Some Big Fashion Brands Are Going “Carbon Neutral”, but What Does That Mean?

Sustainable Fashion | Carbon Neutral


The last time you tried on a new pair of jeans, you were probably thinking mostly about the style, color, and fit – not the CO2 emissions associated with making them.

But with a number of major fashion labels announcing goals of becoming “carbon neutral,” there’s a growing conversation around how much progress is needed for the clothing industry to eliminate its carbon footprint.

According to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the $2.5 trillion global fashion industry is responsible for around 10% of total emissions, or, to put it another way – more than the shipping and aviation sectors combined.

In addition, our appetite for “fast fashion” continues to grow at a staggering rate. In 2000, the global clothing industry created around 50 billion items – and that figure has almost doubled over the last 20 years. And every new article is born in a factory that requires vast amounts energy, heat, and water – often in parts of the world where these resources are in short supply.

“To make just one pair of denim jeans, 10,000 liters of water is required to just grow the one kilo of cotton needed for the pair of jeans. In comparison, one person would take 10 years to drink 10,000 liters of water.” UNFCCC Website

Thankfully, just like the many other industries already striving to reduce CO2 emissions and embrace sustainability, we’re seeing popular fashion brands take environmental action – and invest some big money into a cleaner future.

But if you’re looking to reduce your carbon footprint and make greener clothing choices, you might find the terminology a little confusing. For example, when a clothing label claims to be carbon neutral – what does this actually mean? Is it still creating CO2 but then planting a lot of trees? Does it have a factory covered in solar panels? Or is it a case of many different solutions working together?

Well today, we’re taking a deep-dive into the new era of eco-fashion – so let’s find some answers.

How Does a Fashion Brand Become Carbon Neutral?

A common misconception of the term “carbon neutral” is that it means a company has produced no emissions at all – which is actually not the case.

When a company claims carbon neutrality, this means it has balanced out the greenhouse gasses it cannot eliminate by purchasing carbon offsets to fund projects that reduce an equivalent amount of emissions.

Each verified carbon offset – like the ones we offer here at terrapass – represents one metric ton of CO2 (or equivalent) that is removed from the atmosphere. Each offset is officially measured, counted, certified, and tracked to ensure it delivers the maximum environmental benefit.

There are three important steps taken when a fashion brand wants to achieve net-zero carbon emissions:

  1. Calculate: Before a company can talk about becoming carbon neutral, it needs to first calculate its annual carbon footprint.  This is a significant milestone by itself because it provides visibility to where the company has carbon emissions and how they can be addressed.
  2. Conserve: The next step is to eliminate carbon emissions where possible.  This is often a long-term plan that involves complex operational changes and major investments in new technology that can take years for a business to plan and execute.
  3. Offset: The final step is purchasing carbon offsets to neutralize emissions that could not be eliminated in a given year. Offsets provide critical funding to sustainability projects that reduce carbon emissions in the atmosphere. Companies will often rely more heavily on carbon offsetting in the early years of a carbon neutrality plan and reduce their carbon offset needs over time as they increasingly eliminate emissions.

As an example, Danish fashion label Ganni purchases carbon offsets in addition to “Ganni Labs”, an initiative helping the company to reach new levels of sustainability, complete with a list of 44 environmental goals. The company has since made it clear that achieving carbon-neutrality is not merely a desire – but a necessity:

“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.” Nicolaj Reffstrup, Founder of Ganni

And so, while carbon-neutral fashion brands will adopt a variety of measures – they are each advancing the larger trend of climate-friendly clothing. And considering that annual fashion sales continue to rise, the use of carbon offsets to minimize the industry’s environmental impact is clearly a step in the right direction.

What Do Carbon Offset Projects Involve?

Now that you have a clearer idea of what being carbon neutral means – it’s understandable if you’re still not entirely sure what that actually involves.

As we covered in a recent article, carbon offset projects can take many different forms – but all with the same goal of reducing global CO2 emissions. In simple terms, a carbon offset is an action that either prevents greenhouse gasses from ever entering the atmosphere – or removes those that are already there.

