What is a carbon-neutral brand and what are the problems with it?

"The term carbon-neutral, equivalent to net-zero emissions or net-zero carbon footprint, refers to a situation where greenhouse gases (GHGs) and CO2 emissions associated with individuals, organizations or whole populations are either balanced by short-term compensatory actions such as carbon offsetting, or eliminated altogether by long-term radical systems change such as transition to an economy that does not rely on burning of fossil fuels (post-carbon economy)." This definition is thanks to the Sustainable Fashion Glossary created in partnership with Condé Nast and the Centre for Sustainable Fashion. The first step in going carbon-neutral is to calculate the exact amount of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions produced in a year. This includes all emissions from the beginning of the supply chain to corporate offices. Every flight taken, every light turned on, and every email sent out is supposed to be included in the total carbon dioxide equivalent calculation. Every brand emits carbon dioxide emissions, though large companies producing physical products produce more than say a one-person digital company. Going "carbon-neutral" is possible for every brand, especially as carbon offsetting becomes more popular. Then the carbon dioxide equivalent emissions can be offset through the purchase of "credits" to "balance" out the impact on the planet.


The most important step in going carbon-neutral is the calculation of emissions. Even though it is called carbon-neutral, the calculation is supposed to include all greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Since carbon dioxide is the most common greenhouse gas, it is used as the unit of measure, and the five other GHGs are converted to their equivalent in carbon dioxide, hence the term "carbon dioxide equivalent emissions." For example, 10 tons of carbon dioxide and 2 tons of methane are emitted when brand X operates for one year. The global warming potential (GWP) of carbon dioxide is 1, but for methane, the GWP is 25. The carbon dioxide equivalent of the brand would be (10 tons x 1 GWP) + (2 tons x 25 GWP) = 60 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e). Most companies that are serious about going carbon-neutral will know the difference between calculating only carbon dioxide emissions and all carbon dioxide equivalent emissions. However, since GHGs -- like methane, nitrous oxide, hydrofluorocarbons, and sulfur hexafluoride -- have a much higher GWP than carbon dioxide, they will cost more money to offset. Brands could take advantage of most consumers' limited knowledge and only calculate and offset carbon dioxide emissions, saving the company money and still letting them claim to be "carbon-neutral" since the term "carbon" is very vague. Luckily there is now a new certification to try and weed out the greenwashing brands from the real, sustainable brands.


In April, a small nonprofit called Climate Neutral, released a Climate Neutral Certified label to give an official distinction between brands claiming to be carbon-neutral and brands that are actually taking the appropriate steps to have net-zero emissions. The nonprofit offers help to measure and offset a brand's total carbon dioxide equivalent emissions. Climate Neutral works with a variety of companies from small independent fashion labels — like this week's brand Two Days Off — to software companies with revenue in the billions. Climate Neutral also requires all brands to submit an action plan to show how they will reduce their emissions where possible. This aims to ensure that companies are not just buying the certification through offsets, but that they are committed to making a change in their business practices. Once the brand has been approved by the nonprofit, an official Climate Neutral Certified label is allowed to be displayed. The new certification is meant to be a confidence booster for customers that the brand they are shopping from is not greenwashing. However, some have expressed concerns with the priority Climate Neutral places on offsets.


Before the creation of the nonprofit, there has never been an official organization that keeps track of carbon-neutral claims. Brands could roughly estimate how much they released and say they offset it, claiming to be good for the environment without much proof. Now that a certificate is officially here, greenwashing will be more difficult for brands who want to attract conscious consumers without making any real changes. With that being said, the changes that Climate Neutral requires are not exactly groundbreaking. Most businesses can offset emissions from the previous year and say they will make improvements in the future to get the certification. And since Climate Neutral has not been around for very long, they have not come across the need to address recertification yet. Right now, once a brand gets the label, it can show it off anywhere without needing to worry about anyone checking in on its' progress with emissions reduction. This means there is virtually no one holding brands accountable to remain carbon-neutral. Other organizations are helping brands neutralize their emissions, but Climate Neutral claims to be the most consumer-focused and easy to understand.


Is purchasing carbon offsets enough? The short answer is "no." Sophie Benson, for Dazed Beauty, writes about carbon offsetting alone, "[I] t's a bit like using a NutriBullet with the lid off every day then buying your roommate a stepladder so they can clean the smoothie off the ceiling. It helps, but it doesn't solve the issue in the first place." Purchasing offsets is enough to make up for last year's emissions since you can't go back now and change the past. But, for the future, companies need to be reducing emissions and only offsetting what absolutely can't be prevented. There also needs to be more research into what offsets are funding and how various projects impact the environment. Planting one tree for every t-shirt sold sounds like a good idea, but it is more complicated than just going to an empty lot and planting some seeds. There have been many tree planting projects specifically that have come under fire for not being as sustainable as they say they are. Only specific programs that focus on forest regrowth with a diverse selection of trees can actually provide long-term carbon dioxide removal. Monoculture planting or planting of non-local trees will not save the earth or cancel out a company's emissions. Other offsetting programs have been accused of not even trying to help the planet and instead using the money for their benefit. Since then, there has been a stronger focus on third party verified projects. It still remains up to the brands to ensure that their money is going to legitimate organizations and that it is accounting for all emissions produced.


Carbon offsetting does not necessarily deserve all the hate it gets. The idea is good if executed correctly, and it would be impossible for a brand to be carbon-neutral without additional projects. Unfortunately, offsetting has become a one and done thing that is advertised as being so cheap and easy every person and company should be doing it, an idea that Climate Neutral reiterates. There should be more communication between offsetting projects and the brands funding them. It would not only make brands more accountable and more involved in environmental protection, but it would also be a draw for consumers looking for transparency. Would you rather support a brand that says they are donating X amount to reforestation or support a brand that shows how their funding is being used?


Commentary:

Being "carbon-neutral" is not only the next big trend in fashion; it is the next big trend for all businesses. From food to housing, emissions neutrality is starting to gain traction in a variety of industries. In fashion specifically, single products or runway shows are claiming to be carbon-neutral thanks primarily to offsetting. The ease of offsetting and consumers' desire for more responsible brands means this is a no brainer project to undertake. Plus, "carbon-neutral" sounds really good. Most people know that too much carbon dioxide is harmful to the environment leading to issues like global warming. An item, or whole company, that doesn't contribute to global warming is a selling point.


After writing the phrase about two dozen times, I think it is safe to say that "carbon-neutral" businesses are the next big thing in sustainability. The trend is prone to greenwashing, but with more research into offsetting projects and the development of certifications from nonprofits like Climate Neutral, it can be legitimate. We are already starting to see big fashion powerhouses like Condé Nast and Gucci take on carbon-neutral pledges, and I expect to see even more companies jump on board over the next few years.