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Will a Carbon ‘Nutrition Label’ Become Fashion’s ‘New Norm’?

Carbon dioxide. It’s odorless, colorless and formless, yet we’re sending so much of it into the atmosphere that it’s dramatically reshaping the planet’s climate.

Getting consumers to care about an invisible menace isn’t an easy sell, but a small contingent of brands argues that a carbon label, similar to the nutritional label on food packages, can help people visualize the environmental costs of what they buy while holding companies accountable for the frequently nebulous claims that they make. The hope is that by putting these numbers in the open, the conversation will naturally pivot to how to reduce them.

It has only been in recent years that the fashion industry, buoyed by burgeoning consumer interest, has come to grips with its role in global warming. Depending on the source, clothing and footwear manufacturing is responsible for anywhere between 4 percent to 10 percent of global carbon production. If nothing changes, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the sector could suck up more than one-quarter of the world’s carbon budget by 2050.

So when Allbirds started slapping carbon-footprint measurements on its cult-fave sneakers last summer, it was born out of a desire to telegraph this growing emergency.

“Sustainability has come to mean 10 different things to 10 different people, but customers currently have very little to go on aside from these brand marketing tag lines,” Hana Kajimura, the San Francisco-based brand’s sustainability manager, told Sourcing Journal. “What we felt was missing was a scientific, quantifiable objective metric by which to judge products against each other—and not so much from the perspective of buy our shoe versus another shoe but rather starting to understand the carbon impact of the things that we buy more broadly.”

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For Kajimura, developing a sense of “carbon consciousness,” similar to our awareness about nutritional values, is the way forward. Food companies can’t just insist certain products are healthier for you. They must back up their claims with “scientific proof” in the form of a standardized, regulated label. “That’s what we hope develops in the consumer product space for climate as well,” she said.

Allbirds x Adidas
Adidas and Allbirds’ Futurecraft.Footprint, sports “+2.94” on its midsole, indicating that the shoe’s manufacturing contributed 2.94 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent to the environment. Courtesy

Allbirds has made its shoes’ carbon numbers a design element. In December, the firm branded the Staple Dasher, a collaboration with graphic artist and streetwear designer Jeff Staple, with a “+9.2” on its flank, indicating that the shoe’s manufacturing contributed 9.2 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent to the environment. This past month, Adidas and Allbirds unveiled the Futurecraft.Footprint, which they have dubbed the lowest-carbon sneaker on the market. The shoe sports “+2.94” across its midsole, representing what the brands have called a “personal best…and a considerable achievement,” since a standard sneaker generates an average of 12.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent.

But will such numbers resonate with consumers?

Figures in and of themselves won’t shift the needle, Kajimura copped. Because the “carbon story” is a lot harder to grasp than something more tangible like an upper made from recycled water bottles, for example, it “takes a lot of commitment” from a brand to “tell that story again and again.” And just like we had to learn how to compare calorie values, so too will we have to develop an understanding of what a kilogram of carbon dioxide signifies. But this needs to be a team effort, she added.

“It will take many other companies, putting their numbers out there, so that [consumers] can start to understand like, ‘Oh my bicycle is this much, my pair of shoes is this much, my flight to New York is this much,’” Kajimura said. “[Only then can] they start to kind of develop that relative understanding and then be empowered to make better choices about the things that they buy. But they can only do that if everyone has their numbers public.”

Carbon emissions ‘blindness’

A 2020 survey by Ipsos found that nearly 70 percent of consumers across 28 countries have switched up at least some of the products and services they buy because of concerns over climate change. For one in five Europeans, information on a product’s carbon footprint is a “decisive factor” in their purchasing choices, according to a GlobalData poll published this month.

Even so, shoemaker Veja says there remains a “blindness” around carbon emissions. The data in sustainability reports are often hard to understand and the methodology behind them equally murky. More important, because most brands have limited visibility into their supply chain, their results tend to focus on Scopes 1 and 2 emissions within their control, which provide a fragmented or incomplete picture.

A couple of years ago, the French brand—Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, is among its celebrity fans—decided to challenge itself and conduct a deep dive of its carbon profile, including its Scope 3 emissions. Its instincts were right, Sébastien Kopp, Veja’s co-founder and creative director, told Sourcing Journal. Scopes 1 and 2 represent less than 0.15 percent of the firm’s total environmental burden. More than 70 percent of its carbon emissions, on the other hand, stem from raw-material extraction.

So far, Veja has tagged some of its popular styles with precise numbers, ranging from 5.63 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent for the Nova High Canvas to 21.5 kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent for the Esplar Leather. By the end of the year, Kopp said, the brand plans to release numbers for all its models, including, potentially, the difference between “a size four and a size 11 shoe.”

