For Fashion’s Future, Neutrality Isn’t Enough

 

In recent years, fashion’s top labels have committed to neutralizing their carbon emissions. But neutrality, by way of carbon offsets or not, isn’t enough. So, what’s next for the future of fashion? Carbon negativity.

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Fashion—today, at least—is easily scrutinized. By now, we’re more than acutely aware of its deficiencies (see: secondhand clothing, microplastics, land use, etc.). But it nevertheless remains a driver of larger cultural conversations. It’s becoming more commonplace to know where, how, by who, and with what a garment was made. But what if you could know how much carbon it removed, or saved, from the atmosphere? No longer are carbon neutrality and carbon offsetting the only routes to net zero for the supposedly innovative industry—fashion’s next move is even more en vogue: carbon negativity.

 

In recent years, brands as big as Gucci have sought to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by reforming their production processes to achieve carbon neutrality within the next decade; others, like Reformation, are already there and taking the steps to become what they call “climate positive”. They’re steps in the right direction considering the targets set by the Paris Agreement (to some, carbon neutrality is likened to rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic). And, though these efforts might cater to those looking to shop more consciously—to a certain degree, an oxymoron in and of itself—it’s not lost on a new generation of consumer activists who demand renewable energy policy and total transparency so everyone can shop guilt-free.

 

Carbon negativity, per TechTarget, involves the reduction of an entity’s carbon footprint to less than neutral, so that the entity in question has a net effect of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere rather than adding it. A more aggressive approach than carbon neutrality, it can be achieved in ways that go beyond planting trees and require substantial efforts to reduce fossil fuel emissions to negative values.

 

Emerging labels, like Sheep Inc. and jewelry brand Aether, are proving to be the fashion labels of tomorrow with their own products that don’t just offer life-guarantees or waste-free production stories; they’re going about capturing even more carbon from the atmosphere than they would otherwise emit in their own, patented ways.

Photo: Courtesy Aether/Jeffrey Hamilton/Getty Images.

When Aether began, cofounder Ryan Shearman and his partner Daniel Wojno set out to solve a pretty out-there hypothesis: “What if there was a methodology to use chemistry to convert harmful atmospheric carbon into beautiful crystalline carbon—otherwise better known as diamonds?” It would lead to a process that captures carbon and turns it into fine jewelry—making Aether the first jewelry brand to use carbon from a source that isn’t the Earth (nor from fossil fuels via drilling and fracking).

 

It goes like this: As polluted air is drawn in, the CO2 is captured in a special filter and a first-of-its-kind diamond alchemization process is set into motion. The captured CO2 is then synthesized into a usable hydrocarbon raw material perfect for growing diamonds. The hydrocarbon raw materials are then placed into powerful reactors and grow one ambitious atom at a time, as the carbon aligns into crystalline form. After three to four weeks, as the growing process continues, the diamond reaches “peak perfection”—and finally, it’s sent to expert craftspeople to be cut, polished, and set into jewelry by hand.

 

“Today, if you want to produce diamonds, you have two ways of doing it,” Shearman tells Atmos. “You dig ’em out of the ground, which is horrendous when it comes to the environment. Or you can grow them in a laboratory and the feedstock that you utilize for growing diamonds in a laboratory is a fossil fuel.” For every one carat diamond, Aether removes 20 metric tons of CO2 from the atmosphere from just eight to 12 weeks prior. And, unlike more widespread forms of carbon sequestration, Shearman believes Aether’s method is permanent.

 

“Trees, for example, are a great way of capturing carbon. The carbon that they pull from the air becomes the wood that they’re made of,” Shearman explains. “But the problem is, as they die and degrade, they’re then burned. And, unfortunately, they release carbon back into the environment.” Diamonds may be forever, but trees—who can live for hundreds of years—are, in their own way, forever, too. Even those that are burned or biodegrade give their carbon back to their ecosystems to feed surrounding trees so they can grow and continue to capture carbon from the atmosphere.

We get to take that paradigm of this negative and flip it on its head and say, Hey, this is a good thing. Look at the impact we can have. Right?

Ryan Shearman

Though fabulously scientific, it’s a process not unachievable by other brands—like LVMH- or Kering-owned fashion houses—with much larger capital to experiment with. And really, wouldn’t it make those hand-made items that much more of a luxury? Shearman insists man-made is good: “We like to say we have the rarest diamonds in the world because we’re the only company doing this right now (and our production capacity isn’t huge). We get to take that paradigm of this negative and flip it on its head and say, Hey, this is a good thing. Look at the impact we can have. Right?”

