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Why regenerative garments are the ultimate status symbol
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Why regenerative garments are the ultimate status symbol

Picture the scene. Kendall Roy, the longtime heir apparent to the media empire at the heart of HBO’s Succession, is in a dark bar in New York. The embodiment of hyper-privilege, he is explaining to anyone that will listen that the cashmere in his half-zip sweater was harvested by indigenous herders on the rangelands of Mongolia. Regenerative fashion is the future of the industry, and the world, he insists.

It is a fictional scenario, but it is not hard to imagine. Quiet luxury, which was arguably the biggest trend of last year and claimed Roy as its poster boy, is not about logos. Instead, it is about less obvious codes, such as quality cloth and tailoring created with fibres so precious that their provenance and the way they are cultivated is a selling point. So it should come as no surprise that the ultrarich are turning to brands that are working to protect the landscapes where materials such as cashmere, silk and cotton are grown.

In a rapidly heating world, what projects status more than wearing fine merino wool grown on a sheep farm that has so many native trees and grasses it sequesters more carbon than it emits?

On Nokomai Station, a sheep farm on New Zealand’s South Island, flocks of dusty-cream merino are free to roam 40,000 hectares (99,000 acres), an area roughly four times the size of Paris. The station is one of approximately 460 sheep farms that make up the New Zealand Merino Company’s regenerative wool initiative, ZQRX. These sheep produce some of the finest wool in the world on a wild and mountainous landscape that is managed according to the principles of regenerative agriculture: restoring biodiversity and minimal intervention to build healthy soil. If it sounds like utopia, that’s because it is. From almost every angle, the farm looks like an AI-generated screensaver.

The mountains of Nokomai Station on New Zealand’s South IslandView image in fullscreen

Regenerative fashion is a concept that’s been hovering over conversations about reducing fashion’s carbon footprint for several years. Its adoption has been widespread, from cotton fields in Turkey to hemp farms in China and sheep on the rangelands of Argentina.

“There are a significant number of brands who have been investing money into those natural raw material supply chains,” says Jocelyn Wilkinson, a partner and associate director at Boston Consulting Group and co-author of a 2023 report which found that brands that invested in regenerative material could gain an estimated average 6% profit uplift after five years.

Merino sheep at Nokomai StationView image in fullscreen

Loro Piana, a luxury brand that has been the epitome of stealth wealth ever since Kendall Roy wore one of its £500 cashmere baseball caps, has long had an interest in protecting the origins of its raw materials. Similarly, Brunello Cucinelli, a favourite of real-life billionaires Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos, has joined King Charles’s sustainable markets initiative with a project to transform 1,000 hectares of degraded land in India into regenerative farms. While Zegna – a luxury brand so associated with cashmere that its latest catwalk show in Milan was set against a mountain of the stuff, falling from the sky – has been running its own sheep farm in New South Wales, Australia, since 2014.

But a high price point does not guarantee that clothes are sustainable. Given the recent investigation into how Loro Piana is said to treat herders in the vicuña supply chain, harvesting the world’s most expensive fibre from the llama-like animals, it’s clear that care for the people working on the land is as much of an issue as care for the land itself.

With all this in mind, it’s not just eye-wateringly expensive brands using regenerative materials. At the slightly less astronomical end there are brands such as Eileen Fisher, Mara Hoffman, Mother of Pearl and Another Tomorrow, with prices ranging from £95 to more than £1,000. Another tier down are brands such as Icebreaker and Smartwool – the only two brands Nokomai provides wool to – as well as Allbirds and Sheep Inc. But it is impossible to buy regenerative natural fibres for the price of high street garments.

Models walking alongside a giant pile of orange cashmere at a fashion show in MilanView image in fullscreen

The reason for the expense, according to Megan Meiklejoh, senior vice-president of supply chain innovation for a regenerative agriculture verification programme called Land to Market, is because everyone in a regenerative supply chain expects a premium: “The farmer obviously wants a premium. It’s typically why they do these programmes.”

An important and expensive part of market differentiation is ensuring the wool or cotton from a regenerative farm is identifiable the whole way through the supply chain. At the moment, this involves turning it from raw material into yarn in smaller, isolated batches. “Prices for regenerative materials are higher because the market share is so small,” says Amy Powney, a climate activist and creative director with Mother of Pearl. “If we have higher quantities being ordered that’s how we’ll get the price down.”

According to experts, there really isn’t time to wait. The widespread adoption of regenerative techniques is quickly becoming a necessity as the climate grows increasingly unstable.

A person holding a strand of wool in their hands View image in fullscreen

The challenge for the industry, and the world, is to act quickly enough to reduce emissions so that we prevent worse climate outcomes. Of course, at the end of the century, when it is projected we will reach 3C of heating, not being able to wear cashmere baseball caps may be the least of our concerns. “A lot of the things we take for granted won’t be available,” says Prof Mark Howden, director of the Australian National University’s institute for climate, energy and disaster solutions, including the supply of natural fibres, regenerative or otherwise.

Source: theguardian.com