For years, fashion has touted carbon offsetting as one of the ways it was going green. Brands from Burberry to Gabriela Hearst have used carbon credits to claim carbon-neutral runway shows, and Gucci declared its entire supply chain and operations carbon-neutral in 2019.
Credits and offsetting are part of the carbon market, a voluntary mechanism that’s meant to help governments and companies, as well as individuals, lower their carbon footprint by funding projects to remove carbon from the atmosphere or prevent future emissions. Crucially, this is supposed to only include projects that would otherwise not happen.
Carbon credits are now a fixture of sustainability strategies across retail, regardless of the company’s other environmental commitments. But what are they really worth, and are they the sustainability solution they’re often promised to be?
his debate picked up renewed steam in January, when The Guardian reported that the vast majority of carbon credits approved by Verra, the largest certifier of such credits globally, are “worthless” because they lack evidence to show they reduced or prevented deforestation — the justification for approving the credit — and overstate the threat facing the forests in question.
Gucci, the only fashion brand mentioned as a buyer of Verra carbon credits in The Guardian piece, declined to comment for this story, although it has been clear that it tries to follow the mitigation hierarchy, which instructs businesses to avoid emissions and other environmental harm first and foremost, then focus on reducing, restoring and then offsetting or compensating as a last step. The Italian fashion house deferred instead to Verra’s detailed public response, which strongly refutes The Guardian’s claims, saying they’re based on studies that lack geographic context and reach incorrect conclusions because of how they were designed from the start. The organisation also described efforts it’s implementing to improve how it develops the baselines for measuring the effectiveness of climate actions.
The Guardian’s findings were produced using its own methodology and were not peer-reviewed, prompting many criticisms of the report as flawed. Regardless, the carbon market is already controversial. Companies that buy carbon credits, which represent the removal of 1 tonne of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, often say they are “offsetting” their emissions and are therefore carbon neutral, even if their own emissions are increasing. However, that doesn’t add up to a 1.5°C pathway, and some critics say that carbon offsetting does more harm than good by allowing companies to exaggerate or falsify their climate progress.
As more fashion brands lay out net-zero targets and turn to the carbon market to help meet them, the stakes involved in whether carbon credits are a legitimate or worthless component of a climate strategy could not be higher.