Fashion Brands Are Claiming to Be ‘Carbon Neutral’ – But Is It Greenwashing?

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There was a time when climate change seemed like one piece on the checkerboard of world problems, a piece perhaps sandwiched between war in a remote country and the fact that the bees were dying, which you knew you were supposed to be upset about even if you weren’t sure exactly why.

But then a terrifying article in New York Magazineabout the soon-to-be “uninhabitable earth” went viral, and teens all over the world ditched school to protest in the streets, and fires ravaged California and storms pummeled the Bahamas, and a bunch of UN scientists told us we had a little over a decade to turn things around. In short: The zeitgeist began to change. For many, climate change went from feeling like one problem piece out of many to the board on which the whole game is played.

“Climate change is the biggest problem of our generation and the most urgent one to solve,” Hana Kajimura, a sustainability analyst at Silicon Valley’s favorite sneaker company, Allbirds, tells Fashionista over the phone. She’s not alone in her thinking.

Just a few months prior to our conversation, Allbirds had announced that it was going “100% carbon neutral” as a way of reckoning with the fact that it, like every other brand or business, is an emitter of some of the greenhouse gases (or GHGs) causing global warming. The news came days after Everlane launched its first ever “carbon-neutral” product. And they were both preceded by Reformation, which had been calling itself carbon neutral since 2015.

Not long after, these millennial-friendly labels known for their sustainability-centric marketing were joined by their luxury peers: Gabriela Hearst, whose $6,000 handbags have become a fixture in the wardrobe of Duchess of Sussex Meghan Markle, claimed to host the first ever carbon-neutral runway show at New York Fashion Week. Gucci declared its operations – including its extensive global supply chain and its latest fashion show – 100% carbon neutral earlier this month. And on Tuesday, Kering, the luxury conglomerate behind Gucci, Balenciaga and Saint Laurent, announced that it too was committing to carbon neutrality.

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If climate change is caused by releasing gases like carbon into the atmosphere, then becoming carbon neutral is the best thing a brand can do, right? In theory, yes. Unfortunately, getting there isn’t quite as straightforward as brands often make it sound.

Most achieve “carbon neutrality” through a combination of reducing emissions and purchasing carbon offsets. The former, which might include switching to renewable energy in a brand’s warehouses, is pretty universally applauded by environmentalists. The latter, in which a brand pays someone else to either capture or avoid emitting a given amount of carbon elsewhere to make up for the fact that the brand emitted that amount itself, is more controversial.

“We tend to think of [offsets] as sort of being able to offset a company’s guilt, as opposed to its true environmental footprint,” Dr. Amy Moas, a senior forest campaigner at Greenpeace, tells Fashionista.

There are a few key critiques that offsetting skeptics make: that it gives corporations an excuse not to shrink their direct emissions, that the offsetting market is historically unreliable, and that accounting for offsets is often inaccurate.

Most brands are aware of the first critique – that buying offsets is just an excuse not to reduce emissions – and every representative I spoke to for this story assured me they were being vigilant on this front. Gucci stated in a release that it has “already achieved a 16% reduction of its overall footprint across its supply chain since 2015, relative to growth,” and Reformation’s Vice President of Operations and Sustainability Kathleen Talbot told me on the phone that “you have to be really careful that you’re starting with reduction.”

The second common critique is that the offsetting market has a history of unreliability. This stems from the market’s nascency, when it was riddled with frauds. A 2010 investigation by the Christian Science Monitor uncovered offset providers that sold the Pope himself on the idea that they were planting carbon-sucking trees on behalf of the Vatican – without lifting a finger to do so.

“There were [offset provider] companies out there that were not developing the best projects, and it certainly gave the industry a black eye for a period of time,” says Kevin Hackett, the client strategy director at a carbon offsetting provider called Native Energy, which works with Everlane, Reformation and Eileen Fisher.

“But what happened was that as the standards got stronger,” he continues, “and as brands and companies became more aware of the issues and more adept at figuring out which projects worked and doing due diligence, those [fraudulent] companies began to disappear.”

