Decarbonising fashion is imperative. Here’s why
When cult Danish fashion favourite Ganni teamed up with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals accelerator last year, the aim was to create a carbon neutral capsule collection. That meant founder Nicolaj Reffstrup conceiving a line of garments that either negated the use of carbon emissions or, even better, helping to simultaneously remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere during the production process.
That work continues today with Ganni Labs, a working group driving down impact across the whole business that’s led to experimenting with the rental market and shifting half of the brand’s materials to recycled, organic or certified, with a target of 100 per cent within a couple of seasons. Achieving carbon neutrality remains a top priority.
“There’s no discussion. We need to get there, period. For me, behaving responsibly is a moral obligation. But it’s also an insurance policy. If you can’t create a carbon neutral collection or better than that in 10 years, then there’s no business for you,” Reffstrup says.
The fashion industry currently contributes up to 10 per cent of global carbon emissions, and the Global Fashion Agenda forecasts those emissions will increase by 50 per cent by 2030. It’s why carbon is a common thread of the UN’s Fashion Charter and the G7 Fashion Pact; the two major fashion coalitions aiming to drive change in the industry. Both are aiming for net-zero emissions by 2050. But challenges remain over how best to implement this and whether the fashion industry should be offsetting carbon via programmes like tree-planting or doing the tougher work of looking inward and reducing their own carbon emissions.
“Decarbonisation is the only option for survival,” says Laila Petrie, joint chair of the United Nations Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action and CEO of environmental organisation 2050. A zero carbon economy is both a planetary and business imperative in the context of reducing global warming and averting the climate catastrophe, she says. “It’s going to be vital to de-risk and to prepare your value chains and your customer for this altered reality where resources are limited and there’s increasing effects felt from climate change.”
In theory, carbon neutrality means fashion brands must both reduce their emissions where possible and offset the remainder of their footprint by funding projects to remove carbon from the atmosphere elsewhere. In practice, more of the latter has been the focus so far. At best, this means a marketing exercise coupled with investment to counterbalance the footprint of a fashion show, for instance. At worst, it’s akin to paying for the problem to go away while otherwise preserving the status quo.
A mitigation hierarchy
Luxury has made some early moves. Gucci announced its intentions to be carbon neutral last September, backdating all emissions starting from 2018. Parent group Kering swiftly followed suit. Burberry held a carbon neutral show in February 2020, in line with its goal to be carbon neutral in its own operational energy use by 2022. All three have set Science Based Targets — a reduction initiative that aligns goals with climate science.
Gucci says it follows a “mitigation hierarchy”, which is to avoid and reduce where possible, then offset anything residual. It does the latter through projects like REDD+, which focus on protecting biodiversity and forests.
Part of the reason for offsetting, though criticised for not being sufficient, lies in the enormous complexity, not to mention lack of data in the supply chain. There is also a lack of technology and innovation, brands say. It’s for this reason Marco Bizzarri, CEO of Gucci, issued the CEO Carbon Neutral Challenge last November, calling for the industry to continue towards reduction targets as a priority, all the while committing to offsetting remaining emissions in the supply chain, through nature-based solutions. So far, only The RealReal is among a handful who have signed up.
Footwear brand Allbirds is a step ahead of most, but CEO Tim Brown concedes the mission is incredibly difficult. In May, Allbirds announced a collaboration with Adidas that comes with an ambition to reduce the amount of carbon in an athletic shoe below 2kg, for instance. The industry norm is 13kg, he says. Allbirds has so far otherwise achieved 9kg.
“Even with leveraging all of Adidas’ resources, supply chain and global influence, we think getting under 2kgs will be the equivalent of running a two-minute mile. It’s that hard,” Brown notes.
Where Brown sees hope is in regenerative practices — farming that is focused, among other things, on isolating carbon into the soil. “Our belief is that nature holds the answer to solving the problems here,” he explains.
This is also where Burberry is focused; implementing regenerative agriculture practices with some of its wool producers in Australia. This is the first of its “carbon insetting” projects — a term counter to offsetting that is about investing directly within its own supply chain to help drive reduction.
“It’s about carbon capture, but it's also broader than that; it’s also about biodiversity, restoring ecosystems and supporting livelihoods of local producers,” explains Pam Batty, VP of corporate responsibility at Burberry. Nearly half of the company’s total carbon impact occurs within raw material production and processing, meaning focusing at this level, though it takes significant time, is crucial, she says.
Sheep Inc., an emerging knitwear brand that refers to itself as carbon negative, is only sourcing in this way. It is working with three New Zealand-based farms on regenerative methods to feed into its promise to take at least 10x more carbon out of the atmosphere for every sweater it produces.
“Carbon neutrality is not enough, we have to have a regenerative impact on the environment,” says CEO and co-founder Edzard van der Wyck. “We wanted to signal to the industry that this is the next step it needs to take; to prove there is a model that can exist right now where you can actually be carbon negative.”
“There is a scenario for the next 10 years, where fashion brands really incorporate regenerative agriculture into their sourcing practices, and in doing so deliver significant reduction in their scope three emissions. That’s what is needed,” says Dr Sally Uren, CEO of Forum for the Future.
For true progress she believes carbon negative — or climate positive — impact from some businesses is crucial in order to balance out the fact many others will not adopt SBTs at all. “What we need is a radical rather than incremental approach to decarbonisation. The latter won’t cut it anymore.”