At terrapass, support a number of certified carbon offset projects around North America:

  • Abandoned coal mine gas capture: Industrial systems that prevent methane gas leaks in unused mines from leaking into the atmosphere.
  • Farm power: Facilities to help farmers capture methane gas from decomposing animal waste and convert it into clean energy.
  • Landfill gas capture: Special pipelines and equipment to capture methane gas leaking from landfill sites and then either destroy it or convert it into clean energy.
  • Forestry management: Initiatives that maintain and improve the growth of natural forest areas, and enhance their ability to sequester CO2 from the atmosphere.

When a fashion brand invests in carbon offsets, the benefits also extend beyond merely balancing its CO2 footprint. The sale of carbon offsets also helps to sustain and expand existing sustainability projects – and can even fund the creation of entirely new ones that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.

How Else Can Brands Reduce Fashion Industry Carbon Emissions?

With so much recent focus on climate change and global warming, we’re now seeing virtually every aspect of the fashion supply chain under scrutiny to change for the better.

And in addition to purchasing carbon offsets to balance their CO2 emissions, many of the world’s leading sustainable clothing brands are also making big changes across different levels of their operations:

  • Organic fabrics: Many brands are realizing the environmental benefits of organic cotton and other materials, which are free from artificial chemicals and require far less water and energy to manufacture.
  • Recycled materials: There has been a rapid shift towards using recycled and reclaimed materials, which typically have a much smaller carbon footprint than virgin materials. American clothing brand Patagonia claims that its recycled cotton has a 70% smaller carbon footprint than traditional cotton.
  • Renewable energy: More and more fashion labels are using renewable energy to power their operations, such as installing rooftop solar panels, signing green energy deals with utilities, or purchasing renewable energy credits (RECs). There’s also a growing focus on energy-efficiency in factories – relating to equipment, lighting, heating, and packaging – to reduce the overall electricity demand.

In 2019, global luxury brand Gucci announced it had become carbon neutral using a combination of renewable energy, changes to its design and manufacturing processes, energy efficiency measures, and investments into carbon offset programs.

Gucci’s CEO, Marco Bizzari, said that while the industry still has a long way to go before achieving true sustainability, it was critical for his company to set the wheels in motion:

“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.”

As we’ve seen recently in the tech sector, market leaders that embrace sustainability often create a ripple effect that spreads across their entire industry. And with many of the world’s leading fashion brands either achieving or pledging carbon-neutrality, we’re confident that this movement will only continue to gain momentum.

What Are the Best Ways to Embrace Sustainable Fashion?

Sustainable Fashion

With all this talk of fashion industry carbon emissions, it can be easy to forget that we as consumers are the strongest influencers of corporate behavior.

Of course, you can buy directly from brands that are doing the right thing by the environment – but you can also reduce your clothing’s CO2 emissions in many other ways:

  • Support carbon-neutral and fairtrade clothing brands.
  • Buy clothing from local designers and manufacturers to minimize shipping and transport emissions.
  • Buy second-hand clothing from thrift stores, local markets, or your family and friends.
  • Repair your damaged clothes instead of throwing them away.
  • Buy high-quality clothing that you can keep and wear for a long time.
  • Wash your clothes in cold water, and try to air-dry them instead of using an electric dryer.

And of course, if you want to reduce your carbon footprint even further, you can also invest in personal carbon offsets that support sustainability projects across America.

If you’d like a clearer picture of your annual CO2 emissions, you can use the terrapass carbon footprint calculator to measure your climate impact – and then restore the natural balance by selecting from our range of certified carbon offsets.

Despite the challenges that still lie ahead, it’s encouraging to see the fashion industry taking some tremendous strides towards a sustainable future. And with some of the biggest brands leading by example – combined with growing consumer awareness – we hope it’s not long before carbon-neutral clothing is not just in demand – but the new normal.

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