Put it in (Carbon) Neutral? Why Fashion Brands are Buying Carbon Offsets and What it Really Means

Declaring your company carbon neutral has been the cherry on top for a plethora of small-scale already sustainable-minded brands. Reformation has called themselves climate neutral since 2015 and luxury fashion houses, like Gucci, have begun to enter the mix, now realizing carbon neutrality makes for good PR. 

There are a few ways to achieve carbon neutrality for businesses. Most commonly, it is achieved through the purchase of carbon offsets—essentially paying someone else to extract the amount of carbon a company emitted from the atmosphere. Thus, negating their emissions and essentially “cleaning-up” after themselves. 

While this is not the only method, it is the easiest and can be replicated on an individual level as well. For example, say a man takes a flight from Los Angeles to Hawaii, and he calculated the round trip to amount to roughly 0.78 tonnes of carbon. He can then purchase $6.18 worth of offsets to negate his carbon footprint for the flight (there are many carbon calculators available online to help you do this). 

But the offset business has come under a lot of fire. Environmental critics have accused carbon neutral companies of “greenwashing,” arguing that the purchase of offsets does nothing to encourage brands to reduce their gross emissions. Instead, offsets just allows companies and consumers to feel a little bit better about it. The whole industry is also notoriously unreliable when it comes to its bookkeeping. A well-meaning brand could believe themselves to be carbon neutral, but in reality, they have only reduced their emissions by half, at best. This becomes an incredibly frustrating enterprise for companies and consumers alike, especially those that are true sustainability advocates. 

Some of the most popular (and cheapest) offset programs involve planting trees. Surprisingly, something as simple as this poses a huge risk. “There has not been one [forest offsetting project] that we have found that has been able to provide the long-term, verifiable emissions reductions without [negative] human rights impacts,” Greenpeace’s Dr. Moas confessed during an interview with Fashionista, “Not one.” 

Forest offsetting projects have a permeance and additionality problem. The forest you are paying to protect could burn down, consequently negating its permanent value. Furthermore, it’s incredibly possible the forest you are paying to protect was never in any danger of being cut down, thus the additionality of your investment was negated, and trees were cut down somewhere else instead making the environmental project essentially worthless. 

All of this has given the offset business a bad name. Amazingly, they have still come a long way from where they were 10 years ago. When carbon offsets were a shiny new investment prospect, some companies were discovered to be lying to their investors, taking people’s money without lifting a finger to invest it in impactful projects. 

As for the guy on the plane, it will come as no surprise that personal offsets have been criticized as well. For the most part, personal offsets play on individual guilt and reduce the desire for real and lasting low carbon alternatives.  

So, with all this negative information, it might surprise you when I say offsets shouldn’t be written off completely. If nothing else, they do encourage conservation efforts and can become a steppingstone for more permanent solutions. While it is better not to emit in the first place, if a company is going to release carbon into the atmosphere through air travel and shipping, it’s better to try and clean it up. 

A lot of companies have used the unreliability of offsets as a reason not to invest in them or any other carbon reducing methods for that matter, but this is not a good justification. This is just a bad excuse. Other methods that have proven effective include switching to renewable energy, transitioning the office staff to fair-trade coffee, and using 100-percent recycled or minimal packaging. These programs have lasting impacts. 

Increasingly, regulation programs are put in place to help offset the negative offsets. With consumer awareness on the rise, fraudulent and dishonest companies are disappearing. There is still much work to be done when it comes to fixing the books (like transparency of financial investments and impacts), but if a brand wants a more reliable offset, they should consider investing in projects that focus on community involvement. It might not be as “exciting” as planting trees, but they will have a far greater and more enduring impact. 

When communities are incorporated into conservation efforts, it creates new and critically needed employment while promoting environmental and wildlife preservation. These projects can provide farmers and landowners with crucial funding to help them become more climate friendly. 

Many offset companies now involve third-party overseers, so you can make a more informed decision when purchasing your own offsets. Even though it’s better to commit to a low-carbon lifestyle, some things can’t be avoided and any little bit for the planet certainly helps. 

“Carbon neutrality is an important aim, but so is what lies underneath it,” Katherine Kremer, Christian Aid’s Global Lead on Climate Change, tells Refinery29. “We need to consume less, and more efficiently. In a fashion context, that may mean buying better-quality and wearing it for longer.” 

Climate change and pollution aren’t going to be negated by carbon offsets, not at all. It is, however, a step in the right direction. With a little more care and thought, their impact could be much greater. With time, they will lead us to perpetually greener commercial standards. And truthfully, this is something we desperately need. 

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