No holiday slump for Pangaia. The London-based startup is busier than ever.
This, it knew, wouldn’t be easy. Regenerative organic-certified cotton, which is based on a standard established by Patagonia and the Rodale Institute, made up less than 0.01 percent of all cotton produced worldwide between 2020 and 2021, according to Textile Exchange’s annual preferred fibers report.
Cotton, on the other hand, is a major feedstock for the Timberland collaborator. Whether in its virgin or recycled form, the fiber makes up more than 81 percent of its offerings.
So Pangaia decided to disrupt its own supply chain, joining forces with India’s Arvind in 2021 to support 1,000 smallholder farmers in the western state of Maharashtra as they shift to organic and then regenerative organic practices. It’ll be a five-year journey, one that will rehabilitate soil health, restore biodiversity and draw down carbon across 390 hectares, or enough to accommodate more than 728 football fields.
“What we really wanted to do is really deepen that relationship with our supply chain,” said Beckie Ellis, Pangaia’s materials impact manager. “So organic is obviously an eliminative standard, where you eliminate chemicals and you eliminate GMO, while we really wanted to look at how can we engage over the long term with projects to begin to measure outcomes as well.”
The project is part of Pangaia’s larger diversified cotton strategy, which it will be rolling out in greater detail next year. The shift from organic to regenerative organic is just one of three pillars. The other two involve adding more recycled cotton and exploring other fibers that could be viable alternatives to cotton.
Ellis said that the move to regenerative organic dovetails with Pangaia’s “Earth-positive” philosophy, where people and nature work in harmony. To put it another way, it’s an organic+ approach, one that clicks with Textile Exchange’s Climate+ and LCA+ strategies to include social equity and land stewardship in that plus.
The project isn’t Arvind’s first go-around with regenerative organic. The so-called “textile-to-retail” conglomerate participated in a Regenerative Organic Alliance pilot in 2018. Working with Pangaia is an opportunity to expand upon “holistically nurturing” cotton from “farm to fabric,” said Abhishek Bansal, its head of sustainability.
Because the farmers involved in the project were used to conventional means, they had reservations about the increased cost of production and potential drops in yield, Bansal said. Phasing them in through a “systematic capacity-building process” helped, first by raising awareness and “encouraging reflection,” then by promoting behavioral change by providing training and troubleshooting for everything from forage and biomass planting to conservation tilling. Now they’re in the stage of evaluation and monitoring for continuous improvement.
“Through this systemic process, over time the reservations of the farmers were clarified as they saw reductions in input cost and better price realization due to premium price and secured offtake,” he said.
The proof was also in the improved soil quality. Earthworms started wriggling around in larger numbers. The ground became less compacted, increasing water filtration. Spending on fertilizers and diesel fuel plummeted.
Pangaia declined to specify how much money it is pouring into the scheme, nor how much fiber it has committed to purchase. What the Flwrdwn producer can disclose, however, is that India is only the beginning of its regenerative organic ambitions. By diversifying future projects across different geographies, it will also diversify its risk as extreme weather events exacerbated by climate change continue to threaten agricultural productivity. There are at least four other “engagements” that will be forthcoming in Europe and Southeast Asia.
But the brand isn’t waiting for the five years to be up before it starts making use of the harvest, now in its second season.
Pangaia has released an “in conversion” capsule of its signature hoodies, sweatshirts and sweatpants, complete with a text block that highlights how the cotton supports nature and livelihoods. Doing so allows it to create market demand, driving the financial incentives that are making the transition possible. It also helps further the narrative that things don’t have to be perfect to have a positive impact.
“I think it’s about being really honest and authentic and humble about the innovation readiness and the journey that you’re on as a business,” said Maria Srivastava, its chief impact officer. “And customers and the industry really appreciate this—we’re not perfect, but we’re moving in the right direction. And in a year’s time, we’ve taken another couple of strides. We’re doing better.”
Part of “doing better” was pursuing B Corp certification, not the easiest of endeavors. By joining a fraternity of more than 6,000 other B Lab-certified businesses, including Allbirds, Ganni and Patagonia, Pangaia has now committed itself to using business as a force for good.
The brand scored 84.5 out of a possible 200 points on the qualifying questionnaire known as the B Impact Assessment. Companies need to snag at least 80 across five categories—governance, workers, community, the environment, and customers—to pass. (A regular business would come in at roughly 50.9 if it took the test.) Now that it has proven its social and environmental bonafides, it will have to legally embed its commitment to “purpose beyond profit” in its company articles. The results of its assessment are also publicly available on the B Lab website.
B Lab recognized Pangaia for having four Impact Business Models, a.k.a. IBMs, or mechanisms decided to create a specific positive outcome or benefit for one of its stakeholders. For one thing, the materials science firm is mission-locked, meaning that it has legally committed itself to stakeholder governance. It also garnered plaudits for resource conservation, land/wildlife conservation and toxin reduction/remediation, which Srivastava said is a “testament” to its progress.
“For a young company with purpose at its core, achieving B Corp certification is a major milestone, especially so early into our journey,” she added. “B Corp’s framework supports our ongoing mission to inspire and accelerate an Earth-positive future and ensures that we continue to do business differently, prioritizing the planet and its people.”