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Feature: 5 Years On, Where is Regenerative Fashion Today?

Updated: Jul 2

Images: Courtesy of Trace Collective by Pipi Hormaechea

In early 2018, I was growing increasingly disheartened with the conversations about sustainability. It seemed obvious to me that if we were truly serious about taking action to preserve life on this planet as we know it, half-hearted initiatives that focused on damaging a little bit less while oiling a relentless pace of consumption would get us nowhere. I had spent a few months researching, having conversations with brilliant people and reading avidly, in an effort to understand how to reimagine the future of environmental conservation.

I vividly remember the moment things clicked in my brain. I remember walking under a tree canopy, my leg being itchy while I listened to a podcast, and the smell of spring in my nostrils. I was giving my dog an afternoon walk in between work calls, in the little park that was just a stone’s throw away from my London flat. I remember that aha moment when I realised that, if we were to really find a way of living that achieved eco systemic balance, we had to completely reimagine every single aspect of business to make sure that it contributed to healing the planet. It seems so obvious to me today - of course damaging less is not enough, of course we need to focus on reversing environmental degradation. But it took a while for things to click.

Back then, I didn’t think I’d end up working in fashion. But I discovered regenerative agriculture, and after many conversations I thought, why are we only trying to scale this solution from within the food industry?

30% of those still come from agricultural and farming lands.

Of course, that’s not very good news - that percentage should be 100%, as the rest are synthetic and manmade cellulose fabrics that are extremely damaging for the planet. But, I thought, that 30% still gives us plenty to work with. I saw immense potential to use fashion as a tool for environmental regeneration.

A few months later, Antonia and I decided to set up Trace Collective, which went on to become the world’s first regenerative fashion brand. With very limited resources, we built the brand on three pillars:

Regeneration is our business driver. We have a firm commitment to using solely regenerative fabrics to produce our clothes. That means that they are lovely fabrics we simply cannot use, and we need to compete with other incredible designer brands in an uneven playing field.

Circularity guides the full product lifecycle. That starts at the design and manufacturing stages, where we produce fully biodegradable pieces, which means that we don’t use synthetic threads or fastenings, and keep all fabric scraps from cutting to design limited edition pieces. But we don’t think our responsibility ends there, so we offer our customers a for-life repair guarantee for all our garments, and a take back scheme in case those are ever no longer wanted.

Transparency is our duty to our customers. They shouldn’t have to spend time trying to figure out whether their purchase has negative social and environmental impacts. We are radically transparent in pricing, impact and origin for each of our garments, and that information can be found both at our website and in the QR tags that are attached to each of our pieces.

The model that we built had one single focus: to facilitate environmental and social regeneration. The company exists not to maximize profits, but to maximize impact. As a fashion brand, to us that’s the only way to exist that can be classified as sustainable. Did you know that there’re enough clothes in the world to go around for the next 6 generations? In the current context of environmental breakdown, I just don’t see how we could ever say that producing new pieces of clothing is sustainable if that production is not actively contributing to reversing climate change.

When we started talking about regeneration and regenerative fashion, people looked at us as if we had 3 heads. In the years that have passed since it has become, if not mainstream, fairly popular. That’s progress, but there’s a lot of nuance in that progress. Nuance that I think it’s important to explore. So let’s start with the basics.

In fashion, regeneration is most commonly associated with regenerative agriculture. After all, regenerative agriculture is the main strategy to drive environmental regeneration from within then fashion industry. And what is regenerative agriculture? In short, it’s a set of principles that focus on improving the health of the soil and the ecology and biodiversity of the environment surrounding the land. Why should we care about soil, you may wonder? Well, according to FAO, 95% of our food is directly or indirectly produced on or soils. Healthy soils are the basis for healthy food production. But a third of the planet’s soil is acutely degraded due to farming and agriculture. Degraded soil not only impacts our ability to produce food - it also emits carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, further contributing to global warming, leads to declines on biodiversity and increases the risk of floods. The most alarming fact? The current way we farm is causing the equivalent of one football field of land to erode every five seconds. Every. Five. Seconds.

But let’s not get caught up on the alarming facts and get back to the solution. While regenerative agriculture requires a place-based approach (as different eco regions will require different land management strategies), there’re normally 4 practices that cut across most regenerative projects: crop rotation, cover cropping, no (or minimal) tilling, and no pesticide use. Integrating livestock can also create a virtuous circle of soil health. It’s worth noting at this point that while there’s been a big buzz in recent years in Western countries around regenerative agriculture, these practices were not born here or thought of in a lab. They were developed by indigenous people across millennia, transforming eroded lands into lush fields long before colonizers arrived to America. We’ve just been very slow to catch up.

I believe it’s crucial that regenerative agriculture stays at the centre of the conversation around regeneration in the fashion industry. When we talk about regeneration, we must think about environmental regeneration and link it to specific strategies. In an industry where as many as 59% of green claims made by European fashion brands are misleading and could be greenwashing, it’s important to be clear and define the concepts that we use. Regenerative and regeneration and words that can become instruments of greenwashing: the general public has less awareness of what they mean, and they sound new and sexy. But they’re not (new that is, for sure they’re still very sexy), and we must remember that.

hey’re not concepts to be distorted, reinvented, or appropriated. Regeneration means putting life, and the processes that create the conditions that are conductive to life, at the centre of everything: businesses, communities, politics… at the heart of all decisions and plans.

And this leads me to my last reflection. While regenerative agriculture must stay at the center of the conversation about regeneration in fashion, that’s not where that conversation can end. Regenerative fashion must include an in depth reflection and rethinking of what the industry represents today, its roots, and the role that it’s playing on planetary health and social cohesion. That means acknowledging fashion’s colonial roots, and how those continue to play out today, by extracting resources and exploiting labour from the Global South, by promoting euro-centric beauty standards as the norm and by often appropriating certain aspects of minority cultures by discarding others.

It also means reflecting on how those dynamics shape the outlook of the global fashion industry. Today, a few companies control the majority of the global market, and handful of conglomerates are making nearly all of fashion’s profits. It’s a winner takes it all industry, one that paints a picture that is at complete odds with what a regenerative future would look like. There’re many greys in this conversation, and I certainly don’t have all the answers. But I believe that we need to do a better job, both as an industry and as society, in asking the difficult questions, establishing honest dialogue, and holding ourselves to account. In an industry notoriously opaque and competitive, the only path towards a regenerative future is to reimagine the ecosystem into a more cooperative, decentralized landscape. Without taking steps in that direction, any sustainability projects feel just tokenistic and hollow. Regenerative fashion cannot exist without the regenerative approach being three dimensional: environmental, social and ecosystemic.

Despite the challenges, five years in, I still believe that fashion has the power to pave the way to a regenerative future. As destructive as it’s become, to me, and to millions of others, fashion still means culture. It means craftsmanship. It means creativity and experimentation. It opens a doors to reimagine business and life - if we can transform fashion and make it truly regenerative, it means we will have transformed every aspect of society. And I believe that can be done. So let’s continue paving the way for a future where we all put life at the heart of fashion, and at the heart of every other industry and system.

Images: Courtesy of Trace Collective by Pipi Hormaechea

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