Sustainable Fashion: Counting those carbon calories…

Welcome to this column within our broader sustainability section which focuses on what clothing retail is doing to address the issues in its industry. It’s exciting times for anyone involved in this area as technology and retailers try to keep up with customers’ demand for all things ethical. From palm oil to fur farms, fast fashion to single-use plastic, excess packaging to food waste – this is where the real action is.

This month’s column focuses on shoe brand Allbirds is trying to alter the way consumers think about its products’ carbon footprints and is brought to you by Retail Insider with Clipper and Give Back Box.

What difference would it make to consumers if they could learn to think about products’ carbon emissions in the same way as they currently think about the calorie content of food? That’s the question that US/New Zealand trainers brand Allbirds has posed in the hope that it can allow consumers to differentiate between brands and make informed choices about all kinds of products.

Allbirds’ sustainability lead Hana Kajimura thinks that talking endlessly about greenhouse gas emissions and carbon footprints leaves large swathes of the public either confused or indifferent as it is something intangible. Conversely the idea of calories as something intrinsically measurable in food, and with tangible effects on the body, is comparatively easily understood. Even if we consume a cream cake knowing that it is calorific we can make an allowance for that later in the day when we come to eat something else.

Allbirds carbon label (photo Allbirds)

To that end Allbirds recently released a video featuring US comedian Bret McKenzie explaining that, much like calories for your body, the higher a carbon emission of a product is, the worse it is for the environment and the more work you have to put in to cancel it out. If you like, the more offsetting with your wallet you must do. But this is only the starting point for a more targeted campaign by Allbirds – it only works in tandem with the labelling.

Back in April of 2020 Allbirds became the first shoe company (or probably any company for that matter) to stick labels on its products detailing the carbon footprint of each pair of shoes. The standard sneaker emits 12.5 kg CO2e. The Allbirds average shoe emits 7.6 kg CO2e. That’s a big and hard-won difference which they are right to draw attention to.

It involves many alterations to the normal way of doing things including using regenerative agriculture to offset the carbon that it is impossible to avoid emitting. They will be hoping that consumers do actively want to put the two halves of the ecological message together – namely a stated desire to reduce carbon emissions with an understanding that the product on the shelf in front of them has contributed to those emissions and some much more than others.

Carbon calculations (Photo Allbirds)

But it will be a challenge. A recent survey by US company Bernstein on apparel waste and emissions entitled ‘How many times will you wear that new outfit?’ noted that whereas 75% of the surveyed people suggested that clothing retailers should focus on excess packaging and sustainable materials a far lower contingent said it would be better to use fewer resources at the manufacturing stage.

In short, the consumer is far more likely to worry about the too-big box and the plastic wrapping than they are about the product inside and how much energy went in to producing it. Retailers too are bending over backwards to divert clothing away from landfill by any means possible but are paying far less attention to developing energy-efficient materials and manufacturing processes.

Allbirds probably knows it is on an uphill task with both public and retail on this one so it is encouraging to see that alongside its own labelling and calorie-education marketing it recently announced a collaboration with the giant Adidas (which incidentally has never worked with a brand outside its own collection before) to produce the lowest carbon sports shoe ever seen.

Allbirds is collaborating with Adidas (Photo Allbirds and Adidas)

Many commentators could not understand the tie in between two competitors but as one of the Allbirds founders said: “This mission is bigger than either Allbirds or Adidas.” With the marketing clout of Adidas behind it carbon labelling for your wardrobe may just become the next big thing for the responsible, data generation.

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