By Annie Iezzi
We live in an age of sustainable fashion, sustainable agriculture, and sustainable packaging and development, all of which comprise a larger sustainability movement that is especially popular among Gen Z and millennials. This movement, at large, is guided by the three “E’s”— environment, equity, and economics—with the environmental pillar serving as a rallying centerpiece. This moniker of “sustainability” has been co-opted on a gigantic scale to lend a feel-good element to companies’ marketing, but what does it actually mean to adhere to the three E’s?
Currently, there are no standardized parameters for what the label “sustainable” actually entails, allowing the term to be slapped on almost any product. A startling example of this indiscretion is the embracing of sustainability by controversial agriculture supergiant, Monsanto. The company is constantly reported on for the toxicity of its pesticides, especially its biggest seller, Roundup, which has been proven to cause cancer. Additionally, pesticides are a widely publicized, grave endangerment to the environment—not to mention the company’s entrenchment in GMO innovation and use that threatens native plants and people alike.
The homepage of Monsanto’s “Innovations” website tab declares in bold letters above a neon green plant: “Growing Sustainably, Using Less”. It goes on to detail what I presume to be the sustainability practices of the company, focusing on specified plant breeding to reduce waste. Waste reduction is perhaps one bonus of selective breeding, but this reads as a thinly veiled monetary boon, repackaged to doubly increase profit. Furthermore, waste reduction is far from the type of monumental change that could reclassify a toxic agricultural tycoon as a sustainable corporation.
In the fashion industry, the clothing and accessories brand Everlane is one company that has turned away from the language of “sustainability” for the same reason that Monsanto embraces it—nobody knows what it really means. Instead, Everlane focuses on ensuring that their clothes and shoes are made with an “ethical approach” in factories that are given “compliance audit(s)” to guarantee fair wages, hours, and a safe working environment. This ethics-based mantra seems to focus holistically on the three E’s of sustainability, emphasizing environmental care but also highlighting positive working conditions.
The brand’s commitment to ethical production is most evident at their Saitex facility, “the world’s cleanest denim factory.” At Saitex, located in Ho Chi Minh City, minimal water is used to process the jeans and only about 0.4 liters of water are lost due to evaporation, as compared to 1500 liters of wasted water per pair at other factories, according to Everlane’s estimates. Furthermore, the remaining water used in denim processing is 98% recycled, making it entirely potable. Even considering gaps in information and the brand’s use of leather and wool, the list of ethical innovations at Everlane is impressive—ranging from solar initiatives to renewable energy and almost no waste. The brand values and relies on its sustainability-minded consumer base.
Innovations like these designate companies like Everlane as success stories of environmental and social sustainability, but what if resources are still being depleted too quickly to sustain what is left on a meaningful scale? What if just adding the language of ethics to sustainability is not enough? Preservation cannot be the saving grace of future generations, or of our own, if the environment and its resources have been exploited past the point of defense.
In this not-so-hypothetical world, we now confront the need to renew our bionetworks and rejuvenate systems of energy, instead of just maintaining the denigrated structures we currently exploit. For this reason, leaders in the field of sustainability are actually losing faith in the subject, and turning toward renaming it; the new frontier of regeneration.
According to the revolutionary feature Kiss the Ground, written by Johnny O’Hara and directed by Joshua and Rebecca Tickell, reviving our Earth and its peoples must begin with the soil under our feet and under the world’s endless acres of cash crops. Generating just three centimeters of arable top soil for these crops takes around 1,000 years, and according to one leading UN official, all of the world’s arable soil could be exhausted within the next 60. The number-one enemy of nutrient rich soil is tilling, which is practiced on most conventional farms worldwide.
Tilling soil breaks up its surface, leaving it exposed and bare. This process, which in the past was thought to aid crop growth, actually kills the millions of microorganisms under soil’s surface that facilitate healthy plants. Furthermore, founder of the Soil Health Academy, Ray Archuleta has found that tilling releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and acid into the oceans, killing the crucial oxygenating phytoplankton in startling numbers. These factors, combined with wasteful livestock practices and the toxic use of farming chemicals, have accumulated to decimate soil fertility and the environment at large.
Regenerative agriculture, then, is a way to begin the reversal of these processes through biomimicry, which is the design of materials, structures, and systems that are modeled on biological entities. According to Archuleta, for most farmers, embracing biomimicry will require completely changing the cultivation approach and patience for about three years to see returns. This period of time, however, is worth the wait to prolong the longevity of agriculture across the world.
Crop rotation is a key feature of regenerative agriculture, reintroducing crop diversity to ensure that appropriate crops grow in reasonable areas and are replanted seasonally. This can nourish the soil and prevent the drying that cash crops like corn and soybeans inflict. Hemp, especially, is an excellent crop to introduce for soil improvement, as it can help bolster microcosms within the soil and is both fire- and herbicide-resistant.
The other crucial aspect of regenerative agriculture is livestock rotation. Again, biomimicry is implemented to create a symbiosis between the livestock and their environment, similar to how they would exist in nature. This method involves concentrating cattle in frequently moving, small areas, similar to those they would occupy as a wild herd. The livestock graze naturally-growing plants and fertilize the soil without chemically created fertilizers.
Finally, cover crops should be planted in both currently-growing and off-season fields to slow erosion, improve soil health, bolster water retainment, and increase biodiversity. Their roots replace the process of soil tilling, and they protect the previously destroyed, subterranean microcosms.
These regenerative practices applied to farming are beginning to reverberate in every related industry. One step ahead of the sustainable fashion brands currently sweeping the market, the French luxury brand Kering, owner of Gucci and Balenciaga, among others, has partnered with the Savory Institute to promote regenerative practices. Their main focus is to advertise knowledge of regenerative sourcing solutions and make regenerative agriculture more accessible to the global fashion industry. These methods highlight the use of regenerative fibers in fabrics, which are produced using carbon reducing farming techniques, as well as the holistic farming practices outlined above.
In this way, regenerative agriculture benefits not only farm-to-table eating but also farm-to-fashion dressing. In comparison, vaguely defined sustainability is simply not impactful enough to improve our world, one in which we have left little to sustain. Instead, we must focus on regeneration in our food, our materials, and our lives, ensuring that it won’t be a passing fad. Regeneration is for the next generation, and it’s here to stay.
Annie Iezzi is a Staff Editor for Honeysuckle Magazine and a second-year student at Barnard College of Columbia University, studying English and Political Science and writing in her scarce (and cherished) free time.