Regenerative Agriculture for Fashion

Fashion consumers are increasingly becoming inclined towards sustainable fashion. This trend requires designers, product developers, merchandisers and buyers to decide on sustainable origin materials. Regenerative agriculture provides a solution.

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Regenerative agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that seeks to rehabilitate and enhance the farm’s entire ecosystem by placing a heavy premium on soil health, with attention also paid to water management, fertilizer use, and more.

 You may wonder how is this different from organic farming? Organic farming is a prescriptive standard for agricultural production. On the other hand, Regenerative agriculture is about principles, not practices. Regenerative agriculture is output driven. In addition to omitting chemicals, regenerative agriculture replenishes and strengthens the plants, the soil, and the nature around it.

While one sees rows upon rows of a single crop in a typical farm, in a regenerative farm, one would see multiple corps planted strategically next to each other, helping each other grow and nourish. For example, on a cotton farm, one may find snap peas planted as a cover crop that provides more shade and helps retain water and grow more microbiomes. Regenerative farms also implement pollinator strips of crops to attract bees and butterflies. In addition, farmers add trap crops to divert pests, reducing the need for chemical pesticides. Regenerative farms mimic nature.

Regenerative agriculture helps meet emerging industry guidance – Greenhouse Gas Protocol, the Science-Based Targets, Net Zero Standard and Convention for Biological diversity. Regenerative farms if implemented the world over has the capability to sink all the carbon in our atmosphere. With regenerative agriculture, the fashion industry can help revive the earth through the process of making clothes. Recently, brands like Kering ( owner of Gucci, Saint Laurent and other brands) and J Crew have pushed for regenerative agriculture. Patagonia is also supporting regenerative cotton farmers with a pilot program in India. Merino company, Allbirds, Icebreaker and Smartwool have joined hands to create a platform for regenerative wool. The fashion industry is moving towards a fundamentally new economic paradigm and reconfiguring its business model. An acceleration of the change is of the essence.

War and ESG

The Russia-Ukraine war has thrown up several issues around ESG. Given that the EU is neighbour to the warring parties, the impact of war is direct. But the war also has ramifications around the world. So let us look at some implications for ESG.

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Emissions: The recent IPCC report highlighted the urgency to reduce GHG emissions stating that the window is “brief and rapidly closing.” The war has made this harder to achieve – all the munitions going off add to GHG emissions significantly. This will make the task of GHG reductions more challenging.

Investments: ESG investments have grown rapidly in the past couple of years. The war has led to a spike in oil prices and windfall gains to many oil companies, and consequently, oil stock has done well. However, with high inflation and investor expectations of higher returns, the lack of oil stocks puts fund managers, particularly growth funds, in a tight spot. This is exacerbated by the need to reduce holdings of Russian stocks in the portfolio.

Energy sourcing: While the EU has been a climate champion, the war has shown some kinks. The high dependence of EU countries on gas is of concern. There are no easy substitutes. While it is easy to say that they should shift to renewables – it requires massive investments and time. The shift is necessary.

Another worrying line of thought is emerging that the European countries might slow on climate change while rejigging their energy sources.

While the impact of war is more direct on the environment, there are implications for social and governance aspects. For example, take the refugee crisis. The refugees will need employment and housing. And, when the war is over, rebuilding will present opportunities and challenges.

Companies will have to deal with high inflation, constrained supply chains, and recovering from pandemic economic consequences on the governance front. As a result, the need to focus on net-zero will become even sharper.

Recycling Cosmetics

Photo by Jhong Pascua from Pexels

Every household has a cabinet in the bathroom that is overflowing with cosmetics. Earlier cosmetics were the preserve of women. However, increasingly men are taking to cosmetics leading to competition for the space in that cabinet. 

The global cosmetics market was valued at $380.2 billion in 2019 and is projected to reach $463.5 billion by 2027. A staggering 51 billion pieces of cosmetic packaging is produced each year. 

There has been a lot of debate about the harmful chemicals used in cosmetics. While those issues are getting addressed, there are still multiple issues with cosmetics:

  1. Packaging: This is the most widely known problem. Cosmetic packaging consists of plastic, steel, glass, etc. Discarded packing often contains remnants of the products – dried and unused materials. These are difficult to separate and are not easily recyclable.
  2. Discontinued products: These are returned by stores and sent to landfills.
  3. Product waste: Testers, unsold products and returned products. All these again go to the landfill.
  4. Chemicals: The chemicals used in cosmetics can be harmful when incinerated or added the soil in landfills.  

