Staying Neutral

Fashion Wants to Go Carbon Neutral. How Can It?

In the last few weeks, numerous fashion companies have announced plans to become completely carbon-neutral. But is it a reality, or just lip service?

Fashion Wants to Go Carbon Neutral. How Can It?

The idea of a fashion brand becoming carbon-neutral is not new. Reformation, the popular American sustainable clothing brand, has supposedly been carbon-neutral since 2015. Most recently, in April 2019, Allbirds announced that its entire company was going 100% carbon-neutral after its competitor, Tread, a sneaker line by clothing retailer Everlane, launched a carbon-free product. Then of course, Gucci shocked the fashion world when it announced going completely carbon-neutral.

The idea is simple: Carbon neutrality means achieving a zero net carbon footprint by turning carbon or greenhouse gas emissions into oxygen. This can be achieved by reducing emissions or offsetting them through funding renewable energy projects such as wind farms, increasing carbon sinks through planting trees and soil management, switching to more energy-efficient products, or collecting and destroying pollutants. 

Unlike sustainability, the definition for carbon neutrality is far clearer. However, measuring and accounting for it is much harder. It is extremely difficult to estimate whether carbon offsets are comparable to the carbon already emitted, and companies have been known to exaggerate benefits. Noe21 engineer, Chaim Nissim, has also said that since 2005, companies have been doing so to exploit the funds of the U.N.-run Clean Development Mechanism.

Allbirds, a sneaker brand popular among the Silicon Valley set, announced their carbon neutrality this past April.
(Image: Allbirds)

Carbon neutrality is picking up fast in fashion as something purely commendable — but it is not without criticism. The most obvious is that carbon offsets can be used as an excuse to not reduce direct emissions, which some would argue is more important and impactful. Of course, if a company were to genuinely lower its carbon footprint, they would have to pay less for carbon taxes (and presumably need fewer carbon offset credits).

Unfortunately, many companies profit from carbon trading and exacerbate pollution instead of reducing it. Many carbon-offset companies have been fraudulent, and some companies go as far as intentionally producing more pollution to earn from carbon offset credits, which are then sold again — sometimes they earn from this more than from their actual product. 

There is hope, however. Kering, just weeks after Gucci made its “pioneering” announcement, declared that its entire operations will also be carbon-neutral—meaning all brands under its wing (including Alexander McQueen, Balenciaga, Bottega Veneta, Brioni, Saint Laurent) are also to follow suit. It is working to reduce emissions by 50% across its supply chains. 

Previously, LVMH had set a target in 2013 to reduce carbon emissions by 25% by 2020, although Business of Fashion reports that the conglomerate has doubled the amount it contributes to its internal carbon fund which was set in 2016. Moncler, which tops the ranks of the Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes (DJSI), also pledged to be carbon-neutral by 2021 — albeit without details how.

Interestingly, most of the offsetting efforts of these companies rely much on forestry, which is sensitive to fires, not to mention very costly, and is limited to land availability. Gucci, for example, has partnered with the Redd+, a U.N. project that focuses on forest conservation in Peru, Kenya, Indonesia and Cambodia. In 2018 alone, Gucci dedicated USD 8.4 million on offsetting. 

This has already been met with plenty of skepticism. For starters, the figures as to what contributes to carbon emissions already vary between companies. Kering has outlined that its Standards for Raw Material and Manufacturing Processes will reduce only 20% of its reduction target, while Gucci claims that its supply chain accounts for 90% of its emissions. 

If that is the case, then a fashion show is nothing by comparison — and perhaps we can start there. Gabriela Hearst held the first-ever carbon-neutral fashion show this Spring/Summer 2020 season. Burberry followed suit in London and so has Gucci in Milan, which had over 2000 guests flown in from all over the world. 

Designer Gabriela Hearst held the industry’s first ever carbon neutral fashion show during the spring 2020 fashion week.
(Image: Gabriela Hearst)

For perspective, a return flight from Singapore to Milan alone emits 1.5 tonnes of CO2 per passenger, which requires 68 trees to offset. Assuming all the guests came from Singapore on separate flights, Gucci would need to plant 136,000 trees to offset a single show — that requires 12.4 hectares of land for moderate planting density. Assuming one tree costs USD 1 to plant, to offset just one 15-minute show requires USD 136,000 in capital. That’s just 1.6% of what Gucci spent on offsetting in 2018. 

But flights are just one element that goes into the making of a fashion show, and there isn’t much information available to contextualise the specifics. Show invites, transportation, hotels, food, stage design, re-sees are some things not accounted for. “You can calculate the carbon footprint of a flight, but in terms of [the carbon footprint of] a fashion show, that data doesn’t exist,” said Maxine Bédat, founder of The New Standard Institute. The same goes for specific materials like cotton, silk, wool. 

And if we are to truly understand, prevent and reduce carbon emissions in order to become carbon neutral, we have to begin by setting proper methodology to measure everything that contributes to carbon footprint. Only by doing this can we eliminate and replace items and processes with those that involve less carbon. There’s the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, Climate, Community and Biodiversity Standards and Verified Carbon Standard — all of which Gucci is working with, in addition to researchers from the University of Cambridge. But there really isn’t much beyond that. 

Perhaps only time will tell — but we must act now, says Marco Bizzari, President and Chief Executive of Gucci. “If we wait to be perfect, in terms of the calculation of impact or methodology, to me it’s just an excuse for not doing it,” he said. “More and more, we just need to act. We are not perfect [and] it’s not a matter of saying we are the best — it’s a matter of showing it can be done, and hopefully [others] will follow this path.”

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