Supply Chain Shakeup   //   August 24, 2023

How regenerative agriculture became the latest big buzzword in sustainability

The list of sustainability terms continues to grow, thanks in part to retail companies and their marketing messages. The big one dominating press releases today is regenerative agriculture.

From major retailers like Walmart and Madewell to big CPGs like General Mills and PepsiCo, countless brands are making pledges to adopt regenerative agriculture practices to help reduce emissions and support organic farming.

In July, Walmart and PepsiCo announced a long term partnership, pledging investing $120 million in U.S. and Canadian farmers trying to improve soil health and water quality through regenerative agriculture. But it’s not just retail giants that are investing in the farming concept as a way to improve sustainability efforts at the start of their supply chains. Eco-friendly CPG brands like Lundberg rice and Purely Elizabeth are also announcing similar initiatives, in turn making the term “regenerative agriculture” more mainstream.

In the last few years, experts say sustainability marketing has become riddled with greenwashing. But advocates of regenerative farming say that the practice is vital to producing more sustainable products, because it tries to tackle problems like emissions and waste at the very start of a brand’s supply chain — from the moment at which crops are grown.

What regenerative agricultural practices entail

Regenerative farming is a term that rose to prominence in the 1980s, and generally refers to a rehab-focused approach to farming and food systems that aims to improve the longterm health of the soil, rather than degrading it. Currently, the major organization that does certify products as regenerative organic is the Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA), a group of experts in farming, ranching, soil health, animal welfare and fair trade. The certification process is multi-step, per the ROA; It requires farmers to submit a producer license agreement with the organization, along with their current organic system plan. Furthermore, applicants must provide documentation of all current certificates and final annual reviews, which include “organic certificates, any additional soil health, animal welfare, or social fairness certificates.” 

There isn’t one way to farm or garden in a regenerative manner, and some of it requires farmers to learn new skills. Practices can depend on local climate and soil variations. They include using cover crops to cover the soil, rotating crops, spreading compost and reducing synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. A major part of regenerative farming practice is to reduce tilling, which could lead to unwelcome plants.

Many of the brands that have been leading the way in regenerative agriculture are those who have embraced other sustainability practices early on. Patagonia, for example, began investing in a regenerative organic supply chain and was first testing it with its Patagonia Provisions food brand in 2017.

With so many buzzwords facing shoppers these days, it’s important that “sustainable” claims be specific, said Christina Lampert, director of growth and innovation at HowGood – an independent research company that works with large brands like Danone and Nestlé on developing eco-friendly strategies. One hiccup with the term’s use in marketing, Lampert said, is that there isn’t a single definition for regenerative agriculture “because it depends on the location and crop, and whether it’s textiles or food.”

Lampert explained that with regenerative agriculture, a company must at the very least invest in more than Earth-friendly packaging or freight transportation. “On average, 87% of food product greenhouse gas emissions comes from the farm-to-gate stage,” she said. “When you break that down even further, 58% comes from on-farm and 21% from land use change.” 

Tackling sustainability from the start of the supply chain

In July, Madewell added regenerative agriculture to its annual fair trade and circular sourcing initiative. For its fall 2023 assortments, Madewell said it expects 12% of its denim line to contain regenerative cotton. Liz Hershfield, svp of sustainability at J.Crew Group, said that Madewell’s goal is to “be a pioneer “in the regenerative cotton space.” 

“With our material footprint being over 70% cotton, we determined that soil health, and ultimately regenerative agriculture, were important initiatives for us to focus on,” Hershfield said. In the pilot run the company distributed $800,000 directly to farming partners in India and the U.S., to help fund new skills and equipment needed for regenerative farming and third-party certification.

The company also pays incentives directly to these farmers, including a partnership with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, an nonprofit organization that supports black farmers across the South. “What we love about regenerative agriculture is the ability to make a real impact not only on soil health, which ties directly to climate change, but also directly to the people in our supply chain,” Hershfield said. 

Fashion brands of all sizes are also adopting the practice — ranging from Burberry to The North Face to Allbirds. And more emerging brands are joining; Last year, accessories label Janessa Leoné transitioned to building a textile supply chain based around regenerative agriculture to create its wool and pieces.

Startups are embracing the practice earlier on

While legacy consumer goods conglomerates are transitioning to regenerative farming, new brands are developing and launching lines using the practice from the get go.

Anytime Spritz, a spirit brand that launched in April, touts itself as a “farm to can cocktail.” The first production run of the spritzes was created as a test run, created with vodka made from regenerative wheat — which the company says was grown to cultivate soil health and help remove carbon from the atmosphere. This October, Anytime Spritz is launching a vodka ROA-certified.

Anytime Spritz co-founder Taylor Lanzet told Modern Retail the company is looking to “build a product line around re-gen farm partners.” Specifically, the founders are sourcing from independent BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ farmers as part of the brand mission. Building the product line in this fashion was a result of the founders’ experience in food and beverage supply chains; Lanzet and co-founder Maddy Rotman worked at companies like FreshDirect, Impossible Foods and Daily Harvest. Rotman said the two “saw first-hand how much impact the CPG industry has on suppliers’ operations and income.” 

“Our first product uses wheat, and was inspired by our farm partners who were looking into avenues outside of bakeries,” Lanzet explained, adding that when it comes to alcohol, organic is still just 1% of the industry. “There is also potential to use smaller grains or rye in the future,” she added.

Moreover, the farming concept is also attracting investors at a time when venture capital is increasingly difficult to come by. “We can show investors what it takes to operate with this ethos, and are currently,” Lanzet said, confirming that the company is in the process of raising a round. “It changes the fundraising landscape because we can go outside of CPG and alcohol.” 

Alec Jaffe, founder and CEO of Alec’s Ice Cream, said he was inspired to start the brand in 2021 after visiting a dairy farm run by Blake and Stephanie Alexandre. The company’s ice creams are ROA-certified, and carry the label along with the Land to Market regenerative seal and USDA Organic. 

“We made the investment to operate our own production facility, which enabled us to control our sourcing from the very start,” Jaffe said, which became a big part of the brand’s mission statement. “This was a big risk to take but it has paid off, and allowed us to create an amazing product with ingredients sourced from farmers leading the regenerative movement.”

But given the nature of the organic farming practice, production is vastly different than when working with a co-packer supplier. “It does make things a little more difficult, as there are just a small number of suppliers that are practicing regenerative agriculture,” Jaffe said, which forces the company to continuously develop strong relationships with farmer suppliers as it scales. Jaffe credits the quick influx of buyer interest to the brand’s unique supply chain.

Alec’s Ice Cream launched in Whole Foods nationally this year, which Jaffe said “has given us a great platform to spread our message and they have been very supportive in helping us grow.” Other grocery retailers like Sprouts, The Fresh Market and Erewhon started carrying the brand this year. Jaffe credits the quick influx of buyer interest to the brand’s unique supply chain.

Lampert said she expects more brands to start using regenerative farming for production. Not only is the practice an effective long-term sustainability goal, she said, but the certification also helps with attracting customers interested in planet-friendly brands.

“What we’re seeing in food CPG is that a lot of retailers and consumers are willing to pay higher prices for climate-friendly indications on products,” Lampert said.