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Could carbon labels change
the way we buy clothes?

In February 2021, a new study revealed some promising results: carbon footprint labels on meat caused people to choose items with a smaller environmental impact. Interestingly, even individuals who were trying to avoid this information ended up making better climate choices! At SANVT, it made us wonder if adding carbon footprint labels to fashion items would have the same positive effect on people’s purchasing habits. Could carbon labels change the way we buy clothes?

While interest in eco-fashion is at an all time high, carbon labeling in fashion still remains a rather niche concept, despite the fashion industry being responsible for roughly 10% of annual global carbon emissions. That’s more than all air travel and maritime shipping combined!

But what is carbon labeling exactly? Could it help the fashion industry to become more sustainable? In this article, we will dissect the concept of carbon labeling and try to understand why these labels proved to be effective in recent studies in the food space. But can carbon labels also become “fashionable”? We’ll take a look at recent carbon labeling initiatives in the fashion industry and explore how these labels could end greenwashing and fast fashion for good. Without further ado, let’s jump right in!

Could carbon labels really help us to reduce our ecological footprint?

What are carbon labels?

As carbon labeling is quite a recent concept, you might have never heard of it. So let’s start from scratch and explain what it is first. Basically, a carbon emissions label (or carbon label) displays the CO2 emissions created as a by-product of manufacturing, transporting, and disposing of a particular product. It is often expressed in kilograms of CO2.

While this figure is still difficult to put into context for most of us, it offers a quick indication of the ecological footprint of an item. In the near future, this piece of information could become the standard for anyone wishing to minimize her or his ecological footprint – and let’s be honest: this should be everyone’s concern. Because every item we purchase leaves a mark on our planet, a footprint. It’s easy to understand that through the data carbon labels bring to the table, we’d be able to make better-informed decisions about our individual footprint.

Carbon labeling in the food space

Francis Bacon said, “Knowledge is power”. Would carbon labels bring power to consumers? Knowing the carbon emissions of their products should help brands reduce their impact in the first place, but it could also shift the demand towards items with a smaller ecological footprint. And it’s been proven to be true for the food industry!

A recent study showed that consumers, willingly or not, made more sustainable choices after being shown the carbon footprint of each product. This seems to validate the hypothesis that carbon labels in the food space can indeed nudge consumers towards a more climate-friendly diet. But could carbon labels also nudge people towards more climate-friendly fashion choices?

Did you know that the fashion industry is responsible for roughly 10% of global carbon emissions annually?

Carbon labels in fashion

When we look at the carbon labeling efforts being taken in the fashion industry, one brand always pops up: Allbirds. The sustainable shoe brand has launched its “Tread Lighter” program and published its carbon footprint in April 2020. By the way, who could have been a more appropriate pioneer in the carbon footprint space than a footwear brand?! Carbon labels appear on all of their products, online and at retail, so customers know each pair of shoe’s impact.

Materials, manufacturing, transport, use and disposal are all taken into account in this life cycle assessment. The initiative is what Joey Zwillinger, cofounder of Allbirds, called the “next chapter” after the brand announced it went carbon-neutral last year. The brand is hoping that the launch of its Carbon Footprint labeling will not only catalyze the sustainable fashion industry’s commitment to lower carbon emissions but also inspire more transparency in the industry.

But Allbirds is not the only footwear brand on a mission. Driven by climate conscious consumers, a dramatically increasing number of footwear companies are making efforts to communicate their commitments to be climate-friendly. To bring more transparency to the footwear industry, dozens of brands are publishing the carbon footprint of their products on the open data platform Carbonfact. Now, of course, fashion is far more than just footwear. This is why new projects like Vert Science are looking to help brands decarbonize their entire production chain, far beyond footwear, by auditing factories, farms and suppliers to provide crystal clear life cycle assessments (LCAs).

Could carbon labels end greenwashing in the fashion industry?

With every new wave of sustainability initiative in fashion, there’s always the other side of the coin: greenwashing. To fight greenwashing, transparency is key. And even though transparency is at the core of carbon labels, they surely can be used for greenwashing purposes. For instance, a fast fashion brand could create “carbon neutral” clothes simply by purchasing offsets to balance out very wasteful production. This does not reduce their footprint; it only makes them pay to continue their “business as usual” operations while purchasing offsets whose legitimacy is often questionable.

Many offset projects from fast fashion brands are a scam – and a typical feature of greenwashing campaigns.

Can carbon labels change the way we buy clothes?

At SANVT, we do believe that carbon labeling could positively affect our purchasing decisions. We strongly believe that being informed about the carbon emissions of a product – whether in food or in fashion – can nudge people towards climate friendlier choices. It’s easy to imagine that, while shopping, a lot of climate-conscious shoppers will be tempted by products with a lower carbon footprint. And we’re willing to bet we will see the rise of climate-conscious fashion marketplaces where the carbon footprint of items will be what people consider first and foremost before buying.

Climate-consciousness surely is at an all time high, and this should give carbon labels the momentum they need to become essentials in the fashion industry. While they remain misunderstood and somewhat obscure for most right now, and consumers still vastly underestimate the impact of fashion, carbon labels are poised to make a real impact in the fashion industry. They have proved their ability to nudge people in the right direction.

Therefore, at SANVT, we label each of our products with its CO2 emissions. We carried out an in-depth life cycle assessment, showing that the production of The Perfect T-Shirt, for instance, generated 3.4kg of CO2. These emissions are about 50% lower than a conventionally produced t-shirt!

Evaluating and reducing the impact of our products is, we believe, the best step we could have taken. But we decided to go the extra mile, by compensating our unavoidable CO2 emissions through tree planting. Thanks to our local offsetting project, the Bergwaldprojekt e.V., every item at SANVT is climate-neutral. You can even trace the climate neutrality of your product and its carbon offset on ClimatePartner.

All products from SANVT are carbon labelled and carbon neutral. Read more about our sustainability here.

Conclusion

As you see, we at SANVT believe that evaluating, minimizing and becoming carbon neutral are three essential steps every fashion brand should follow in order to become climate-friendly. Compensating your carbon footprint without taking the steps to reduce first and foremost seems foolish to us, and as people who buy clothes and often care for the environment, we should hold fashion brands accountable for that.

We believe that carbon labels will play an important role in shedding light on the still underestimated impact of fashion. And we strongly believe carbon labels will make their way to the fashion industry ­– bringing a positive impact on how people shop. And we want to be one of the pioneers to pave the way.

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