“Dirt’s a funny thing,’ the Boss said. ‘Come to think of it, there ain’t a thing but dirt on this green God’s globe except what’s underwater, and that’s dirt too. It’s dirt makes the grass grow. A diamond ain’t a thing in the world but a piece of dirt that got awful hot. And God-a-Mighty picked up a handful of dirt and blew on it and made you and me and George Washington and mankind blessed in faculty and apprehension. It all depends on what you do with the dirt. That right?” —“All the King’s Men” Robert Penn Warren
There’s a growing trend in the world of food production termed “regenerative agriculture.” The idea is that the more we do to promote healthy soil, better water use and increased biodiversity, the better the food we take from the earth will be, and the better the earth will be because we’re not doing harm to it. A pretty simple and sound strategy for farming success.
Given the natural tie to both food production and corporate responsibility, it’s easy to see why companies like General Mills are starting to make significant commitments and long-term partnerships in this area. When they commit to advancing regenerative agriculture on a million acres of farmland by 2030, it’s not only the right thing to do, it’s a sound business strategy.
But what about the broader context? While there are varying opinions on the subject and definition of “sustainability,” one thing that can’t be argued is that we’re going to need more food. Current estimates indicate the world population could reach 9.7 billion people by 2050 and that we will need to increase food production by 50 to 100 percent. That, in turn, puts a lot of pressure on the earth to produce more and more food from a finite amount of arable land.
Consumers are also showing increased care and consideration about the origin and journey of their food choices and its effects on climate change and the environment. According to the International Food Information Council’s 2021 Food and Health Survey, 54 percent of Americans said it’s at least somewhat important to them that the foods they buy or eat are produced in an environmentally sustainable way. And 42 percent believe that their individual food and beverage choices can have a moderate to significant impact on the environment.
The tie between food and beverage and a concept like regenerative ag is pretty clear. What isn’t as immediately apparent is how important soil health and sustainable practices are to industries outside of agriculture. Brands in fashion, construction and even aerospace are finding that they’re being asked to develop messaging specific to what their businesses are doing to leave the soil better, where all of their products in some way begin.
Don’t believe me? A recent article in Vogue Business started with the following line, “Fashion can’t afford to overlook regenerative agriculture.” That’s a bold statement about dirt in a seemingly unlikely place. At face value, it may seem like a stretch for a retailer like J.Crew to have an opinion on soil health and to sponsor a report on it. But, when the dots are connected—from the retail store to the factory, to the cotton supplier, to where the fiber was grown—it’s not.
Their contention is pretty simple. If the fashion industry is serious about cutting carbon emissions, it can use regenerative agriculture as a tool. Not only could it help the industry make progress against climate goals, but it also brings a positive, additive effect by helping capture carbon, improve nutrient availability, increase soil biodiversity and support livelihoods in local communities. Suddenly, it makes a lot of sense for J.Crew to have a point of view on soil—from a business, brand and communications perspective. When you think of it, almost everything made and everything that’s a component of some other product can be traced back to a farm, mine or land-based operation. As with food, consumers’ demands for plant-based and plant-derived products will only increase in the near future.
And, in our ever-more connected world, that’s going to be true for every business eventually. In a way, this means we’re all becoming environmental stewards, simply because our consumption of goods and services, as humans, can be directly related to the ground where it all begins.
This means more businesses outside of agriculture, food and beverage will find themselves having to craft messaging and tell stories on the subject and be ready to engage with informed communications across industries. Here are three things to remember when putting that larger story together.
Think big, but don’t overpromise Nothing can cause more damage to a brand’s reputation than not achieving a stated goal. And, when it comes to climate-related topics, there’s a wide margin of unpredictability to handle. It’s always better to identify your overarching goal, like reducing waste, improving efficiencies or fixing specific problems, even if it’s something that might seem unimpressive at first. A brand that reduces its carbon footprint by 10 percent each year is far less conspicuous than one that must reset a 25 percent goal year after year.
Think global, act local Look into the actual areas of the world where your products begin their journey. Find the farms and material sources where it all begins and determine what impacts are actually made at that specific level. You may find water quality, erosion or deforestation are challenges that need to be considered from a sustainable practice point-of-view, then develop your message around those specific stories.
Connect the dots Don’t get lost in the details or keep your communications strategy too high above the story. It’s all about providing transparency to the communities where your businesses operate and the consumers who buy your products. The more you can give your products their own “origin stories,” the more context you’re providing to the market. A strong brand will take pride in its successes and focus effort on its opportunities but never get caught just talking about one or the other.
Robert Penn Warren’s novel, “All the King’s Men,” is about the corruption of a good man, one who forgets where he came from, what he believes and how he becomes what he once despised. Every day, it becomes harder and harder for businesses to succeed without acknowledging, understanding and addressing their impact from the ground up.