Many would agree with Hackett that regulations have gotten stronger: It’s much harder to sell a project that doesn’t exist these days. But environmentalists like Dr. Moas might still make the third critique, that carbon offsets are tricky to properly account for even without con men perpetrating intentional fraud.

This is where it gets tricky. There are numerous kinds of projects a brand can invest in: Some fund the capture of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, that leaks from landfills. Others get a wind farm up and running so that locals can stop relying on coal-powered energy. Still others provide rural communities in the developing world with water filters so that they don’t have to cut down trees to boil their water so it’s safe to drink. And so on.

With so much variety, even the most strident of offset defenders would agree that not all projects are created equal. Permanence is one concern: Will a project’s carbon benefit disappear tomorrow if it’s based on something like a protected forest that could burn down? Additionality is another key quality to look for in a trustworthy offset: It means the carbon benefit genuinely wouldn’t have happened without the offset money. In other words, you can’t just pay a landowner to not cut down trees he wasn’t planning to cut down anyway, or that offset wouldn’t be considered additional.

Leakage is a third concern. If you paid to protect trees in land plot A, and the landowner took your money to protect those trees but then just cut down trees in adjacent plot B, that would be considered leakage. You didn’t prevent the carbon-sucking trees from being cut down, you just caused the site of the chopping to change. On top of that, there’s the concern of whether or not the offset project has the potential to harm communities that might live nearby.

When taking these criteria into account, forestry-related offsets – including the UN-backed REDD+ forestry projects which make up the entirety of Kering and Gucci’s offsetting portfolio – become particularly suspect.

“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 says. “Not one.”

Dr. Tracey Osborne, an associate professor at the School of Geography and Development at the University of Arizona, has been researching carbon offsets and offsetting markets for two decades. Though she highlights the importance of protecting forests and even thinks brands could play a role in this, she agrees with Dr. Moas that forest offsets as they currently exist are problematic.

“Right now forests are seen as cheap credits, the low-hanging fruit,” she explains on the phone. “But if we do it properly, they actually would cost a lot more.”

Because current forest offset prices are so low, she continues, the money is not sufficient to prevent cattle ranching, soy production, palm oil production or large-scale timber operations, which are often the real drivers of deforestation in the tropical nations where these projects are focused. Instead, cheaper offsets tend to target local indigenous communities and their subsistence practices even though research from organizations like National Geographic and Project Drawdown has demonstrated that indigenous land management practices can actually reduce emissions and deforestation.

In short: There’s a lot of ways that offsets can go wrong and render themselves either ineffective at reducing net carbon in the atmosphere, or even become actively harmful to vulnerable communities.

As if all that weren’t enough, there’s an inconsistency in carbon offset bookkeeping so blatant it’s almost hard to believe.

Aldyen Donnelly is a former consultant who’s been involved in carbon trading since the early ’90s. By 2003, she was the largest private speculative buyer of offset credit in the world – surpassed only by organizations like the World Bank, she says. In short, she knows the market inside and out. While she acknowledges many of the other pitfalls listed here, one of the biggest in her view stems from a simple math problem.

“There are a lot of companies who are buying offset credits and saying, ‘Now we’re carbon neutral!’ and they’re not bad guys; they have every reason to think they are [carbon neutral],” she says on the phone. “But they’re buying certificates with a stated value of one ton when the underlying value of the certificates is, at best, if everything else is done perfectly, a half a ton.”

The reason is simple: international carbon markets don’t consistently practice double-entry bookkeeping. In other words, when a brand buys offsets across international borders, the seller isn’t subtracting what they’ve sold from their country’s total carbon reductions, even though the buyer is adding it to theirs.

To illustrate: Let’s say a landowner in Brazil says “I have a project that draws down ten tons of carbon from the atmosphere,” and a brand in France says, “I’d like to buy two tons’ worth from you to make up for the two tons I just emitted.” You’d think that after the sale, Brazil’s carbon registry would have to enter a -2 in its log, since France just added a +2. But up to this point, that’s not how it has worked – instead, Brazil keeps its number the same even as France adds +2.

