For one thing, the bat was all wrong. Its leathery wings were too menacing; its teeth a touch too sharp.
“Could we get a more…approachable bat?” asked Jade Wilting, environmental responsibility manager at Ganni.
Wilting had cause to be concerned. The Copenhagen-based apparel brand was trying to get a carbon insetting project off the ground at two of its suppliers in Portugal. Part of this involves implementing nature-based solutions that restore ecosystems and promote biodiversity. But there was one kink in its plan to encourage the flying mammals, several species of which are threatened or endangered, to roost freely. Bats are objects of superstition in the southern European nation, and the “very accurate” picture its scientific consultants were planning to flash at a worker presentation happened to be “very scary looking.”
“If we’re trying to change the mindset of people, we need to find one without fangs or something,” Wilting told the biologists.
Lubomila Jordanova, co-founder and CEO of Plan A, a climate consultancy headquartered in Berlin, takes the credit for persuading Ganni to abandon the traditional idea of carbon offsets, also known as carbon or climate credits. Most offsets seek to neutralize emissions generated at one location—for example, a factory or distribution center—by funding their equivalent removal at another, say by planting trees or constructing wind farms. For Jordanova, insetting, which involves making these cuts directly in a company’s own supply chain, rather than someone else’s, is necessary if true decarbonization is the goal.
“When it comes to fashion, there’s sadly very little focus on direct decarbonization,” Jordanova said. Insetting isn’t even recognized in the B Corp framework, which she said she found surprising.
And yet climate disruptions in supply chain nodes where sourcing and manufacturing are concentrated abound, she said. Floods in Pakistan and droughts in Texas have already throttled vital cotton supplies. Over in Mongolia, the second-largest producer of raw cashmere after China, worsening cycles of extreme heat and harsh cold have destroyed entire herds of livestock. By not supporting these critical links, brands are leaving them, plus their future supply, “continuously vulnerable” to potential shocks.
But Ganni, which aims to halve its absolute emissions by 2027, or three years before the Paris Agreement deadline, didn’t need much convincing. For years, it had backed a United Nations-approved clean cookstoves project in Ghana and Nepal, but getting visibility into the project—and therefore its investment’s actual impact—proved vexing. Offsets have also been dogged by criticisms that they essentially allow companies to pay to pollute, or that they provide cover for net-zero targets without requiring meaningful emissions reductions. Projects might overstate their emissions savings or, worse, engage in outright fraud.
“We realized we’d much rather use that money to invest in our own supply chain,” said Lauren Bartley, sustainability and CSR director at Ganni. “That’s more tangible.”
Running the pilot in Portugal before expanding it elsewhere made sense for several reasons: The country is a five-hour flight from Denmark, making travel less onerous for the frequent progress checks any new initiative entails. Both tracksuit supplier Ramil/Raul Carvalho Azevedo & Filhos and T-shirt maker Rodrigues & Abreu, which were immediately on board, are also longtime partners, accounting for 4 percent and 8 percent of Ganni’s production, respectively. The fact that the two are practically neighbors didn’t hurt, either. They’re on the smaller side—Ramil employs 34 workers on a plot just a hair over 4,000 square meters while Rodrigues’s 57 busy themselves on a 1,200-square-meter space—but this too was strategic.
“It was not like, ‘Go to your biggest supplier’ but ‘go to the supplier that you think is going to be liaising with you and the quickest to drive the results that you’re seeking to achieve,’” Jordanova said. Decarbonization, she warned, isn’t a linear journey, nor is it without “certain headaches” because of the multiple stakeholders involved.
“But the outcome is that a company reduces its own costs for carbon essentially, because [it is] having to cover less carbon,” she said. “Transition[ing] to a sustainable model is the only way [it] can put [itself] in the position of being [not only] competitively positioned, but also the winner of tomorrow.”
Ramil and Rodrigues are making the same improvements albeit on staggered timelines because the first is adapting an existing plant, while the second is building one from the ground up. For the latter, it meant that Strix, the local biodiversity consultancy that Ganni engaged, was able to conduct its analysis on virgin ground and influence the facility’s design in terms of what trees to keep and which plant species to grow. It was on Strix’s advice earlier this year, for instance, that Rodriguez delayed construction by a week to allow the surrounding birds to complete their nesting cycle.