Coming up with precise numbers isn’t easy. Veja wasn’t able to completely trace the origin of certain components such as some of its metal rivets and Velcro, Kopp said, which means there are gaps in its data. Kajimura, too, admitted that the process is a “combination of art and science” that relies on “hundreds of assumptions” and variable data points. Tracking down hundreds—if not thousands or tens of thousands, in the case of larger companies—of secondary and tertiary suppliers is also one thing; convincing them to share statistics they might closely guard is quite another.

“Of course, we don’t have perfect information, whether we’re talking about like exact kilowatt-hours used to make a shoe [or] what kind of washing machine a consumer is using to wash it,” she said. “But in my experience, every time we’ve gone back to make our numbers better or have a third party look at them, they never change by that much.”

The perfect, in this case, can be the enemy of the good, she noted. “I think, too often, companies hide behind that imperfect information to say, ‘We don’t have all the data, and so we don’t want to mislead customers by putting out a number [that’s] not perfect,’” Kajimura said. “But from where I sit a 90 percent right answer is better than 0 percent answer.”

On Earth Day in April, Allbirds rolled out an open-source version of its proprietary Carbon Footprint calculator, with the goal of galvanizing brands to “drop the vaguity” and add carbon labels to their products. Having a “key, universal identifier” like a carbon number is critical for “drowning out the noise” and evaluating sustainability, Joey Zwillinger, co-founder and co-CEO of Allbirds, said at the time. For Kajimura, public-facing scores will only encourage brands to improve upon them.

“if a competitor comes out with a carbon footprint that’s lower than ours, we will try to beat that,” she said. “That kind of virtuous competition will lead to a better outcome [for everyone].”

Two of Veja’s most popular sneaker styles and their carbon impact. Courtesy

Kopp recalled being stunned when he found that a leather-clad Veja sneaker emits four times more carbon dioxide than an organic cotton model. Of the brand’s total raw-material footprint, leather accounts for 97 percent. “We knew it was big but I would have said 50 percent,” he said. “But the study gives that ability to make changes. We know there is a leather, for example, that emits two times less, so let’s change to that. And let’s diminish the amount of leather we use by using CWL [corn waste leather], which is an organic-cotton canvas coated with the waste of corn [production]. And this emits 50 percent fewer emissions.”

Unlike Allbirds, however, Veja’s carbon crunching is less about “evangelizing” to the public, Kopp said. “It’s a bit of a selfish move, meaning we do it for us,” he added. “We do it because we like it.”

Keep it private or go public

H&M is taking a slightly different tack. Though the Swedish retailer declined to say if it’s considering carbon labeling, it announced last month that it will be “putting a price on carbon,” which it dubbed a “game-changer for us.”

This internal carbon pricing, it said, will help H&M quantify costs for the emissions for different decisions taken by the company in designing, producing and selling a product, and, in so doing, allow it to make more informed decisions about where to produce an item or what material to use.

“We are really connecting the dots now,” Kim Hellström, strategy lead for climate and water, said in a statement. “This means that a part of the company is solely focused on making good investments where the [return on investment] is carbon reductions. We find out where we can get the biggest emission reductions and that is where we put our money.”

But fellow Swede Asket argues that consumer-facing transparency is a critical part of addressing the problem. When the men’s wear brand created “impact receipts” for its most-popular items, including its T-shirt, oxford shirt and chino, to show their “environmental debt” earlier this year, it was with the idea of giving its customers the same level of visibility it had.

“We wanted to come up with a way to sort the fact from the fiction,” August Bard-Bringéus, the brand’s co-founder told Sourcing Journal. “That’s when it dawned on us that the degree of visibility we had across our supply chain would allow us to dig deeper and uncover the true environmental impact of our garments and share that with our followers.”

Each impact receipt, which breaks down a garment’s water, carbon and energy burdens according to raw materials, milling, manufacturing, trims and transport before tallying its “true cost,” represents an “agreement” between Asket and its customers, Bard-Bringéus said.

“We’re asking our customers to acknowledge the impact of their purchasing decision and encouraging them to maximize the use of their garments, rather than displacing them with new ones,” he said. There are signs the brand might be on to something. After Asket launched the initiative, shoppers started spending 223 percent more time on its website than before, it found. People were also lingering 107 percent longer on its “impact” section than on the product pages. There was also a 34 percent boom in visits to Asket’s garment care portal.

By the end of the summer, Asket plans to have impact receipts for its entire permanent collection.

“Vague definitions of sustainability and opaque working practices allow many companies to make green claims that go unregulated, allowing them to engage in high-profile greenwashing campaigns without any real efforts to improve,” Bard-Bringéus said. “We don’t just want to change customer behavior; we want to set this as a new norm for the industry.”