What that means for brands is that when they think they’ve purchased 500 tons worth of carbon offsets across international borders, there’s really only a net gain of about 250 tons at the most – and that’s if they’ve managed to avoid all the other pitfalls listed above. It’s such a silly math mistake that it’s hard to believe it’s happening in something as large as the multibillion-dollar offset industry. But other experts confirmed what Donnelly told me: Though there are moves to change this system, that change is still years away from being realized.

All of these issues point to the main reason Dr. Moas remains less than enthusiastic about offsets – they let companies treat the real, measurable carbon they’re emitting now as interchangeable with the potential (and potentially smaller-than-they-thought) carbon savings that may result in the future from their offsetting projects.

From this vantage point, it would be easy to see why some want to write carbon offsetting off as greenwashing and move on.

But consider that even if every company in the world stopped emitting greenhouse gases tomorrow (which, of course, they won’t), the Earth would still have far surpassed what scientists consider a safe amount of carbon in the atmosphere. It becomes easier to see why there are still plenty of people willing to do anything they can think of to keep that number from growing.

“You can always argue that it’s better not to emit in the first place, and that’s what we try to convince our clients to do,” says Arnaud Brohe, CEO of offset provider CO2 Logic. “But we believe that if you do emit, it’s also better to clean up after your mess.”

Brohe tells me that he’d love for governments to do such a great job fighting or regulating emissions that his company and job could cease to exist. But until then, he thinks offsets are a good way for corporations to voluntarily put a price on their own carbon.

“If you don’t want to support one of my projects, I think it’s great if you take the same amount of money and invest in some other [climate] action,” Brohe says. “But just saying ‘I’m against offsets’ is not going to work.”

For all of the ways that carbon offsetting can go awry, especially in forest-related projects, there really is scientific reason to not give up the whole endeavor entirely. It just might mean switching to projects that aren’t exactly… sexy. Separating manure solids on a dairy farm, as Native Energy does in one of its offsetting projects, might not be as marketable to a luxury customer as planting trees in Milan is. But it’s probably delivering a more reliable offset.

And while some might claim that offsets let brands pay to pollute, the money they’re handing over can make a real difference for farmers and other private landowners, who often need financial support to become more climate-friendly operations. Regenerative agriculture practices, for example, have incredible potential to draw carbon out of the atmosphere, but there can be financial barriers for farmers who want to begin implementing them.

Dr. Adam Chambers, a seasoned climate scientist who works for the USDA, sees the offsetting market’s potential to defray these costs as a significant boon.

“Seventy percent of the land area in the United States is privately owned, and you can mobilize those lands for solutions,” he says on the phone. “What we haven’t done in the past is empowered farmers and ranchers to be part of the climate solution, and provided them with a market signal that encourages a certain type of behavior.”

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Donnelly, despite spending a good portion of our interview talking about how offsets can go wrong, ultimately aligns with Dr. Chambers in his excitement about farming and soil. She believes in their climate change-fighting potential so thoroughly that she’s helping launch Nori, a new offsetting marketplace, before the end of the year. Through Nori, Donnelly hopes to offer farmers the support they need to take on worthwhile climate projects while ensuring corporations that when they buy one ton’s worth of offsets, that’s really what they’re getting.

And Dr. Osborne, the climate scientist from University of Arizona, says that forest offsets don’t need to be written off indefinitely. Working closely with indigenous communities and independent researchers to correct past mistakes could result in new projects that do more to protect the crucial biodiversity and carbon-capturing potential of forests.

In the end, it seems that the best attitude toward carbon offsetting mimics the best attitude toward sustainable fashion innovation: A certain skepticism is required to sort out legitimate claims from the illegitimate ones, and there will be plenty of the latter. But the existence of shoddy attempts shouldn’t be a reason to stop trying entirely. Instead, it should serve as a reminder that extreme caution is necessary.

In the end, Dr. Osborne says, “our world is not going to be saved by offsets.” But that’s not a reason to totally do away with them.

“In order to truly transform, to make a U-turn on climate, it will require massive transformation in our social, political and economic life,” she says. “But an offset is one step… It’s a way of starting to move the needle in the right direction.”