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What is carbon negative, neutral and positive and how do you achieve them?

Cressi Claire
September 5, 2022
Carbon offsetting

The fashion industry contributes to approximately ten percent of global greenhouse emissions and in recent years has become a central figure in the conversation around carbon reduction. According to new targets outlined in the Paris Climate Agreement, we have 29 years to reach net-zero emissions globally, so the fashion industry and all its players are facing growing pressure to act now.

Fashion brands often rely on third-party organizations to support their sustainable transformation. Unfortunately, with a plethora of solutions out there for businesses to choose from comes a slew of eco-branding and green buzzwords. It’s becoming increasingly challenging for fashion brands to sift through the evidence-backed actions from the web of coded terms to find the best solutions for their business needs. 

In order to effectively and accurately communicate with your customers the steps your business is taking to tackle its carbon footprint, it’s crucial to understand the fundamental facts. To help, we’re diving into the world of carbon so that your team can make the right strategic choices that align with your company’s goals and communicate your actions with your customers in a meaningful way. 

So what does carbon negative, neutral or positive actually mean? And what evidence should you look out for to support these promises? Let’s get into it. 

Carbon Neutral

Carbon neutrality is the act of removing the same quantity of carbon dioxide as the amount being released into the atmosphere. This counteraction between the amount of  CO2 emitted and removed means that the company’s carbon activities are balanced out. 

Carbon neutral is the most common choice today for fashion brands wanting to future-proof their business. Not only does the action present the brand as environmentally conscious, but it also requires removing only as much CO2 as necessary, which is more economical and time-efficient for businesses. In recent months, rising demand has caused carbon neutrality to dominate brand initiatives, to the point where it is now the “new mantra of Wall Street and worldwide companies.” 

Fashion brands taking the lead on carbon neutrality include Gabriela Hearst, which hosted the first carbon-neutral fashion show in 2020, and Burberry, with its plan to achieve carbon negativity by 2040. Reformation has pledged to become climate-positive by 2025; while Gucci announced in 2019 that their entire supply chain was carbon-neutral; and GANNI with its carbon tax initiative. 

Although carbon neutrality appears to be the most viable choice for brands today, it requires meticulous tracking and analysis in order to ensure success. A brand’s carbon output constantly fluctuates, so it is essential that brands take a 360 approach when tracking activity.

This typically entails the following: 

  • Calculating the total amount of carbon emitted, which will indicate the level of carbon reduction required. 
  • Locating the most destructive carbon output indicators and focusing on reducing these emissions before expanding to all areas of the company.
  • Assigning new activities an “emissions factor” - a calculation of the global warming potential that each activity generates. The amount of CO2 measured by these activities is then added to the total amount of removal required.
  • Achieving carbon neutrality, which is actioned through a greenhouse gas assessment. This will act as supportive evidence for consumers and detail all areas of success and improvement in order to implement further decarbonisation.

Green Story’s Simplizero Ecommerce solution helps brands calculate and offset the carbon emissions of their products. An LCA is conducted for a brand’s supply chain. Then, offset projects are chosen based on the location of the supply chain and brand values. On top of this, brands can integrate widgets and visuals on their homepage, product page, and post-purchase emails to communicate their impact with consumers in a meaningful and relatable way.

Carbon Negative and Carbon Positive

Carbon negative and carbon positive are interchangeable terms that companies use, which are also commonly referred to as carbon or climate positive. In essence, these terms all refer to going beyond achieving carbon neutrality by removing more CO2 than the amount being emitted. The extra carbon removal assists carbon offsetting efforts on a global scale rather than purely for the isolated company, thus providing a long-term, positive solution to carbon pollution. For example, Patagonia goes beyond decarbonizing its own supply chain and partners with a range of community organizations to support external decarbonization efforts. Since 2008, Patagonia has been working with Indigenous communities and 1% for the Planet to protect Alaska's Tongass National Forest, as well as donating $14 million in the last five years to environmental activism groups through the Patagonia Action Works platform. Carbon-positive initiatives look beyond the immediate benefits or impact of the company and have a greater global benefit. 

The process follows the same initial framework as carbon neutrality: measure and analyse the company’s carbon footprint, target key areas of activity, and match the total amount of CO2 emissions with CO2 removal. An extra percentage is added to the removal process to take this one step further. 

The type of removal depends on the company’s intentions. Sheep inc., the first fashion brand to be carbon negative, removes “ten times more carbon from the atmosphere than the production process adds” by investing in a range of biodiversity projects. On the other hand, carbon-negative cellulosic textiles maker Rubi Laboratories recently raised $4.5 million to produce a carbon-negative viscose replacement that requires net-zero carbon emissions. By using recycled CO2 to form the fibre rather than wood pulp, the textile will benefit the planet more with each cycle of production. 

How to Decarbonise Your Business

Now you know what these terms mean, let’s look into how to achieve them. Fashion brands often seek to reduce carbon emissions through a combination of different initiatives that reflect the goals and values of the company. For example, a fashion brand that prides itself on cutting-edge innovation might choose to work with specialist decarbonisation technology. A brand that identifies closely with the natural world may invest in biodiversity projects. To inspire your decision-making, check out the most common carbon-reducing initiatives below:

  • Behavioural solutions, like implementing sustainable practices in the workplace, using ISO 14001-certified suppliers, investing in green office/factory energy and equipment, and switching to electric or hybrid vehicles.
  • Carbon sinks, such as forests, soil, and the ocean — “anything that absorbs [and stores] more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases.” Many carbon-neutral brands have invested in building upon existing carbon sinks.
  • Green Hydrogen is a renewable source of energy used as a CO2 alternative. 
  • Recycling resources, whether through a full 360 scheme or sporadic up-cycling projects.
  • Decarbonising design innovations, such as lab- grown textile solutions like PHA polymer fibres and Rubi Laboratories’ recycled CO2 viscose replacement.

It is incredibly challenging for brands to achieve decarbonisation. Reducing emissions within fragmented supply chains is complicated and exhausts finances, time and resources at each stage. Decarbonising initiatives require investment programmes with additional planning and protection, resulting in an extensive process that can take years to affect real change.  

While the terms Carbon Neutral, Negative and Positive often overlap, the unanimous resolution of these terms is the same: to significantly counteract the carbon footprint of a product, process, and/or company in order to enact positive change.  

Tackling your brand’s carbon footprint is necessary and urgent, but it isn’t something that can be done alone. Fortunately, with carbon offsetting being the central focus of global industry leaders today, there is much in the way of support. Aid comes in the form of design and software innovations. At Green Story, we support brands in their transition towards carbon neutrality. Reach out to us today for more information!