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Nothing But Net: Why Companies Are Rolling Out Net-Zero Commitments Now

As fashion continues to contend with its well-documented environmental impact, many firms are trotting out terminology to underscore their efforts. From “carbon neutral” to “waste-free,” brands are readily adopting catchy claims about sustainability.

The latest piece of eco-jargon to hit the sector is “net-zero,” often used to describe the aspirational state of a company’s carbon emissions. While the idea of bringing ecological output down to nil is undeniably appealing, it’s considerably less clear how brands might hope to hit that target—or even what it really means.

“When brands commit to ‘net-zero,’ they generally mean they are only going to emit as many greenhouse gases as they offset through other means,” Jason Kibbey, CEO of sustainability insights platform Higg, explained. “They achieve this in a variety of ways, such as using renewable energy sources, using manufacturing technologies that reduce emissions, and sometimes using carbon offsets—purchased credits earned from carbon-sequestering actions like planting trees.”

Achieving net-zero emissions and reaching carbon neutrality are two sides of the same coin, with the goal of mitigating climate change. The Paris Climate Agreement stipulates that global warming must be limited to well below 2 degrees Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels to achieve a climate-neutral—or temperature-stable—planet by the middle of the century.

While achieving net-zero emissions is an admirable, if not necessary, goal, Kibbey stressed that brands “can’t offset their way to a better future or buy their way out of a crisis.” Maintaining the status quo operationally while purchasing credits toward reforestation projects and clean energy won’t ultimately undo the damage they continue to inflict upon the world’s ecology, he argued. “In fashion, offsets are not a substitute for value chain emissions reductions, and we encourage companies to prioritize targeting and eliminating their direct and indirect emissions.”

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Companies must broaden their influence beyond their own operations if they hope to achieve net-zero status. Stakeholders throughout a company’s value chain must be pulled into the conversation if a brand hopes to have a true impact. “Any fashion company that isn’t measuring and reducing their Scope 3 emissions, regardless of offsetting measures, isn’t doing enough,” he said. The Environmental Protection Agency defines Scope 3 emissions as outputs from contracted factory operations, transport of goods, business travel, fuel and energy for production and end-of-life treatment of goods.

Higg’s stance is that brands shouldn’t stop at promising to zero out their emissions but aim to set “climate positive” goals that “renew and replenish earth’s resources” rather than relying on offsets. Objectives might include transitioning to renewable energy, revamping manufacturing operations for maximum energy efficiency, recycling water and limiting water waste, and recycling waste rather than sending it to landfill. “This would lower the risk that net zero commitments are seen as a marketing ploy and contribute to the well-being of communities around the world,” Kibbey said.

“There are so many of these terms out there right now—there’s zero carbon, carbon neutral, climate positive, and net zero emissions,” said Cindy J. Lin, Hey Social Good founder and CEO. According to Lin, a former EPA ecologist who launched her platform to help verify brands’ sustainability and ethics claims, the idea behind reaching net zero emissions is essentially to balance global carbon output with the greenhouse gases that are removed organically—and through human intervention—from the atmosphere. “We’ve been spilling so much more carbon into our ecosystem than it can naturally remove,” she said.

While she believes that “most brands are genuine about wanting to solve this problem,” Lin believes that homing in on nebulous claims could end up doing more harm than good. “They love to talk about [net zero] because it feels like a simple, digestible concept,” she said. “But I think for the consumer, it’s super confusing because they’re couching their efforts in these terms that mean nothing” without proper context, she said. To explain the significance of a net zero commitment, brands must first level with shoppers about the environmental impact of their operations and what their carbon output looks like. Few have taken that step.

What’s more, Lin said, “As a scientist and someone who’s been in this space working on the regulatory side, I do feel like just focusing on net zero emissions is not sufficient.” Carbon emissions are just one of “hundreds” of ills that the industry needs to right, from wasting water to dumping tons of material waste into landfills each year. Like Kibbey, Lin believes brands are relying too heavily on carbon offsets to mitigate their impact, rather than making changes to the ways they and their supply chain partners operate.

“If we focus on eliminating pollution and stop actions that emit outward discharge, then we can truly get to net zero, but we can’t get there if we only focus on one tool,” she said.

Adam Taubenfligel, founder and creative director of Los Angeles-based denim brand Triarchy believes that making a concrete commitment to curb waste is the best bet for denim-head designers looking to do good. Triarchy has signed onto Jeanologia and Cone Denim’s Mission Zero program, which aims to eliminate wastewater, toxic chemicals and fabric waste from the denim supply chain by 2025, as well as offsetting all remaining carbon impacts through environmental programs and renewable energy credits.

According to Taubenfligel, Triarchy has long been repurposing its factory scraps, sending any fabric cuttings back to their mill to be respun into yarns to produce more fabric “That’s something we implemented a while ago, and we’re really strict about it,” he said. “We just keep repurposing whatever would become waste.”

The denim brand has also been a pioneer in managing chemical and water usage, eliminating the polluting acids and potassium permanganate used to create coveted commercial washes from its repertoire altogether. “That’s why our wash library is so much smaller than other brands,” he explained, noting that the brand is working on developing sustainable methods for achieving the looks buyers desire most.

But both buyers and consumers invested in sustainability must adjust their expectations, Taubenfligel opined, in terms of brand offerings as well as pricing. Creating more eco-friendly options requires significant investment, and some washes may prove to be an impossibility without the use of archaic and environmentally damaging methods. The fight for sustainability won’t be without sacrifices—and it’s not just up to brands to make them.

While the company works to slash material waste and cut its use of chemicals, it is also engaged with Green Story, a platform that measures environmental impact and aids brands in offsetting their carbon footprint. “They do an analysis of all of our production, literally per garment,” Taubenfligel said. They calculate emissions based off how our cotton is grown, how much water is used, how we process our denim, how we cut, sew and wash the final garment and ship to the consumer—and then we offset the carbon for each pair,” he said. Currently, Triarchy is donating to carbon offset projects like a water treatment facility in Cambodia, a wind power plant in Turkey, and a reforestation effort in California.

While Taubenfligel believes offsets are a positive and necessary part of the brand’s sustainability roadmap, he also insisted that taking “small, actionable steps” within the supply chain is necessary to moving the needle on environmental action. Mission Zero has laid out a concise set of goals for the industry he said—“an applicable way for denim brands to be mindful of their consumption and to work towards common goal.”

“It’s not making claims and statements about who we’re going to be and what we’re going to do,” he said, avoiding the use of terms like carbon neutral and net zero. “We all know the only really sustainable brand would be one that doesn’t exist.”

This article appears in Rivet’s Winter 2021 digital issue. Click here to read the entire issue.