Sustainable. Ethical. Conscious. These are words that are commonly found on labels from fashion brands around the globe. But these blanket terms are so frequently assumed, and are used so eagerly by labels wanting to shout about the good aspects of their production (often ignoring the bad), that they have all but lost their meaning. After all, if a dress is produced using organic cotton – where cotton is grown without the use of pesticides or fertilisers – but produced at mass, can it still be called sustainable?
Such marketing language is deliberately confusing. And fashion brands worth their weight in eco-production know that simply using organic cotton is not enough; to truly move the needle and reduce the industry’s carbon footprint (fashion is the second most polluting industry after oil), they need to be more targeted, more specific and more explicit in their approach.
Regenerative fashion is the next step in this path towards a greener future. It goes further than organic farming; crops are not just left unsprayed, but are grown in a way that gives nutrients back to the soil. It also regulates and recycles water use, uses natural, non-toxic dyes that do not harm the land and ensures everyone within the tight, localised supply chain is paid fairly.
US outdoor label Patagonia was among the first to switch to this more earth-friendly model, but other smaller brands have since followed suit – from the Indian label Oshadi, which grows its fabrics and produces its clothing within the fences of its farm, to British unisex brand Story MFG, which dyes its garments using leaves, tree bark and jackfruit. With its production hub set up in the middle of a forest, the waste goes back into fertilising the ground beneath.
Joshua Millard's vertically integrated supply chain
‘I wanted to bring our two industries together for the next generation,’ says Joshua Millard, the London-based womenswear designer who grew up on his family’s organic sheep farm in Dorset.
Four years ago, he set about creating his own supply chain to utilise the wool from the sheep. ‘We have a pedigree flock of teeswater and blue-faced Leicester ewes, as their wool is the softest, but it’s a byproduct of meat production,’ he says. ‘We shear the sheep twice a year, collect it, roll it, spin it, treat it, dye it... It’s a very slow process. But I wanted the clothes to have this honesty about them.’
Joshua felt it was his responsibility to utilise what was in front of him. Every step is done in the UK, and animals are culled in abattoirs six miles away from the farm. His father rewilded much of the lowland farmland 15 years ago, and he works with an agronomist to bolster soil health. Joshua’s vertically integrated supply chain closes the loop.
‘I contacted the British wool board to find out who could spin the wool,’ he says. ‘And I did a lot of googling. It was a lot of legwork... But it’s so important. Brands can just contact sheep farms and ask to buy their wools, and build new relationships.’ Owing to the low market price of British wool, there’s a surplus – farmers rarely know what to do with it.
Joshua has also cut the number of collections he produces. ‘The fashion industry wants you to create more, but it’s just not feasible,’ he says. ‘My dad always used to say, “Live like you’ll die tomorrow; farm as if you’ll live forever.”’ It’s become a manifesto for his brand. ‘We have to preserve and conserve the landscape for future generations. We can’t just keep taking from it.’