This summer Dr. Bronner’s announced its first Regenerative Organic Certified product: coconut oil from Sri Lanka.
Critics may ask, another certification?
Yes. As the term “regenerative” begins to be used more widely, and possibly replacing sustainable, it’s worthwhile to dig into what it actually means. Many brands have announced regenerative programs. But are they all the same?
Regenerative is catching on as people are realizing the shortcomings of organic, explains Elizabeth Whitlow, Executive Director of the Regenerative Organic Certification, a non-profit based out of northern California. With an emphasis on soil health, fair labor practices, and a business model that encapsulates many of the existing certifications, such as USDA organic, Fair for Life, Fair Trade, and more, the Regenerative Organic Certification, or ROC, hopes to create a new standard for responsible business — one that David Bronner, CEO of Dr. Bronner’s, refers to as the “high-bar, gold standard umbrella certification.”
“Our founders started Regenerative Organic Certified in 2017 precisely because so many players were entering the game and using “regenerative” to denote a range of practices, some that utilize harmful chemicals. The founders wanted to protect what we believe is the true intent of regenerative, which must also be organic (no toxic chemical inputs or GMOs) and must include the wellbeing of animals and people on the farm,” says Whitlow.
Dr. Bronner’s is part of a select group of companies and farms —- Thrive Market, Patagonia, Guayaki, Apricot Lane Farms, Alexandre Family Farms, Grain Place Foods, Horizon Dairy are among the others —- to have taken part in a pilot program that will help mold the guidelines of what exactly is regenerative organic.
“What’s driving our involvement in the Regenerative Organic Certification and what’s driving the movement behind it generally is the increased understanding and awareness about how agricultural supply chains can be a tool for reversing climate change,” says Bronner.
With a growing consensus that soil health is degrading thanks to industrial farming and a preference for chemical-based inputs, these companies are getting nerdy about mycelium networks, composting, intercropping, and biodiversity. ROC has three basic tenets: improving soil health, prioritizing animal welfare, and upholding social fairness. For some companies such as Dr. Bronner’s, these are not new concepts.
In 2007, as the world was waking up to the powers of virgin coconut oil, the California-based company went to Sri Lanka looking for a partner that could help them build out an organic and fair trade coconut supply chain. They found Serendipol in Kuliyapitiya, located in northwest Sri Lanka. Working with Dr. Bronner’s, Serendipol was able to source coconut from farmers that upheld the two primary standards: organic farming and fair trade practices.
Over the last decade, using the Fair Trade funds model, in which funds are set aside for community projects, Dr. Bronner’s and Serendipol have been able to run more than 700 projects and disperse over $ 1.2 million to health, education, infrastructure, and farming projects. Plus, the coconuts have been used in a variety of ways, enabling Serendipol to have revenue channels beyond selling oil to Dr. Bronner’s: the outer husks are sold and turned into fiber for rope and doormats. The remainder, consisting of smaller husks that are dented or unusable for these products, are given back to the farmers to use as mulch. Coconut husks absorb water well, and contain high levels of potassium — all while keeping the weeds to a minimum.
In addition, to encourage biodiversity on the farms, improve soil health, and grow other profitable crops, farmers are encouraged to intercrop the coconut trees with bananas, pineapple, ginger, cinnamon, and black pepper plants. All of this — the environmental, ecological, and social aspects of farming and a supply chain — are at the crux of regenerative farming.
“While the Regenerative Organic Certification standard affirms and codifies the ethical supply chain standards that Dr. Bronner’s already adheres to through organic, fair trade and cruelty-free certifications, the term ‘regenerative’ is becoming co-opted by the chemical companies and could lead to dangerous greenwashing. Hence we felt a strong need to be a founding member of the Regenerative Organic Alliance, to define and illustrate regenerative organic standards, so that both consumers and manufacturers have the shared language and certification criteria to choose truly regenerative organic products.”
Other regenerative organic products on the market consist of Apricot Lane Farms’ Avocado Oil, Lotus Foods Brown and White Rice, Patagonia Provisions Chile Mango, Nature’s Path Oats, and Grain Place’s Popcorn. While this is a small selection, there’s likely to be more additions soon as more brands go down this path. Dr. Bronner’s aims to get ROC on all its major raw ingredients and Patagonia has been piloting a program with cotton farmers in India to introduce ROC cotton to its clothing, thereby extending ROC to apparel as well as food.
So can companies use the term regenerative? Yes — as long as they do so responsibly. After all, the word regenerative is just a descriptor, much like organic or natural — which has also been misused. The certification, however, allows consumers to be ensured that the participating companies and their farmers are actually doing what they’re saying they are doing.
Fibershed, a non-profit in Northern California, which has been advocating for more eco-friendly supply chains in apparel is offering a free online course on Regenerative Textile Systems this year. For founder Rebecca Burgess, who has been liaising with cotton farmers in California (and beyond) for a decade now on their sustainability efforts at the farm level, the regenerative approach is an extension of that work:
“Regenerative fashion to me has to be rooted in answering the first question— ‘how are our clothes impacting the soil.. and, if we want to be regenerative, we want to ask ourselves how can our clothes benefit the soil?’” she says.
While the farms she works with may not be certified, she’s operating alongside partners such as the Carbon Cycle Institute, Resource Conservation Districts, and the Natural Resource Conservation Service to help farmers and ranchers continually improve their systems. “Regenerative agriculture is defined by a system that is fundamentally able to self renew, enhancing ecosystem function on a compounding basis.”
Perhaps one day these farms and producers will choose to be certified. But are they going beyond the basic tenets of organic agriculture, trying to build a more holistic ecosystem that lies at the heart of ROC? Yes.
Thus, as consumers begin to see the word regenerative pop up more and more, they’ll have to be discerning: if there’s no certification, it’s a matter of asking questions to see if the marketing is genuine — or is it just marketing.