‘Carbon offsetting is like saying ‘I’m going to keep a really, really messy house but pay someone to clean my next door neighbour’s.’
Orsola de Castro, co-founder of Fashion Revolution
For quite a while I didn't understand how carbon emissions relate to the fashion industry, let alone what carbon offsetting means.
But after reading a recent article by Fashion Revolution, which discussed why carbon offsetting is not the answer to fast fashion, I thought I'd do some research about what the heck the elusive world of carbon emissions is about and why it's such a big deal.
Turns out it's pretty darn interesting, and I'm looking forward to hearing your thoughts on today's post!
what are carbon emissions + why are they so bad for the environment?
a definition of carbon emissions + their effect on the environment
'Carbon emissions' refers to the emission of carbon dioxide ( CO2 ) , a naturally occurring greenhouse gas which is produced in large quantities by our collective carbon footprint ( more on that later ) .
In its simplest terms, carbon dioxide - once released into the atmosphere - traps heat. Consequently, the planet is continuously warming up, the oceans are becoming increasingly acidic ( which damages sealife ) , ice sheets are rapidly melting, sea levels are quickly rising ... you get the point. So basically, to prevent any of this stuff happening further, we need to reduce our carbon emissions.
your carbon footprint
I'm sure you've seen the phrase 'carbon footprint' scattered across the media over the past couple of years - everyone has a carbon footprint, so it's no wonder it's being shouted about in a bid to prove that every single one of us has the opportunity to help the planet.
But what the heck is it?! I hear you ask.
In short: your carbon footprint is the volume of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere that was caused by your day-to-day lifestyle. We emit carbon through a range of activities, from electricity use to public transport, and each one contributes to our total personal footprint.
As you can imagine, then, an entire company's carbon footprint could be pretty darn big.
So how does this relate to fashion?
For a start, the UK's monthly shopping habit causes more carbon emissions than 900 flights around the globe.
Furthermore, the apparel and footwear industries collectively account for over 8% of global climate impact - this is more than that of aviation and shipping combined. In 2016, this was the equivalent of 3,990 million metric tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions.
Here's how ...
how does the fashion industry emit carbon?
According to a recent article by Common Objective, a pioneering platform for the sustainable fashion industry, two thirds of a garment's impact on the environment take place during the raw materials part of its construction. This applies mainly to polyester and cotton:
Polyester, as a plastic, is made from oil, and extracting and processing the raw material to make it is highly energy-intensive. 46.1 million tonnes of polyester were produced in 2014, releasing 655 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere – around 40% of total fashion industry emissions.
As an agricultural crop, cotton’s carbon footprint is lower than that of polyester, but fertiliser use releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas with 300 times more warming power than CO2.
saving cash instead of the planet
The fast fashion industry's structure is built on producing as many clothes as possible whilst spending as little money as possible. This means that your favourite big brands have scoured the planet for the cheapest places to fulfil each step of the garment-making process ( whether legally or illegally ) . Of course, the factories with the lowest rates are not in one little town; companies must transport clothing from country to country - sometimes even continent to continent - to produce a garment for the lowest costs available. The volume of carbon emissions produced by so many brands sending garments here, there and everywhere is somewhat innumerable.
This paragraph from a recent article by Naomi May sums it up perfectly:
Think about it. That new white t-shirt could travel 21748 miles before it finds its way into your wardrobe - from a cotton field in the U.S, to a factory in Bangladesh, before it's bulk shipped to storage in Germany and then finally on to reach the customer. So, the carbon footprint from new clothes we buy every year as a nation is more than if 66 million of us flew to Malta for a holiday.
It's worth noting that sometimes they're extra cheeky, sending a product to somewhere known for its exceptional clothing craft - Italy, for example - to add the finishing touches ( i.e. a zip or buttons ) there. In many parts of the world, this step legally means that they can sell the piece with 'Made in Italy' on its label, despite the fact that around 1% of the actual garment was produced there. This is the perfect example of causing unnecessary environmental impact purely for profit.
what is carbon offsetting + how does it work?
When a company’s production or product produces emits carbon, they’re contributing to the climate crisis.
In order to make up for this, they can buy ‘carbon credits’, which usually means sending money to support eco-friendly schemes. This can involved anything from donating to an organisation with a focus on planting trees, to investing in a local or global social impact project.
When a company offsets as much carbon as it has emitted, it becomes carbon neutral.
what are the issues with carbon offsetting?
Of course, it’s wonderful to fund such urgent work, but it’s also important to recognise that there are limitations on the effectiveness of carbon offsetting.
To some, it implies that - with enough money - companies ( and individuals ) can pay away their guilt by placing the responsibility on someone else to fix their damage.
Offsetting is also not in any way minimising a company’s environmental impact - their practices continue to be just as damaging - but they just throw a bit of money elsewhere to plant some trees instead of sorting out their own production issues.
Furthermore, it’s pretty tricky to measure the quality of offsetting projects and providers - some have even been known to greenwash!
some of my thoughts in conclusion
Obviously a fast fashion brand that buys carbon credits is better than one that doesn’t, but I think it’s time they started directly tackling the very cause of problem that they’re guilty of.
What are your thoughts on carbon offsetting? should we push companies to pay projects and providers, or should it be up to the individual?