The earth loses 75 billion tons of soil per year, and in the United States, soil is lost ten times faster than it can be replenished. Soil loss contributes to climate change and creates desertification, food scarcity, and water loss. Healthy soil has the ability to offset atmospheric carbon dioxide, and should be a key player in addressing global warming.
When soil is healthy, it can store CO2 that plants absorb from the atmosphere. Plants that grow in healthy soil give the CO2 they absorb from the air to microorganisms and bacteria in exchange for important nutrients like nitrogen. Through this process, CO2 can be stored in the soil instead of remaining in the atmosphere where it contributes to global warming.
If soil isn’t full of microorganisms and bacteria, then plants can’t put carbon back into the soil. This is the problem that much of the earth’s soil is facing; it lacks essential microorganisms and bacteria that have been eradicated in large part due to modern agricultural practices. Industrial agricultural techniques like monocropping, fertilizing, and tilling are responsible for much of the world’s declining soil health and desertification. According to the documentary The Need to Grow, 70% of the world’s soil has already been destroyed, and if it continues to be lost at this rate, farmable soil is expected to be gone within 60 years.
The good news is that soil health can be regenerated, which is crucial if desertification, biodiversity loss, climate change, and food scarcity are to be reversed. Many organizations, companies, and nonprofits are working on the issue of soil health. Farmers are slowly beginning to turn away from industrial agriculture practices toward new ways of farming. Organic farming is a step in the right direction, but even some organic farming practices can break up soil, which disturbs the networks of bacteria and microorganisms that are vital for soil health. When soil gets broken up, the topsoil layer dies and can’t sequester carbon.
Big results in soil health are coming from innovative practices like regenerative agriculture, cover cropping, agroforestry, no-till farming, and Holistic Management. These practices increase soil health and build soil structure that’s full of essential plant nutrients like microorganisms and bacteria. Regenerative agriculture is one of the best ways to support soil health. It focuses on crop rotation, topsoil regeneration, and biodiversity. Regenerative agriculture might include growing shrubs alongside crops (agroforestry), composting, and no-till farming. It focuses on feeding soil, not plants.
One of the best ways to improve soil health was developed by a Zimbabwean ecologist named Allan Savory. Allan created a way to stop desertification and improve soil health that’s called Holistic Management. Holistic Management is the holistic planned grazing of livestock, and has already helped revitalize over 13 million hectares of land globally.
When livestock are bunched and moved together, they breakup hard ground, which allows air and water to penetrate the soil. When livestock trample old grass, this protects soil from the sun and wind, while animal dung and urine enrich the soil. This whole process fortifies the soil and allows it to store water, carbon, and methane gas. Grazing must be planned to mimic nature, and planning processes divide land up so that animals won’t spend too much time in one place. The whole process supports a natural and healthy water cycle, mineral cycle, and community dynamic, and is effectively reversing desertification where it’s practiced.
It may seem counterintuitive to think the fashion industry can help regenerate soil health, but since the industry already relies heavily on soil for raw materials like cotton, there’s potential for the production of those raw materials to benefit the soil instead of deplete it. Imagine sourcing wool from sheep that are holistically grazed on land; who contribute to soil health based on how they’re moved around the land and managed. Or imagine cotton being sourced from a farm that grows organic cotton plants alongside other plant species to reduce water consumption and pesticide use.
Many designers and brands have recognized the problem of soil health and have committed to sourcing their materials from farms that use regenerative agriculture to grow their crops. The Savory Institute,which was developed by Allan Savory, directly partners with brands to help them source their materials from land that’s managed properly in regard to soil health.
Other nonprofits like Fibershed are taking soil health to the next level by developing regional and regenerative textile systems that promote “soil-to-soil” textile processes. This is done by expanding opportunities to implement carbon farming, by rebuilding regional manufacturing, and by connecting end-users to farmers. Soil-to-soil textile processes in the fashion industry are exactly the type of innovation that can help save soil health.
Support Regenerative Agriculture
Buying food from farms that practice regenerative agriculture is one of the best ways to promote soil health. A simple google search for companies that practice regenerative farming will give good results, and shopping locally is another way to support soil health. Buying fruits, vegetables, or meat from local farmers supports regional foods systems and sustainable farming techniques. Many small farms innately practice regenerative agriculture, which means the food they grow is helping nurture soil and allow it to sequester CO2.
Composting adds nutrients back into the soil and keeps food waste out of landfills. Over 97% of food waste ends up in landfills, and food waste that decomposes in landfills releases methane, a harmful greenhouse gas. Most cities have composting initiatives, and if none are available, bringing food waste to farmers markets or creating backyard composting systems are good second options.
Donate or Gift
Consider donating to organizations or nonprofits that improve soil health. Donating trees in someone’s name as a gift is another great way to promote soil health and combat climate change. Even offsetting carbon emissions through a company can help soil health, because many companies do this by planting wildflowers, fruit trees, or other plants that benefit ecosystems.
Buy Clothing Made From Natural Fibers
Buying used clothing will always be the most environmentally friendly option, but when it comes time to buy something new, choosing clothing that’s made from natural fibers is better for the soil. Supporting brands that source their raw materials from farms or ranches that practice regenerative farming means the soil used to grow those raw materials is healthy and storing CO2 in the ground.
There’s a certain type of satisfaction that comes from wearing something that’s been ethically and sustainably made, and there’s an even greater satisfaction that comes from wearing something that actually benefited soil that gives us all life. This is the future of fashion, or at least it needs to be if we want to continue living on a healthy and biodiverse plant. One of the greatest things about being human is our ability to make choices, and the choice of soil health lies in our hands.
Jessy Humann lives and writes out of Spokane, Washington. When she's not writing about sustainable fashion and why it's important, she loves to write poetry and do other types of creative writing. Her first children's book comes out next year. Connect with Jessy on LinkedIn.