Fashion brands are trapped into greenwashing their part in the climate emergency
By Artemis Crowley, stylist and activist
Edited by Bel Jacobs, Fashion Act Now
According to cult brand Reformation, being ‘carbon neutral’ is ‘one of the easiest things we do to be sustainable’. H&M has set an ambitious target to make the first two tiers of its supply chain ‘carbon neutral’ by 2030. Gabriela Hearst became the first brand to stage a carbon-neutral fashion show during Spring Summer 2020 New York Fashion Week, followed by Burberry in London. Gucci declared its operations, supply chains and its Milan Fashion Week show carbon neutral. Increasingly, brands are adopting carbon offsetting as the answer to fashion’s problematic role in the climate emergency. Is offsetting fashion’s latest trend?
It shouldn’t be. Brand messaging often promotes an incorrect, dubiously comforting, interpretation of just how much impact offsetting has on climate emissions. Because, according to climate scientist Kevin Anderson, it’s not as much as they say. Carbon offsetting measures depend on predictions about future scenarios which are beyond our control. For example, there’s no guarantee that the trees planted to enable consumers to buy ‘guilt-free’ leather bags or fast fashion t-shirts will be alive for long enough to have the effect offsetters imagine. At the same time, incorrect planting techniques, forest fires and droughts can quickly eliminate any supposed benefits.
Plus, offsetting does nothing to reduce emissions in the first place. Anderson explains: ‘the science underpinning climate change makes clear that the temperature rise by around the end of this century will relate to the total emissions of long-lived greenhouse gases between 2000 and 2100’. Offsetting emissions does not reduce them. As Christiana Figueres, architect of the 2015 Paris Agreement says in her book, The Future We Choose: ‘We are on the verge of atmospheric tipping points that are frighteningly unpredictable and irreversible. Every bit of carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted — no matter where in the world — contributes to the possibility of disaster’.
As Greta Thunberg notes in a podcast about her recent journey from the US to Sweden by boat, even if we were to stop forestry industry activities and use all the available space to plant trees, it would compensate for only a few years’ worth of emissions at current rates. An added complication arises: that carbon offsetting behaviours offer a psychological displacement of the immediate danger we face, lowering our likelihood to make the necessary structural changes to address climate change. As Anderson writes, ‘Offsetting, on all scales, weakens present-day drivers for change and reduces innovation towards a lower-carbon future’.
Just because a brand is planting trees somewhere on the other side of the world — and you should ask them where and whether the local workers are being paid for it — doesn’t reduce the amount of CO2 they emit. Offsetting becomes an easy way for brands to look like they care about the climate emergency without making any compromises or questioning fast fashion’s business model. And, because the general public’s level of awareness is low, brands — and other organisations outside the fashion industry — can get away with basically anything while they make claims to be carbon neutral or environmentally friendly. It’s greenwashing, pure and simple.
Carbon offsetting entrenches the idea that ‘we’ can carry on in the same way, often while foisting change on people who are less powerful and privileged (POC) rather than on those producing the emissions (mostly white people). For an industry that has proclaimed its support of Black Lives Matter so publicly, this simply perpetuates its historic ecological imperialism. “There’s a track record of environmental and human rights abuses occurring, because offsetting projects are being set up in areas where indigenous rights are not respected and lands are used without approval,” co-founder of Fashion Act Now, Alice Wilby, told the Guardian last year.
Responsible tree planting has its place; no one is going to deny that. But, with the extent of the emergency, it’s questionable whether any single form of ‘sustainable’ initiative in the fashion world can have an ecologically beneficial impact as long as it continues to produce new clothes, especially in current production models — and levels. As Marco Bizzarri, President and CEO of Gucci, admitted: “the best way to have zero emissions is to close the company …” Even using carbon offsetting to tackle ‘unavoidable emissions’ begs the question: does anyone arguably need more clothes? Any credible response, from any industry, to the climate emergency fundamentally needs to challenge the paradigm of unchecked consumption and exponential growth.
Fashion brands are amongst the most powerful in the world, with an unparalleled reach into global communities and undeniably effective ways of directing behaviour. Plant trees by all means — but what if fashion used its influence to highlight the climate emergency instead and to shift shopper behaviour, not only to making more responsible purchasing decisions but to significantly reducing their purchasing at all? And what if they pivoted core business models towards reparations to the Global South, towards regenerative farming methods and repairing and restoring a damaged planet, towards adapting to the changes to come? There’s a trend we’ve yet to see.