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What is the difference between being sustainable and being regenerative? (Through a fashion and fibre lens.)

By Rebekah Smith

In recent years there has been a rise in sustainability as a priority in the fashion industry 1. With ever-evolving conscious lifestyles, consumers are increasingly seeking more ethical products that embody good, or even great, social and environmental values. More questions than ever are now being asked about the traceability and the transparency of supply chains, and there is an ongoing critique of how we consume fashion. With more than one in three consumers 2 now considering social and environmental impacts when purchasing clothing, retailers are exploring the opportunity to present ‘sustainable’ fashion to the market. But when it comes to fashion and fibres, is sustainability enough? 

What does sustainability mean?

To be ‘sustainable’ is the concept that a system can continue to operate the same as it does, for an infinite period of time. This generally refers to the collective behaviour of people and businesses living within the natural limits of the biosphere, whilst coexisting with nature. But as sustainable practices, by definition, seek to maintain the current state, we must be critical of what practices we wish to sustain. More and more, evidenced by the multi-layering of increasingly chronic environmental and social crises, we can see that the current systems our society is built upon are not serving our biosphere, and certainly aren’t harmonious with nature.  

What constitutes as ‘sustainable’ in business can often be quite ambiguous, with businesses choosing to focus on just one aspect or another, for example environmental credentials, or labour rights. Meanwhile, sustainability language is too easily co-opted by marketeers, greenwashing a brand without always having a means of backing up the claims made. The concept of ‘green growth’ is an example of this. Even if a practice is considered ‘green’, unrestrained growth of any kind is pathological and will lead to more problems than it seeks to solve. The rapidly growing market of sustainable fashion exemplifies how green growth needs to be challenged. For how sustainable can sustainable fashion be, if it is being consumed at the same rate as fast fashion, and success is still being measured by year-on-year financial growth? See this Financial Times article ‘The myth of green growth’ for a recommended further read. 

Additionally, flaws of the economic growth logic have been highlighted in the report ‘Earth Logic Fashion Action Research Plan’ with the added insight that there is widespread economic and societal resistance to change, especially to paradigmatic change. Resistance to change highlights not that there is a lack of knowledge, but rather, an inertia to leaving a system that has served the economy so well, whilst being comfortably numb to the real threats that the fashion industry will have, if it continues to operate as it does currently.

How possible it is for a business to be sustainable while operating within a globalised system where negative impacts are too often offshored and easily obscured? The Fibershed model, being based on ecological systems, naturally asks and challenges these questions. As we reflect upon what we want to sustain, we can also question whether the sustaining of our already degraded ecosystems and communities is enough. Shouldn’t we be looking at improving our current state, socially as well as environmentally? This is where regenerative thinking creates a logical and compelling alternative. 

Regeneration

Regeneration recognises natural systems and cycles, establishing and applying techniques that build upon, enhance and restore them so they can thrive. Regeneration increases natural productivity by using ‘waste’ to nourish the next stage of life – Nature’s own circular economy.  Regeneration encompasses a community connection to spirituality and the interconnectedness of everything that exists and lives on the planet. This includes a conscious awareness of our relationship to each other and to the environment, promoting this through education, practical development and leadership. L.V Gibbons explores regeneration as a beautifully synchronistic state in this article titled ‘Regenerative—The New Sustainable?’, a recommended read for a holistic approach to regeneration. Gibbons writes that regeneration requires a clear understanding of the thinking that underpins the current unsustainable reality that we live in. Only then we can transform this thinking to help regenerate, change and evolve land use, food systems, infrastructure, governance, and lifestyles, in order to reach whole-system thriving, equilibrium and health.

Regeneration within the textiles system 

So what does this mean for the textile systems? This is a question that we need to be constantly revisiting and exploring. Meeting the needs of people without surpassing our ecological limits, is a balancing act that challenges society as a whole, not just the fashion industry, and one that needs a joined up approach.  

What does this look like? One potential solution is to strengthen a more decentralised, regional system of manufacturing that ensures increased resilience and traceability within the supply chain as well as supporting more real connections with our locality and the people we do business with. With a shorter supply chain of national, or even regional, production, impacts can be measured against local environmental and social boundaries, with the aim of staying within the bounds of specific ecological and community capacities. This may mean sacrificing some superficial efficiencies in order to have better long term impacts and greater resiliency. A bioregional way of production is not a new concept, but with the increase of the globalised supply chain, it is no longer common practice. See ‘The Nature of Fashion’ by the Biomimicry Institute, found here for more on local fashion.

Secondly, a regenerative system within fashion can take the form of a circular supply chain, where the end ‘waste’ product can be reused as a feedstock for starting the whole process again. The ‘soil-to-soil’ cycle that Fibreshed is based upon, as pictured below, is an example of how this applies to the fibre and fashion industry.

As seen, each stage of the supply chain, from growing, to design, to disposal, holds the opportunity to realign production processes with natural cycles, and to facilitate environmental restoration. A regenerative system requires integration – all stages of the supply chain working together. More than this, a regenerative view acknowledges the importance of people at each stage of this process, the relationships between them and with their natural environment. 

This video created by Fibershed and Slow Factory Foundation builds upon the Soil to Soil diagram by presenting how natural dye production, as part of the ‘soil to soil’ cycle, supports people working directly with the land. Natural production is healthier and safer for people than conventional dyeing, and allows for deeper connection with the local environment and the community, whilst promoting regeneration. Social wellbeing and community are critical for healthy systems, for if there is imbalance in our social relationships, this will inherently be reflected in a negative relationship to nature. 

It is not enough to sustain what stands. Regeneration offers a means of connecting the fashion industry with community, with society and with the environment so that they can all thrive. 

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