Is carbon negative the new carbon neutral?

As the fashion industry takes a closer look at its carbon footprint, some wonder if it is enough just to cancel out future emissions. After decades of increasing production and a reliance on fossil fuels, a complete 360-degree turn may be necessary. That is where the idea of carbon negativity comes in. Now, brands are looking at new technology and historic farming practices to remove more carbon from the atmosphere and declare themselves as having a positive impact, taking the idea of sustainability to new extremes.

Decarbonization is a top priority.

With the impacts of climate change already visible, reducing and removing greenhouse gas emissions from the atmosphere is increasingly important. From countries to private businesses, the urgency to decarbonize is increasing. Microsoft announced it would be carbon negative by 2030 and remove its historical carbon emissions by 2050. Tesla founder Elon Musk just launched a carbon capture competition with a $100 million prize. Fashion brands are jumping on board as well. In 2019 Gucci declared that it was carbon neutral across all its own and supply chain operations. And other recognized and beloved brands, including Reformation, Ganni, and Patagonia, have laid out plans to go carbon neutral, carbon negative, or significantly reduce their emissions over the next few years.

For brands that have already achieved carbon neutrality, the next trend is carbon negativity.

While many brands still have yet to reach any meaningful greenhouse gas reduction, there are a select few that have already declared themselves “carbon neutral” and are now aiming to go even further. Stemming from the concept that sustainability is continuously evolving is the idea that doing less harm is not enough. Brands have to create products that positively impact the world. How to get there is the question.

Going carbon negative is not without its critics.

Most brands aiming for carbon negativity plan on doing so through the use of carbon offsets purchased with third party sources. But these offsets are not always what they seem to be, leading experts to call for more regulation over them and the brands participating in offsetting schemes. Once adequate regulation is in place, though, offsetting can be a useful tool for fashion, particularly since the industry is reliant on material products. But, that could be changing.

Carbon offsets may not be necessary forever as material innovation continues to yield better products.

Just because brands have depended on carbon offsets to reach neutral and negative emissions so far does not mean the same level of reliance will continue in the future. New technology and old farming practices are turning materials and material production into carbon sinks. Covalent, launched in 2020, uses AirCarbon, which combines air, carbon from carbon dioxide or methane, and microorganisms from the ocean to make a physical material now being used for sunglasses and bags. Covalent has created a transparent system so customers can see how much carbon was removed from the atmosphere to make their products. It has also established a take-back program so all Covalent items will be recycled into new products, ensuring that once the carbon is collected, it stays that way rather than being rereleased. The AirCarbon technology took ten years to perfect.

Then there is a process that has been around since the Roman Empire but is just recently making a comeback in the fashion industry. Regenerative farming is growing in popularity, especially among brands using natural materials like cotton, wool, and cashmere. Using crop rotation and cover cropping processes, regenerative agriculture can revitalize the soil and increase the microorganisms that live in the soil, resulting in a natural carbon sink. Regenerative agriculture will also preserve farmable land, vital for a sustainable future. Brands like Reformation and luxury conglomerate Kering have laid out plans and launched funds to use more regenerative agriculture to make their materials. If the carbon naturally collected through the material production process is enough to offset other business operations, brands can claim carbon neutrality without purchasing further offset credits from third party sources. In some cases, like with Covalent, their carbon sink project can more than offset other business operations resulting in carbon negative products.

The Bottom Line:

As decarbonization becomes a bigger priority across all business sectors, some in the fashion industry are looking at new ways to remove emissions from the atmosphere. This has resulted in certain brands actually removing more carbon than they emit, creating a carbon negative product. And carbon negativity is just starting to grow in popularity. Before too long, brands will be eyeing projects that make the environment better instead of just doing less harm.

Keep Reading:

Decarbonising fashion is imperative. Here’s why (Vogue Business)

2025 Or Bust: Patagonia’s Carbon Neutrality Goal (Patagonia)

Carbon Neutral Strategy (Gucci Equilibrium)

Microsoft will be carbon negative by 2030 (Microsoft)

Stage 3: Restore and Regenerate (Kering)