’ve never been able to do before,” said Carol Shu, senior manager of global sustainability for The North Face, adding how traceability has been a key part of the brand since a partnership called the “Backyard Project” in 2014.
The Backyard collection, which inspired the latest initiative, featured locally produced hoodies in collaboration with nonprofits like the Sustainable Cotton Project and Fibershed. Save for its yarn, which was spun in the Carolinas, all of the collection was produced within a 150-mile radius of The North Face’s headquarters outside San Francisco.
Shu mentioned how conversations with wool growers helped spawn a farmer-oriented thinking: “A lot of U.S. producers don’t know where their products go. We’re not trying to tell them how to manage their land….It’s really an opportunity to know where your cotton is ending up.”
The brand hopes to tackle each of its raw materials, one by one. In this latest pilot, The North Face is linked with Indigo Ag’s network of cotton farmers deploying regenerative practices in states like Alabama, Missouri and Arkansas. From there, the brand will tap its own supplier network in Central America for fabric and garment construction.
“It’s unique in the partnerships we’ve formed so far,” said Noah Walker, director of product for Indigo Ag, of the pilot with The North Face. “We’re really doing a technology-enabled premium.” While it is the company’s first foray into fashion, Indigo Ag is said to be “in a number of other conversations with apparel brands.”
Although the tech company is careful not to present regenerative agriculture as something “new” or invented, Indigo Ag does boast the technological prowess to help prioritize farmer profitability, sustainability of agriculture and consumer health. With The North Face partnership specifically, premiums are provided to farmers who agree to implement regenerative practices. There are additional results-based credits for continued carbon sequestration. Together, the premiums and credits are “the most powerful generator as far as getting farmers to enroll in this,” as Walker said.
“We need reduction and drawdown of atmosphere. Agriculture is a major sectoral emitter — one of the five [according to the Environmental Protection Agency],” Walker reiterated. “We’re just trying to encourage getting back to a place of working with nature.”
Growers taking part in Indigo Ag’s carbon credit program have committed to adopting regenerative practice changes on nearly 2 million acres representing more than 1,000 farmers. With the use of satellite imagery and natural microbial seed treatments, the company helps to map out farms for growing efficiency in a way that lessens the load on the environment. The company also works with third-party standards-setting organizations such as Verra and Climate Action Reserve to help verify its reporting and measuring protocols.
“It’s really important to think about regenerative practice adoption as a journey,” added Walker. Farmers can start sequestering carbon in the soil in the first year, with the goal to increase sequestration each year after.
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