The climate crisis isn’t looming in the future—it’s already here, manifested in natural disasters like Hurricane Dorian and the California wildfires.
The fashion industry has a significant role to play in accelerating or decelerating climate change. It currently makes up more than 8% of global carbon emissions, which is more than all international flights and maritime shipping combined. And yet, the industry is only just beginning to reckon with how much carbon it is spewing into the atmosphere. Only a smattering of brands have plans to tackle the problem, and even fewer are carbon neutral.
Marco Bizzarri, Gucci’s CEO, wants his brand to take responsibility for every last bit of greenhouse gas it emits. Until now, the brand has been working to reduce its emissions and offset any carbon coming out of Gucci-owned facilities. But today, Gucci—a luxury fashion house on track to generate €10 billion ($11.2 billion) by 2020—announces an ambitious new plan to become completely carbon neutral throughout its entire supply chain. Bizzarri says this extends into the deepest recesses of its manufacturing operations, including the tanneries where it sources its leather and the factories where raw materials are processed. Each unit of carbon that isn’t eliminated will be offset by supporting forest conservation projects in developing countries through an international initiative called REDD+. All of the brand’s emissions from 2018 have been measured and offset, and it is currently tracking its 2019 emissions, which will be totaled up and offset next year.
As I reported earlier this year, it is very difficult to track how much carbon a fashion brand discharges because apparel and footwear supply chains are so vast and complex. Some companies buy materials from middlemen, so they can’t trace them all the way back to their their original source, like cotton fields or cattle farms. While some labels are beginning to track how much they emit in their stores and offices, very few go all the way to their partner factories and raw materials. When sneaker startup Allbirds did this earlier this year, it made news.
Bizzarri is well aware of this, but he believes that the industry shouldn’t wait to act until it perfects its carbon calculations: Brands need to act in good faith based on the best available information. “We’re using many mathematical models from different universities,” Bizzarri tells me. “Of course, there is always room to perfect these methodologies—and we are open to talking to anybody who can give us suggestions—but I really believe that we just need to start somewhere.”
Math aside, the fact is that the bulk of carbon emitted in most industries is released at the earliest parts of the supply chain, in the cultivation of raw materials, rather than in the transportation or sale of products. This means that Gucci now has the burden to both measure and offset these emissions. For instance, Gucci must figure out how much carbon is emitted at each of the tanneries where it buys its leather. “Tracking our impacts earlier in the supply chain is not as easy as measuring our own direct impact,” says Bizzarri.
To do so, Gucci is relying on standards laid out by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, an international organization that helps companies measure emissions. There are three levels: The most basic, called Scope One, involves identifying emissions on property that the company itself owns or controls, such as their trucks, offices, and retail stores. The next, called Scope Two, takes into account the emissions from the electricity the company buys. The vast majority of companies working toward carbon neutrality, including Kering, Gucci’s parent company, focus on these two scopes. Gucci is now going beyond Kering’s own mandates by tracking and offsetting Scope Three, which encompasses all of its indirect emissions through third-party factories and suppliers.
Gucci has an in-house sustainability team that works with third-party auditors. The team is tasked with partnering with climate researchers, including scientists from the University of Cambridge, to stay abreast of the latest measurement tools and mathematical models. And when it comes to offsets, they are working with organizations such as the Climate, Community and Biodiversity Standards and the Verified Carbon Standard to audit the forest conservation projects it supports.
Bizzarri hopes that other brands are watching and paying attention. “We don’t want to be doing this alone,” he says. “The entire fashion industry needs to collaborate and cooperate for us to make an impact.”
Many climate activists make the case that offsetting alone is not enough to avert the worst impacts of climate change: We need to be actively reducing the amount of carbon we produce. This has influenced Gucci’s strategy. In 2015, the company began a 10-year program to reduce its emissions by 50%. As of this year, it has already achieved a 16% reduction. Bizzarri says that the brand has been working on many ways to reduce its footprint, from upgrading to more energy-efficient machinery to up-cycling leather scraps. Each of these incremental changes reduces tens of thousands of tons of carbon from the supply chain. “Our goal is first to avoid and reduce emissions,” he says. “Then, whatever unavoidable emissions are left, we will offset.”
As I’ve reported in the past, part of the reason the fashion industry is such a massive emitter is that its business model relies on cultivating consumers’ desire for new products every season. This emphasis on short-term trends often means selling more products than consumers actually need, driving overconsumption. Over the last few decades, consumers have developed an insatiable appetite for new fashion items and often wear each garment just a few times before chucking it. Another related problem is that brands overproduce products because they can’t accurately estimate what products will sell, given how fleeting trends have become. Many brands, from luxury labels like Burberry to fast-fashion brands like H&M, burn some of their excess products, which not only sends carbon into the atmosphere in the incineration process, but wastes all the energy that went into creating them in the first place.
When I spoke to Bizzarri, I mentioned industry-wide problem of overconsumption and overproduction. “I think the best way we, as a company, can reduce overconsumption is to create products that are high-quality and long-lasting, so much so that people want to buy them secondhand,” he responds. “On the other side, we have internal selling procedures for our employees to ensure that very few products are ever left at the end of the cycle.”
It’s clear that consumers are ready for fashion brands to step up when it comes to sustainability. And brands are beginning to realize this presents them with an opportunity to tap into this eco-conscious market. A recent survey conducted by the Boston Consulting Group and Global Fashion Agenda, a sustainability nonprofit, found that three quarters of consumers around the world believe that sustainability is very important. The strongest triggers for conscious shopping behavior had to do with climate change efforts and natural disasters. While many fashion brands are working to become—or at least working to appear to be—more sustainable, they are often focusing on things like reducing plastic or inventory waste, rather than cutting down on carbon emissions.
As a point of comparison to Gucci, take Zara’s parent company, Inditex, which made its own big sustainability announcement in July. The majority of the targets Inditex laid out had to do with reducing plastic and using more sustainable materials. When it came to carbon mitigation efforts, the goals were more modest: 80% of the energy used in stores, logistics centers, and offices would be transitioned to renewable sources by 2025. (This did not include the 1,866 partner factories it relies on.) While renewable energy has a smaller carbon footprint than fossil fuels, it still produces emissions, and as of right now, Inditex has not announced any effort to offset it.
Any sustainability effort is a step in the right direction, especially given that many brands aren’t doing anything at all to become more eco-friendly. And tackling something like the industry’s reliance on plastic makes sense as a starting point, because it is a relatively easy problem to address compared to the enormity of the climate challenge. Bizzarri believes that fashion leaders should just jump into the fray, even though the process sometimes feels complex and messy.
“The time for talking is over,” Bizzarri says. “At a certain point you need to act. As a brand, you can keep getting better and fine-tuning your processes—and we are more than happy to do that. But today is the moment to act.”