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Behind The North Face’s Regenerative Cotton Collab

The North Face is partnering with Indigo Ag, a Boston-based agricultural innovation company, to create a first-of-its-kind collection made with cotton sourced using regenerative farming practices that sequester carbon from the atmosphere, restore soil health and promote biodiversity.

The idea behind the collaboration, which is taking place at farms across the South and Midwest, is to upgrade the status quo, not only by undoing any previous damage to the land from which the cotton is extracted but also by actively improving it, creating a “draw down” effect on carbon that helps slow the pace of climate change.

The outdoor-wear company will pay a premium for the cotton, which it will turn into a range of logowear and other apparel items available for sale next fall. While this is a pilot, Carol Shu, senior manager of global sustainability at The North Face, says she expects the collaboration to be a longstanding one that will scale up over time.

The move is part of a broader ambition by the brand’s parent, VF Corp., to slash the entire conglomerate’s Scope 3 greenhouse-gas emissions by 30 percent by 2030, Shu told Sourcing Journal. Cotton is the brand’s third most-used material after polyester and nylon. While The North Face is tackling the latter two by converting them from virgin to recycled sources, cotton presents as-yet-untapped opportunity.

“[When] we came across Indigo Ag, we [figured] we could tackle cotton at scale and really focus on regenerative,” Shu said. “And that’s going to have a huge impact for us in terms of our footprint.”

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This isn’t the company’s first foray into the regenerative world. In 2018, The North Face pioneered the use of  so-called “climate-beneficial” Cali Wool, which its suppliers farmed at net negative carbon impact on the environment. But its impact on the brand’s footprint was limited.

“We don’t use a lot of wool; on our ranked list of materials it’s probably No. 20,” said Shu. “With cotton, it’s our first opportunity to really scale regenerative, and not only scale it within one region, because we’re a global company, but scale it in Central America and, in the future, in Asia, which will be immense for us.”

The Indigo Ag collaboration is the latest in a series of moves by the fashion industry to embrace regenerative agriculture as part of a larger climate-positive strategy.

Last month Gucci announced its Natural Climate Solution Portfolio, an “evolution” of its climate strategy that it says will protect and restore critical forests and mangroves, invest in regenerative agriculture within its supply chain and, in the big picture, “give back to nature.” Earlier this month, its parent company Kering rolled out a Regenerative Fund for Nature, a grant-administering vehicle, developed in partnership with environmental nonprofit Conservation International, that aims to transition 1 million hectares of current crop and rangeland to regenerative farming practices over the next five years.

The North Face is partnering with Indigo Ag to create a first-of-its-kind collection made with regeneratively grown cotton.
Larkin Martin, a participant in the cotton pilot, has been the chair of the Farm Foundation Board since 2019. Courtesy

Meanwhile, Timberland, The North Face’s sister company, is working with The Savory Institute to build a regenerative leather supply chain. By 2030, the footwear maker aims to source 100 percent of its natural materials from regenerative sources.

“I think regenerative agriculture will be important as long as climate change is important,” said Peter Bunce, head of cotton and microbials at Indigo Ag, which works with the Verified Carbon Standard and others to ensure both the robustness of its protocols and the accuracy of its reporting. “We’ve got to do everything to cut emissions and regenerative agriculture is the only scalable solution that I’m aware of that can actually take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and put it in soil.”