Fashion Is Increasingly Going Carbon Neutral, But What Does That Even Mean?

Designed by Meg O'Donnell
Earlier this year, Extinction Rebellion (XR) launched a campaign which called on the British Fashion Council to cancel London Fashion Week. This demand wasn’t met; as a result, protestors staged ‘die-ins’ and a ‘fashion week funeral’, urging the fashion industry to take drastic action – and quickly.
Although SS20 was largely business as usual, there were indications that the BFC is taking the climate crisis – and fashion’s devastating environmental impact – seriously. First, there was an increased focus on independent, sustainably-minded designers. Then there was the Positive Fashion Space, which housed a discussion amongst industry experts (including XR reps) about potential solutions. Finally, there was the rise of ‘carbon neutral’ fashion shows, a byproduct of (French luxury group) Kering’s pledge to “become carbon neutral within its own operations and across the entire supply chain.”
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This might sound like huge progress on paper, but a lack of public education on sustainability means that terms like ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘negative emissions’ are difficult to unpack. It’s worth asking: what does this pledge look like in practice? More importantly – is it enough?
In a nutshell, ‘carbon neutrality’ is achieved by calculating your carbon emissions and then doing whatever it takes to balance them out, or ‘offset’ them. There are several ways to do this, but generally it involves donating to charities which plant new trees, or reduce emissions through energy efficiency. There are online calculators to help with this on an individual level, but when it comes to calculating the carbon footprint of fashion, there’s more to consider.
Sara Arnold, a representative of XR’s Fashion Boycott team, breaks this down further: “Brands are saying that they have carbon emissions which are essential; that instead of cutting them out, they’ll offset. So you calculate: there were that many flights taken, so we’ll plant this many trees. But carbon emissions have knock-on effects which should be taken into account, and there are feedback loops. We’re getting closer to tipping point.” In other words, there are external factors to consider – she gives the example of a worker who lands a job planting trees, and celebrates by booking a holiday for his family, thus upping his emissions.
Katherine Kramer, Christian Aid’s Global Lead on Climate Change, concurs that calculation requires complicated questions, of which she lists a few examples: “How are cotton and other materials being grown? What chemical inputs are going into them? Are you using fossil fuel-based materials, like nylon and polyester? What are the emissions profiles of the sheep creating the wool? There are all these basic questions on an agricultural level, and then when you move through the supply chain with transport and processing.”
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The logistics of carbon neutrality are tricky. Gabriela Hearst spoke to Vogue about her carbon neutral SS20 show, explaining that she hadn’t yet figured out how to cut down on emissions produced by transporting editors to the show. It’s also worth noting that some brands have been carbon neutral for years – most notably GANNI, which introduced its ‘Climate Compensated’ label back in 2016. But similar examples are tricky to find because, at least until now, companies have rarely shouted about it.
“We’ve been careful, because this campaign could give brands a reason to do more greenwashing,” says Laura, another XR representative. “That goes back to the carbon neutral pledge: it’s obviously good, but if we’re just talking about offsetting, it’s doing absolutely nothing. It’s buying you way out.” ‘Greenwashing’ was coined to describe companies declaring themselves eco-friendly without taking action, but Laura argues it should also apply to brands drip-feeding news of positive solutions without acknowledging the bigger issues. “We keep saying that consumers aren’t aware of fashion’s negative impact, but it’s because we aren’t talking about it. We’re only talking about what good we’re doing, and that is greenwashing; we’re leaving out 90% of the truth.”
Discussions of sustainability in fashion can be vague, so she advocates for a shift in language and an acknowledgement that “every company should be responsible for the damage they’re doing – a lot of us confuse ‘sustainability’ with ‘responsibility’, but [offsetting] isn’t the same as being sustainable.”
To its credit, Kering has pledged to work towards reduction; LVMH similarly established an Internal Carbon Fund back in 2015 alongside a target which, as of 2018, was on track to be met. But there is no easy answer. In fact, Katherine even explains that ‘negative emissions’, which suck carbon dioxide from the air in a bid to offset, come with their own problems. “There are real issues, because most of the technology or approaches to negative emissions are unproven at scale, or potentially quite energy-intensive. Some people have quite pie-in-the-sky ideas of what is possible, but there are lots of really crunchy questions there.”
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So, what is the answer? “Carbon neutrality is an important aim, but so is what lies underneath it,” says Katherine. “We need to consume less, and more efficiently. In a fashion context, that may mean buying better-quality and wearing it for longer.” It’s also important to broaden the conversation past individual acts, like reducing meat consumption or making small lifestyle changes. “That’s useful, but it needs to be coupled with big-picture conversations about companies and the wider economy.”
Sara and Laura agree, adding that they see a “citizen’s assembly which would decide on climate and ecological justice issues” as another potential step forward. Both acknowledge that carbon neutrality is better than nothing, and say that, over the course of Fashion Week, their “message was really coming through – people were starting to talk about it and react in a more urgent way.”
The next step is a campaign called ‘Fashion, Tell The Truth’, which calls on the industry to “think about necessity rather than indulgence.” Sara continues: “This is not about the fashion industry being transparent, it’s about thinking what it would use its platform for if it knew that all life on earth depended on it. I don’t think it’s appropriate to be advertising things that people don’t need, or trying to increase demand. It should be using advertising to educate people on the situation that we’re in.”
Ultimately, although carbon neutrality is a small step forward, it’s one tied more to corporate responsibility than it is to actual sustainability. It’s indicative of fashion’s tendency to stick to small steps forward, but Sara argues that it’s not enough. “I’m sorry, but it’s too late. We appreciate everyone making incremental change but ultimately, it’s not going to save us.”
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