In the race to cut carbon emissions some brands and retailers are in danger of “greenwashing”.
Clutching banners and shouting slogans, millions of angry protestors have taken to the streets in recent weeks calling for urgent intervention on climate change. From Sydney to Seoul, campaigners are speaking out against what has been labelled as an escalating environmental emergency.
Amid growing scrutiny, fashion is waking up to its ecological responsibilities – and with good reason. If no action is taken, fashion alone will use a quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050, warns the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. The United Nations has warned that if carbon emissions are not significantly cut by 2020, the chances of halting global warming will “swiftly diminish”.
Although Marks & Spencer launched its Plan A environmental programme as long ago as 2007, today sustainability seems to be in fashion. A wave of retailers, from H&M to Gucci, are pledging to dramatically cut emissions or go completely carbon neutral. This is achieved by taking steps to reduce their carbon impact, such as switching to renewable energy sources. Businesses can also pay to balance out their carbon footprints by investing in environmental programmes, in a process known as offsetting.
Investors are increasingly demanding intervention. This has huge implications for the fashion industry
James Murray, editor-in-chief of environmental magazine Business Green
Among those taking action to cut carbon emissions are luxury powerhouse the Kering Group, the conglomerate that controls fashion houses including Gucci, Saint Laurent and Balenciaga. Kering announced last month that the entire group will go carbon neutral across both its own operations and its global supply chain. Kering said it will offset its annual greenhouse emissions from 2018, on top of existing efforts to reduce emissions by 50% by 2025.
Swedish giant H&M has pledged its supply chain will become “carbon positive” – which it defines as reducing more greenhouse gas emissions than it emits – by 2040 at the latest. Denim giant Levi’s promised to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 90% across its own operations and 40% across its supply chain by 2025. Aldo is also focusing on going carbon neutral.
Appliance of science
However, cutting carbon emissions is neither easy nor simple. Offsetting can be controversial. Critics argue unscrupulous businesses can “greenwash” themselves to appear more environmentally friendly by paying to offset emissions while continuing to pollute. Experts tell Drapers that although offset can be part of an effective carbon-reduction strategy, the focus should be on reduction.
“Tackling carbon emissions is increasingly non-negotiable. As more and more businesses take action, it heaps pressure on those that aren’t,” James Murray, editor-in-chief of environmental magazine Business Green, tells Drapers. “Investors are also increasingly demanding intervention. This has huge implications for the fashion industry, where the current business model isn’t anywhere close to sustainable.”
He adds: “The first port of call for businesses has to be taking serious steps to reduce their emissions by pursuing science-based targets, rather than focusing on offsetting. Incremental improvements are not enough. Businesses should be aiming for full decarbonisation.
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“When they do use offsetting programmes, retailers need to ensure that they are supporting really credible initiatives with a clear environmental impact.”
Sarah Needham, a sustainability expert at London College of Fashion’s Centre for Sustainable Fashion, agrees: “Carbon offsetting is part of the story, but it is not the whole story. Retailers need to take a holistic view of the carbon hotspots across their entire operations – including the supply chain – and focus on changing business practices to reduce their emissions. They need to really understand the impact the business is having, including issues like the carbon emissions of the land used to produce resources such as cotton.”
To calculate their carbon footprints, retailers need to understand where emissions in their business are coming from and map them. This requires data on energy, gas and water use, as well as product and business travel.
Entrepreneur Edzard van der Wyck is CEO and co-founder of sustainable knitwear brand Sheep Inc, and co-founder of disruptive lingerie label Heist Studios. Sheep Inc, a direct-to-consumer business which launched this month, claims to be the first carbon-negative fashion brand.
“We work sustainably throughout our supply chain by using renewable energy and recycled materials, and we offset the carbon footprint of each of our sweaters tenfold,” van der Wyck tells Drapers. “Making each sweater produces about 32kg of carbon dioxide, so we take out 320kg by supporting biodiversity projects. Where we invest is vetted by an independent advisory committee and we make sure each project is heavily audited.”
He adds: “The conversation around carbon offsetting is that it can be a way of paying your way out of your sins. It isn’t as black and white as that. Yes, brands need to be making sure that their business and their supply chains are as sustainable as possible. However, big fashion brands can’t change everything overnight. It is also about what the industry can do today. Offsetting can be part of the solution if done properly. The other solution is shutting up shop entirely, which clearly no one is going to do.”
Carbon offsetting can be a way of paying your way out of your sins
Edzard van der Wyck is CEO and co-founder of sustainable knitwear brand Sheep Inc
Steps that more established businesses can take towards reducing their carbon emissions include improving energy efficiency, switching to renewable energy sources throughout the supply chain and using sustainable, low-carbon materials.
Footwear heavyweight Aldo Group has been focused on reducing its carbon emissions since 2013. It became the first footwear and accessories company to be certified carbon neutral across its stores, offices and distribution centres last year. The business was re-certified this year to reflect that the group is also now carbon neutral across its ecommerce operations and product transportation.
“The first time you map your carbon footprints, you need expert help,” explains Valerie Martin, vice-president of communications, culture and CSR (corporate social responsibility). “When you’re a business like Aldo, which operates in 100 countries across multiple channels, mapping emissions is not simple.
“My advice to those looking to cut their emissions is to be transparent. Don’t just talk about the areas where you’re doing well – address where you need to make change. The industry also needs to work together on solutions. Every retailer working separately and doing their own thing alone will not solve these complex issues.”
Fellow footwear specialist Allbirds has also pledged to go carbon neutral across its entire supply chain this year. As well as reducing emissions, it is offsetting a tonne of carbon for every tonne it produces as a business. Allbirds is also developing projects that will eliminate emissions entirely in the future.
Don’t just talk about the areas where you’re doing well – address where you need to make change
Valerie Martin, vice-president of communications, culture and CSR, Aldo
“We’re measuring our carbon footprint and doing everything we can to reduce emissions – for example, by using low-carbon materials such as Tencel,” explains Allbirds sustainability manager Hana Kajimura. “We want to drive our emissions to zero but that takes times and in some cases, the development of technology that doesn’t currently exist. We feel that we should be accountable now, which is why we also offset by working with trusted partners. It may not be the perfect solution, but the climate crisis is too urgent not to throw everything we have at it.”
Kajimura adds that setting carbon-reduction targets is potentially more challenging for emerging brands, which may not have 10-year forecasts: “Larger companies and organisations can set themselves targets for 2025 or 2040 because they have a clear idea of what the path ahead looks like. In some ways being a young company is a huge advantage [for cutting emissions] because our supply chain is less complex, but we’re only four years old. There are a lot of unknowns.”
Cutting carbon emissions is an important battle in the war to create a greener, cleaner planet. If retailers are to play their part, they need to ensure they have carefully mapped their carbon emissions before setting themselves ambitious, stringent targets. Offsetting can be part of this strategy, but retailers also need to focus on reducing emissions as much as possible. Sustainability is a marathon, not a sprint, and going carbon neutral requires long-term investment.