 

He’s not wrong. If the brand were to take 100% of the market and sell roughly 150 million carats of the diamonds sold last year (per Shearman), that would equate to three gigatons of carbon drawdown—an obviously massive percentage of global emissions. If diamonds are a girl’s best friend then Aether could be carbon’s worst enemy. It should be said, too, that luxury goods aren’t accessible to everyone—which means it’s not the best solution for the average person who’s looking to reduce their carbon footprint via their buying power, rather one of many. Sheep Inc., for example, provides a more affordable (and soft) alternative.

 

Edzard van der Wyck and his business partner Michael Wessely set after a much broader yet no less impactful quandary to solve as they prepared to launch Sheep Inc.: “How do you set up a fashion business knowing that we’re on the precipice of what we are on?” Sheep Inc. sells sustainably-sourced and -made unisex knitwear where, with every purchase, you don’t just get a sweater with a life-guarantee (like the ability to send back for repairs or a replacement), its own care kit, and five percent of your purchase invested into a biodiversity project somewhere around the globe—you get a fluffy sheep adoptee from the same regenerative agricultural farm that your sweater was made from, whose goings on you can follow throughout its life via the RIFD in its ear and the NFC tag (made of a castor bean-derived bioplastic) on the sweater itself, too.

Photo: Courtesy Sheep Inc.
Photo: Courtesy Sheep Inc.

For van der Wyck, it doesn’t have to be so elaborate—it’s just about getting people to care. “It comes down to the fact that people are not conditioned to ask questions when it comes to fashion. And the reason for that is fashion has been such an opaque industry for so long,” van der Wyck tells Atmos. “It doesn’t need or offer up information. People don’t ask for it, and therefore we just, kind of, go about our merry way, and we buy stuff none the wiser of what’s actually happening behind the garment and its creation.”

 

It’s this train of thought, or lack thereof, that has led the fashion industry on a route to be responsible for a quarter of the world’s carbon emissions by 2030. At Sheep Inc., the aforementioned five percent of every purchase is invested into carbon offsetting projects that mitigate, at minimum, 10x the gross carbon footprint of each sweater. Projects are chosen and audited by their climate crisis panel led by University College London’s head of climatology Pr. Mark Maslin. In other words, a Sheep Inc. sweater isn’t part of fashion’s waste problem but, hopefully, a part of its solution.

 

And merino wool is something of a super fabric. It’s a natural fiber, 100 percent biodegradable, temperature regulating, moisture wicking, and it doesn’t retain odor (less washing). But van der Wyck needed to justify that it came from a sheep—a methane producing animal that takes up quite the lot of land. So, he and his team dove head first into the regenerative farming realm and found ZQ Merino, a sustainable wool sourcing team who helped them locate three farms that fit their values. And the rest of its supply chain—which involves Japanese no-waste Shima Seiki machines, life-cycle assessment audits, fair wages, and more—is history. Sheep Inc.’s combination of a carbon neutral production process, plus its investments in biodiversity programs, eventually put them in the negative.

 

“The consumer has to come in and start to have more insight into brands, so they can be able to make a decision,” van der Wyck says, adding that consumer activists can be a part of the solution so long as the brand offers education beyond the product itself. “If I go to Gucci and they set a 2035 target of being carbon neutral, but the current reality is that they’re basically paying their way out of this transitional period [via carbon offsetting]—then that’s up to me, as a consumer, to say, You know what? That’s simply not good enough. I don’t want to support a brand that isn’t doing something good right now.”

Photo: Courtesy Sheep Inc.

Sheep Inc. bills itself “carbon-negative, future positive,” an example of the first carbon-negative knitwear on Earth. And Aether is allegedly “the future of fine jewelry, designed for humans and the planet.” For an industry so obsessed with what’s next, fashion—and its billions and billions of greenhouse gas emissions—may be stuck in the past. And carbon negativity can’t be yet another excuse to justify quantity over quality. But it can, and should, be sewn into its future.

 

At times, style is expensive and unnecessary. And, though sequestering carbon may yet be priceless, it’s no longer just an idea. At a time where “doing something good” seems to be the only currency we have left, investing in a multi-thousand dollar diamond bracelet or a $171 sweater can actually leave us feeling empty. After all, addressing the climate crisis isn’t about accumulating “things”—it involves finding better ways to dispose of them and rediscovering the joy in what we already have. But luxury fashion, no matter how you define it, is often a leader in what’s possible. So, if a cardigan wasn’t just made of recycled materials, but could actually mitigate pollution for the long-term—in ways beyond your immediate abilities or imagination—would you buy it?

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