With fashion still bearing a heavy carbon footprint, carbon labeling for clothing is starting to see a comeback among sustainable fashion advocates echoing government action on climate.
Carbon footprint labels have become a visible signal that a product or company is accounting for its greenhouse gas emissions.
Today’s labeling efforts borrow from past learnings like the pioneering Carbon Reduction Label for textiles launched in the U.K. in 2009. The groundbreaking label — which offered a visible tag on a range of printed T-shirts and sweatshirts — detailed the entire carbon footprint of the garment from materials to manufacturing, to use and disposal. It was first used by wholesaler Continental Clothing Company as part of the independent London-based environmental nonprofit Carbon Trust’s pilot program.
But it since fell out of use. At the time, a study from Lund University confirmed that while carbon labeling offers a promising combatant to generic green claims — timing is everything. A lack of consumer familiarity would dent efforts.
So what’s changed in the last decade? Experts say it’s a sense of trendiness.
“The fashion industry is probably not going to be the one that solves the climate crisis globally,” said Hana Kajimura, sustainability head at Allbirds, in a Clubhouse chat with WWD. Stressing the need for an overhaul of transportation (which is the largest driver of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S.) and food systems, Kajimura affirmed, however, that “we can make the topic of climate change fashionable.”
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In 2020, two-thirds of consumers said they supported carbon labeling on products, according to an international survey by Carbon Trust of more than 10,000 consumers across France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, the U.K. and the U.S.
In April, Allbirds launched its “Tread Lighter” program and carbon footprint numbers. The numbers appear on every product, online and at retail so customers know each shoe’s carbon impact throughout its life cycle across materials, manufacturing, use and disposal. (Transportation varies widely and is not included).
The initiative is what Joey Zwillinger, cofounder of Allbirds, called the “next chapter” after the brand announced it went fully carbon-neutral last year.
Allbirds carbon footprint number as part of its Tread Lighter aims. Courtesy
“In a lot of ways, Allbirds has been regulating itself whether it’s around carbon neutrality and a carbon tax on [ourselves],” Kajimura said. I think, ultimately, we need government to step in. The industry ultimately can’t regulate itself.” She compared carbon labels to calories saying “the same thing needs to happen with clothing” in terms of widespread familiarity and regulation.
The Federal Trade Commission has typically avoided defining sustainability at all costs.
Amid stalled efforts, Allbirds wants to help fast-track the industry with its open-sourced carbon footprinting knowledge — offering up spreadsheets, webinars and more. So far, Kajimura said the reaction is positive but it “might take some time to see formal adoption.”
Industry veterans and climate-focused nonprofits tend to agree that interest and traction on carbon regulation has taken time. “I can tell you it felt exactly the same way in 2006,” said Austin Whitman, chief executive officer of Climate Neutral. He has worked for the last 20 years in climate and clean energy.
But the timing may be right for a revamp now.
This year, two-year-old nonprofit Climate Neutral will certify over 275 brands across 12 industries, offsetting more than 1 million tonnes of CO2 (300 percent more than the previous year). “Many of which would not be investing in carbon offsets and carbon reduction,” Whitman said.
Climate Neutral aims to provide a credible label that shows a company is making efforts on climate change. When customers see the Climate Neutral label, they know a brand has achieved zero net carbon emissions by cleaning up its historical emissions and is “doing things with highly sustainable consumers in mind,” according to Whitman.
While he affirmed companies are “at varying stages in their climate responsibility journey,” the hope is to ensure a common vocabulary around climate neutrality and, at the very least, “someone within every company should know Scope 3 [indirect] emissions” this year.
It’s important to note that fashion has already been offsetting its impact.
U.N.-backed REDD+ forestry projects from The Forest Carbon Partnership Facility dominate Kering and Gucci’s offsetting portfolio. VF Corp. and Prada ventured into green bonds to offload impact and invest in sustainable projects. Meanwhile, regenerative agriculture championed by the likes of L.A.-based label Christy Dawn and nonprofit Slow Factory Foundation has become a trend all its own in helping farmers sequester carbon in the soil.
If companies are already doing the work in accounting, then is the pursuit of a carbon label an added pain?
“We don’t have any data on whether companies have decided to adjust wholesale or retail prices after getting certified,” Whitman said. “For most companies that we certify, climate neutrality is under half a percent of revenue.”
Already dozens of fashion and apparel brands, including Continental Clothing, Allbirds, Reformation, Ministry of Supply, and Mate The Label, are certified with Climate Neutral.
The Earth Positive line by Continental Clothing adopted Climate Neutral certification in later years. Courtesy
The nonprofit built a certification framework and toolkit for businesses looking to measure, understand and negate their carbon footprints. Certification is a guided three-step process aligned with third-party international standards from global sustainability organization ISEAL or the PAS 2060 climate neutrality standard, for example. The impact is measured in terms of tonnes of carbon, and a brand can choose to disclose how much is spent offsetting per product (as Allbirds does) as well as total spend on carbon credits (as Reformation does), along with projects funded.
Similar to B Corp’s directory, brand profile pages dot Climate Neutral’s searchable directory. Being climate neutral isn’t unaffordable even for high-quality carbon credits, according to Whitman. Allbirds emits roughly 10.0 kilograms of carbon dioxide per shoe, offsetting $0.08 per unit of carbon per shoe in 2020, per Climate Neutral. Meanwhile, Reformation reported spending $159,122 on carbon credits to offset its emissions.
Designed to be simple, the Climate Neutral label has no carbon content number and minimal text. Brands can include a URL or hangtag that explains more of the story, details Scope 1, 2 (owned and operated emissions) and 3 emissions or offsetting targets.
Echoing Kajimura in equating the label to something seen in a grocery store,” Whitman said, “Most consumers are going to interact with our label no more than 45 seconds per week….Our hope is that the common vocabulary around climate neutrality will be easy for consumers to understand.” “For too long,” he added, “businesses have been exporting [their] emissions. It’s time they imported their benefits.”
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