The industry is now moving towards sustainable actions. L’Oréal has pledged to make 100 per cent of its packaging recyclable or bio-based by 2030. Unilever, Coty and Beiersdorf have pledged to make sure plastic packaging is recycled, reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025.

Much of the work on recycling has centred around cosmetic companies that have tied up with Terracycle to recycle packaging. However, an interesting innovation is by an American beauty company, Izzy. Izzy sells beauty products that are zero waste. It provides beauty products that are reusable and recyclable. Izzy beauty products come with no outer packaging and are shipped in reusable mailers manufactured from upcycled materials. Its stainless steel tubes are designed to be cleaned and refilled. The company sends a reminder every 90 days for a refill, and the refill is shipped in a reusable shipper. Thus, this eliminates waste and promotes reuse.

The cosmetic industry can do a lot to reduce environmental degradation. Therefore, an increased focus on recycling and becoming circular becomes critical.

Plastic Eating Super Enzymes for a Circular Economy

Photo by Catherine Sheila from Pexels

Invented in 1907, plastics have grown in popularity for their convenience and disposability. However, plastics are now becoming a cause for concern due to its poor degradability.

The scale of the problem is large. Researchers estimate that since the 1950s,  more than 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced. About 60% of that plastic has ended up in either a landfill or the natural environment. Of this, much of the plastic ends up in oceans and it is estimated that plastic will outweigh all the fish in the ocean by ocean by 2050.

Only about 9% of all plastic waste is regenerated. So, what happens to the rest. A recent story piqued my interest. A handful of microbes have evolved with the ability to “eat” plastics. These microbes break down the component molecules of the plastic. You may ask, this is an old hat, so what’s new. While the first plastic-eating microbe was discovered in 1990s, there has been steady progress in the field. They’ve now evolved to the bacterium that uses plastic as their sole food and energy source. Researchers are, now, creating industrial-scale super enzymes that could eat PET  six times faster than earlier. Scientists are looking at microbial DNA from a range of habitats. In areas with high levels of plastic pollution, the researchers found that the microbes were more likely to have enzymes with plastic-degrading tendencies. One study has found a soil bacterium that feeds on some components of polyurethane.

Pilot projects have started utilising these technologies. For instance, the University of Portsmouth has set up Revolution Plastics, which aims to forge links between academics and industry. Carbios, a French biotechnology company, runs another project.

The main advantage of plastic-eating enzymes is that it makes it possible to recreate plastic to the highest quality. This is unlike recycling, where the quality of plastic degrades after every round of recycling. Thus, these advances are a boon to the circular economy.

The Value-Action Gap and Sustainability

Awareness of climate change, global warming and environmental risks among people is increasing by the day. Many surveys have shown that people prefer greener or sustainable alternatives to current products. However, these preferences or intentions often do not translate into consumption, lifestyles, or travel patterns. 

On the flip side, companies also do the same. According to a study published by Deloitte recently, 63% of C-suite executives worldwide recognise the need for businesses to take climate action. However, only a fifth of the companies are actually taking decisive steps on sustainability. 

This discrepancy between stated beliefs and behaviours is known as Value-Action Gap. First, let us examine how stated beliefs come about. There are three possible causes:

  1. The value system — a genuine desire to do something for the environment.
  2. Peer pressure makes you look good in front of your friends and colleagues.
  3. The role of the influencers – prominent people or role models who espouse sustainable causes.

So, what leads to the value-action gap

1. Information deficit: There is often an information deficit facing the customers. Which brands and products are truly “sustainable?” Which certifications are important? Which materials are superior? 

From a company’s perspective finding the right technology for emission reduction would be an information issue.

2. Costs: There is a search cost associated with finding sustainable products. Psychological costs (stressing about the purchase) and monetary costs (going to the right store) impact decision making.

Companies, when faced with ESG challenges, face similar costs.

Reducing the value-action gap requires a reduction of these costs.

The move to sustainability cannot be achieved without attention to the value-action gap. Three actions can help reduce the gap: increasing the customer’s/company’s capability or the company, motivating them towards intended behaviours, and providing opportunities to improve behaviours. Policymakers need to account for this while creating policies aimed at creating a sustainable or circular economy.