Regenerative agriculture was once a backwater of experimental farming strategies. Now Timberland, and its parent company VF Corporation, have pushed it into the limelight by announcing the first regenerative rubber supply system in the apparel industry. The new initiative could help bring more clarity to the role of organic practices in regenerative agriculture, in addition to providing consumers with a new opportunity to contribute to a more sustainable supply chain.
The need for clarity on organic and regenerative agriculture
The U.S. Department of Agriculture credits the publisher, author, and organic farmer Robert Rodale with initially coining the term “regenerative” to mean purposeful farming practices that sustain renewable resources for future generations. Regenerative farming places a premium on building up soil health, conserving water and contributing to biodiversity.
Rodale passed away in 1990 but his influence continues through the Rodale Institute and Rodale Research Center. Over the years, the field of regenerative agriculture has developed into a holistic system that embraces community well-being in addition to sustaining essential resources.
Similarly, organic farming has come to signify practices that go beyond simply prohibiting the use of certain chemicals. Organic farming typically includes an emphasis on soil and water conservation as well as biodiversity.
Though organic and regenerative farming overlap in key areas, the organic label of the U.S. Department of Agriculture refers more specifically to the application of chemicals. Consumers who look for the organic label are not necessarily getting the full sustainability bang for their buck.
On the flip side, critics point out that regenerative farming does not necessarily preclude the use of synthetic chemicals.
Timberland shines a spotlight on rubber and regenerative farming
The new regenerative rubber initiative is just one part of Timberland’s goal of sourcing 100 percent of its natural materials from regenerative agriculture by 2030. That high-profile leadership role provides Timberland with significant leverage over the extent to which organic and regenerative farming could become one and the same.
So far, Timberland seems to be leaning on the side of both regenerative and organic practices. While not explicitly making an organic pledge in a press release announcing the new initiative, Timberland does include chemicals in a list of problems it hopes to resolve.
“Rubber is typically grown in a monoculture; it uses a single type of tree, degrades biodiversity and often uses chemicals or may involve exploitative labor practices,” the company explains. “Monoculture rubber plantations are also a significant contributor to rainforest deforestation across Southeast Asia.”
In addition, Timberland’s partner in the new rubber initiative is the regenerative agriculture firm Terra Genesis International, which emphasizes organic farming as part of its approach.
“Regenerative agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that increases biodiversity, enriches soils, improves watersheds, and enhances ecosystem services,” Terra Genesis explains, adding that “The system draws from decades of scientific and applied research by the global communities of organic farming, agroecology, holistic grazing, and agroforestry.”
The Terra Genesis portfolio leans heavily on firms that support organic agriculture, including the beverage company Rebbl, the superfood company Imlak’esh Organics and the skin care company Badger Balm.
As further evidence of an emphasis on organic techniques, Timberland also underscores the role of indigenous practices in regenerative rubber farming.
“Based on local indigenous knowledge, regenerative rubber farming incorporates multiple tree species to mimic a natural forest ecosystem. This revitalizes biodiversity and enhances ecosystem services such as soil health, water cycling, carbon sequestration and the creation of favorable microclimates,” Timberland explains.
“By supporting ‘train the trainer’ programs, Timberland and VF will help to scale local indigenous knowledge and transition more plantations to regenerative systems,” Timberland adds.
Farming for the Earth
Timberland also underscores the community benefits of regenerative agriculture, pointing out that “this approach also provides a diversity of yields that farmers can rely on for multiple streams of income, leading to increased resiliency and long-lasting positive impacts for the community.”
That is a key issue for the natural rubber industry. For all the consolidation taking place in the agricultural sector, about 85 percent of natural rubber production is in the hands of thousands of small, family-run enterprises in Asia. That puts community well-being front and center in Timberland’s regenerative farming mission.
The concern for community sustainability dovetails with accelerating concern over the climate crisis. Part of the reason for the explosion of interest in regenerative farming is its potentially powerful role in carbon sequestration, as promoted by the Rodale Institute.
Other leading consumer brands, including Danone and Anhueser-Busch, are also staking out ground in the regenerative farming field. In addition, there is growing evidence that carefully designed arrays of solar panels can complement regenerative strategies.
As regenerative agriculture grows, efforts like the Timberland rubber initiative can help set a high bar for a holistic approach that highlights organic practices and community health, too.
Image credit: David Clode/Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.