Integrating recommendations into Ramil’s site was more challenging, said Strix CEO Miguel Repas Goncalves, but the owners and employees were “really committed to it.” They’ve even taken on the responsibility of monitoring the surroundings themselves as “citizen scientists.” There are a number of complex indices biologists can use to measure biodiversity, he said, but most people only need to keep their eyes—and occasionally smartphones—peeled.
“They’ll call us about the species of butterflies and birds that they see around the plants, that they didn’t use to see,” Goncalves said. There’s a “landscaping effect” that habitat restoration offers that not only makes the environment more pleasant but also delivers results in terms of biodiversity and carbon sequestration. The idea is to create conditions that draw certain “umbrella” species that attract other, more diverse wildlife.
This isn’t simply about saving animals or trees, Goncalves said, but of keeping ecosystems in balance so they can continue moving carbon to where it needs to go. The road ahead will be hard: Because of overexploitation and industrialization, 40 percent of the world’s plant life is at risk of extinction, according to Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, which publishes a state of the world’s plants and fungi report every year or two. (The next one comes out in 2023.) The World Wildlife Fund recently estimated that wildlife species populations declined by an average of 69 percent since 1970. The biggest drops occurred in the Caribbean and Latin America, where wildlife abundance plummeted by some 94 percent.
But sometimes taking the simplest, least expensive actions can have an outsized impact, he added. This includes putting out nestboxes for birds—even bats.
“Bats here are quite important in terms of keeping the ecosystem healthy,” Goncalves said. “They’re one of the most sensitive and endangered groups of mammals in the world.” Education was key in coaxing workers to overcome their fear and revulsion. Despite initial humps, he said, their perspective toward the critters has “changed and evolved in a good way.”
Solar power was the obvious choice because it was the quickest and most resource-efficient way factories used to running on coal can decarbonize their electricity and heating and cooling use. Environmental campaigners have long called fossil fuels the “elephant in the room” that even so-called sustainable brands choose to ignore. Transitioning all manufacturing from Tiers 1 through 3 to 100 percent renewable energy could wipe 424 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent off the world’s ledger, according to an analysis that the Apparel Impact Institute and World Resource Institute conducted last year.
Ramil has its panels already up and running, while Rodrigues will follow sometime next year, possibly in the spring, depending on how quickly construction on its factory is progressing. By the end of the year, Ramil will complete a second round of planting of native trees and shrubbery. Rodrigues’s schedule will depend on the building’s status when planting season begins anew.
“So we had a very tight structure at the beginning of the project, but what we’re learning is that we need to be a little bit more flexible with regards to planting, to the seasons and the state of building at Rodrigues’s site,” Wilting said. Unlike measuring biodiversity, which Wilting admitted was more difficult, Ganni will be able to quantify the factories’ reduced energy use. By the time 2022 comes to a close, the team will be able to have at least an understanding of how much carbon it has managed to whittle through the pilot, which joins Ganni’s other emissions-eradicating work such as introducing fabric innovations, eschewing animal leather and delving into circular business models such as rental, resale and repair.
Ganni is in this for the long haul. To encourage Ramil and Rodrigues to continue to invest in solar and maintain their biodiversity efforts, the “not a sustainable brand” committed to work with the manufacturers for the next two to three years, regardless of the outcome—something that it has never done before. While clothing purveyors that source from the suppliers will naturally benefit from Ganni’s labors, Bartley said that this wasn’t a concern.
“Of course, it’s interesting, and of course, if we want to scale the carbon-insetting project then we’re going to need to partner with other brands to scale it faster from a finance perspective,” she said. “But that wasn’t really where the focus was initially.”
Once the results of this “test and learn” initiative come in, however, Ganni will be able to take them to brands that share its production lines elsewhere in the world. This could result in a co-investment strategy for future insetting schemes. While the hope is the scale the project up in other Ganni factories, the company will also be publishing a proof of concept, in the form of a white paper or a case study in its next sustainability report, so that others can replicate its work.
“We need to get more brands involved because we can only go so far alone,” Bartley said.