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Can the fashion industry ever offset its carbon emissions? And even if it supposedly does, is it just greenwashing? Keep reading to find out more!

Words By Varnika Srivastava


Carbon Neutrality:
What is it?

Carbon neutrality refers to a balance between carbon emissions and carbon absorption from the environment in carbon sinks. Carbon sequestration is the process of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and preserving it. Both global greenhouse gas emissions would have to be offset by carbon sequestration in order to reach net-zero emissions. Any structure that consumes more carbon than it emits is referred to as a carbon sink. Soil, trees, and seas are the primary natural carbon sinks. Natural sinks are thought to extract between 9.5 and 11 Gt of CO2 each year. In 2019, global CO2 emissions totaled 38.0 Gigaton. To date, no artificial carbon sinks have been able to extract enough carbon from the atmosphere to combat global warming on a large enough scale. Forest fires, improvements in land use, and logging, all emit pollution from natural sinks like trees into the environment. This is why, in order to achieve climate neutrality, it is important to reduce carbon emissions. The shift towards carbon neutrality and the reduction of carbon emissions has been embraced by many companies and organizations around the world.

Amazon and General Motors have committed to becoming carbon-free by 2040. Apple wants to be carbon-neutral by 2030, while Google appears to have been carbon-neutral since 2007. Carbon neutrality is a growing trend among large corporations — and even whole countries — but what does it entail, and is it something that the ordinary citizen can achieve? When it comes from an enterprise or a country’s economy, achieving carbon neutrality is a worthy target, but it’s also a worthwhile goal for people.

Since the fashion industry is a giant in carbon emissions, much scrutiny has been directed at it. Although other consumer products face comparable problems, the fashion industry is unique in that it not only undergoes, but also promotes, a rapid rate of transformation. Consumers are forced to purchase the new products to keep on trend with each passing season (or microseason). It’s difficult to imagine all of the components that go into making a dress, but consider denim as an example. According to the United Nations, a single pair of jeans contains one kilogram of cotton. Cotton is cultivated in dry conditions, so this kilo takes around 7,500–10,000 litres of water to produce. For one person, that’s around ten years’ worth of drinking water. There are options to make denim less resource-intensive, but in general, jeans made from cotton that is as close to its natural state as possible use less water and less toxic treatments in the manufacturing process. This means less bleaching, sandblasting, and pre-washing is needed.

Carbon Neutral Sneakers

Carbon Neutral Sneakers

With the recent rise in environmentalism, carbon neutrality has taken a front row seat. Gabriela Hearst, a premium fashion designer, staged fashion’s first carbon-neutral catwalk presentation during New York Fashion Week in September 2020. Gucci followed closely behind, announcing that it will become carbon free, with CEO Marco Bizzarri saying that “the world has gone too far.” Following that, Kering, the luxury retail empire that owns big-name labels like Saint Laurent, Balenciaga, and Bottega Veneta, declared that the whole group will offset 2.4 million tonnes of CO2 in order to “become carbon-neutral within its own activities and around the global supply chain”. It isn’t just high fashion that is attempting to reduce its carbon footprint. Allbirds, a footwear company, declared in April that it would levy a carbon tax on itself. Everlane, a San Francisco-based apparel brand, announced shortly after that it had developed a pair of carbon-neutral sneakers. 

Carbon Neutrality
in fashion 

But can carbon neutrality solve the oh-so-present problems in the fashion industry? The term “carbon footprint” is also used to try to clarify the concept of how much carbon a given operation releases into the environment. However, calculating a carbon footprint is far from straightforward. “You can measure the carbon footprint of an airplane, but in terms of [the carbon footprint of] a fashion show, the data doesn’t exist,” Maxine Bédat, founder of the New Standard Institute, recently told Vogue. For example, Gabriela Hearst considered manufacturing, architecture, catering, fuel, waste, and other factors. When it comes to clothing, calculating carbon emissions can also be difficult. According to Alice Wilby, a sustainable fashion expert, “in the past, companies did not have very clear oversight or regulation over their supply chains”.
One problem, according to Sheep Inc’s founder Edzard van der Wyck, is that carbon neutrality is not achieved. “The fact that we’re arguing of carbon neutrality as this alpha and omega of sustainability is troubling,” she says, because the apparel industry is expanding faster than attempts to change its environmental footprint will keep up. Carbon neutrality can sound appealing – and Wilby insists “it will succeed as part of a broader program” – but “it cannot be the end goal” until carbon emissions are reduced. It’s simply not possible.”

The Greenwashing Issue

Cutting carbon emissions, on the other hand, is neither easy nor plain. Offsetting is a touchy topic. Critics contend that unethical companies will “greenwash” themselves and become more environmentally conscious by paying to offset pollution while still polluting. Greenwashing can be a big problem while dealing with these issues. Due to a lack of a governing body and uniformity of laws around the world, the fashion industry has mostly emerged unscathed from divulging into serious environmental malpractices. However, it is important for them to recognise their responsibility in limiting emissions.