What has farming got to do with fashion? In October, SWFC’s Anna Heaton travelled to Vancouver to take part in the Textile Exchange Textile Sustainability Conference.
With over 900 attendees from 46 different countries, the Textile Sustainability Conference was a truly global meeting point, with fascinating presentations and discussions covering a wide range of subjects. While fashion might at first seem a world away from farming in the U.K., there are some interesting developments in the sector that we should all be aware of that could impact on our farms—and present new opportunities.
In recent years, some of the biggest players in the fashion world have begun assessing the environmental impact of their activities—from raw materials through processing, manufacture and retail. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the biggest footprint comes from the production of raw materials, which includes all the animal-based materials such as wool, cashmere, mohair and leather; the latter including sheep, goat, calf and beef cattle leathers.
Having assessed their ‘environmental footprint’, the major fashion brands are now seeking to improve their sustainability. For some, this includes defining requirements within their supply chains for animal welfare, land management and farm wildlife and biodiversity.
Leading the ‘Pact’
In August 2019, 32 leading companies from the fashion and textile industry gave themselves a set of shared objectives in the form of a Fashion Pact to reduce the environmental impact of the fashion industry. The Fashion Pact focusses on action in three “essential areas for safeguarding the planet”: stop global warming, restore biodiversity and protect the oceans.
Under the ‘restore biodiversity’ section, for example, one of the options that brands can commit to is to “eliminate sourcing from intensive feed-lot based farming” and support production systems that “optimise the animals’ time on natural pasture aligned with the adoption of animal welfare standards across the industry”.
These positive actions – brands choosing to support good practice – come alongside brands that are shying away from problems. The horrific fires in the Amazon rainforest were linked to people clearing land for cattle ranches. Those ranches produce both beef and leather for export. The link between the fires and cattle prompted the U.S. parent company of footwear and clothing brands such as Timberland, Vans, The North Face and many others to stop buying any leather or hides from Brazil.
In their summary of the 2019 conference, Textile Exchange states:
Textile companies, with the roots of their businesses in the fields, forests and deep in the ground, have an important role to play in the transition to a more resilient, regenerative and circular economy.
If this is the case then farms across the world have an even more crucial role to play in the transition to the more resilient and regenerative production of animal fibres and leathers. Here in the U.K. we already have many farms that not only optimise the animals’ time on natural pasture but are certified to recognised animal welfare programmes – as outlined in the Fashion Pact requirements. Yet most of the associated skins and hides from these farms are currently lost in the ‘fifth quarter’ at the abattoir. Wouldn’t it be a great result if these could be marketed as a high quality, high-welfare, regenerative raw material alongside UK produced wool?
At SWFC, we see the fashion sector’s growing interest in the source of raw materials as a real opportunity for UK agriculture. We work with many farmers and farmer groups who are focused on producing high-welfare, regenerative food. Our aim for the future is to get recognition for high-welfare, regenerative wool and leather they produce, too – and the way things are going it looks like this will be a fashionable outcome.
SWFC’s Anna Heaton with a cashmere goat kid in Inner Mongolia (also main image). For the last few years, Anna has been working with fashion brands and NGOs to develop protocols for animal welfare and sustainable land management across a range of species and countries.