New York Fashion Week begins in just over a month, and Vogue Runway’s already-full schedule suggests it’s going to be one of the busiest seasons… ever. Understandably so: It’s been a year-and-a-half since many of us saw a collection in person, and designers are itching to show their work in three dimensions again. After hundreds (thousands?) of grainy Zooms and the isolation of remote work, we’re craving the energy, the beauty, the hustle—even the 2:00 a.m. deadlines.
That our “return” is taking place in the midst of severe climate disasters and a pandemic that has emphasized the need to make, use, and waste less means sustainability will easily be the season’s big message. Pre-2020, designers including Gabriela Hearst, Gucci, and Dior were staging carbon-neutral shows and repurposing their sets, while brands high and low were promoting organic, recycled, and upcycled garments. As the pandemic and climate crisis elevated those ideas, consumers have grown more interested in sustainability, too: A Condé Nast survey of global Vogue audiences found that their desire to buy sustainable products—specifically from the brands they already love—is steadily increasing.
That’s all good news, at least on paper. But it doesn’t quite square with reality. Fashion is nowhere close to “being sustainable,” and designers need to come to grips with the fact that no matter what fabrics or packaging they choose, we’re still producing and consuming too much. Overconsumption has surpassed overpopulation as the leading driver of climate change, and research shows that we actually buy more when items are labeled with words like “recycled” or “circular.”
That doesn’t mean we should give up, or that sustainability isn’t possible. It’s more urgent than ever, and some designers are moving past the buzzword to embrace more ambitious goals. The term we’re expecting to hear at the spring 2022 shows isn’t “sustainability,” but “climate positivity,” or giving more to the planet than you take from it. It’s a big step beyond carbon neutrality, in which a brand compensates for 100% of its carbon emissions through offsets. Climate positivity or “earth positivity” suggests that a brand is playing an active role in reversing climate change by offsetting significantly more than it emits. That’s the idea, at least; it will take time to see if and when anyone pulls it off.
Some companies are inching towards “positivity” by way of regenerative agriculture. Brands like Allbirds, Eileen Fisher, Patagonia, and Christy Dawn are investing in regenerative cotton and merino farms, which can pull more carbon from the atmosphere into the soil than conventional fields. (Each dress in Christy Dawn’s “Farm to Closet” capsule represents 22 pounds of sequestered carbon, for instance, though they aren’t being billed as climate-positive.)
Others are embracing climate positivity in an official way: In June, Burberry became the first luxury fashion brand to commit to becoming climate positive by 2040. It aims to remove more carbon from the atmosphere than it emits by funding climate resilience projects in vulnerable communities, investing in nature-based solutions and ecosystem restoration, and, importantly, reducing its own manufacturing emissions by 46%. Exactly how that will happen remains to be seen; Pam Batty, Burberry’s VP of corporate responsibility, told Vogue Business that “we’re looking at every bit of what we do and every way we manufacture.”
Reformation made a similar pledge for climate positivity by 2025, committing to reduce its emissions and purchase offsets responsibly. “It’s no longer enough just to be neutral,” the brand states. “The reality is that we all need to do a lot more.” It’s one of 300 brands that worked with the start-up Climate Neutral to first become “climate neutral certified.” The process begins with an emissions calculator, which works out how many carbon credits (or offsets) a brand should purchase. Another step of certification is implementing a plan to meaningfully reduce emissions within 12 to 24 months. Climate Neutral encourages brands to align their goals with the Science Based Targets and requires they report on their progress annually to maintain their certification status.
Skeptics might see it as another way for brands to slap “climate neutral” on their Instagram posts. But CEO Austin Whitman says his non-profit’s goal is really to get companies to take swift, immediate action, rather than wring their hands or set a lofty target they’ll never meet. “What we’ve set out to do is create a framework that we think is effective for a wide range of companies, whether you’re making sweatshirts or software, and create [guidelines] you can implement right now, without having a Ph.D. in climate science,” he says. “Because if we build a strategy on that type of model, it just guarantees that 20 years will pass, and you’ll have to wait for another generation of professionals to do the work that needs to get done.”
Whitman said many of the companies he’s certified want to level up and become “climate positive.” It’s undeniably enticing—the idea that instead of “doing less harm,” fashion can actually make a positive impact on the planet, and that the clothes you buy could help fight climate change. But is it too good to be true?
Whitman isn’t totally convinced, at least not yet. “The reason I’m hesitant about any sort of ‘positive’ designation is because it implies that the existence of your company is better for the planet than if you just shut it down,” he says. “That’s a very big statement.” He points out the instability of the carbon offset market—Climate Neutral works with just five companies that have met their requirements—and the general difficulty of measuring carbon emissions. “It’s very hard to understand exactly how much benefit you’re providing by investing in de-carbonization projects,” he says. “If companies want to start making ‘positive’ claims, a lot has to go into understanding the numbers. That’s not to say that it can’t be done—you just really have to convince yourselves and any critical stakeholders that you’re actually doing what it takes to get to that level. You can’t just offset 10% more of your emissions and say you’re positive, because those numbers can be wrong.” In short, brands should overestimate their impact: “Being bold and not taking too much credit for it—that’s what I wish everyone’s behavior would look like,” he adds.
New Standard Institute founder Maxine Bédat worries a catchy new buzzword like “climate positive” could distract us from the very real, actionable changes that need to happen right now. “Just like ‘sustainability,’ ‘climate positive’ is starting out as a useful term, but I think it should really be about impact reduction and drawing down your carbon use. There’s no way to get to climate positivity without purchasing offsets, and the offset market is so unregulated.”
In her new book, Unraveled: The Life and Death of a Garment, Bédat followed the life cycle of a pair of jeans and discovered where fashion can instantly draw down its emissions: at the manufacturing stage. “You have to ask yourself: Where is the heart of the carbon footprint? It’s in the mills,” she explains. “Brands need to be looking at the energy output of their mills, and the relationships or financial incentives they can [create] to make them more energy efficient. Can they partner with other brands to get efficiency upgrades, or help the factories move to alternative energy? Can they improve the pipes so there’s less wasted energy? This is the work that could be happening right now to dramatically reduce emissions, but it’s just not what we’re seeing.”
Maybe it’s because factory maintenance isn’t the sexiest subject for a pastel Instagram ad. “But it could be!” Bédat says. “What makes regenerative sexy? It’s literally about soil microbes. I’d find this kind of work very sexy, because it’s the real work of making a sustainable planet.” She adds: “Maybe we just need a better word for it. I like draw down.”
That could all be on the horizon for Burberry, Stella McCartney, and Kering brands like Gucci and Balenciaga. Earlier this year, the companies partnered with the Apparel Impact Institute to “unlock” creative solutions around energy, water, and chemical use in their Italian factories. It’s a rare instance of competitors collaborating for the greater good, and hopefully a sign of what’s to come. “There’s a lot of work to be done to achieve the industry’s [sustainability] aspirations, and it just doesn’t make sense from a resourcing standpoint for every organization to take on these challenges on their own,” explained Kurt Kipka, AII’s vice president of programs. “In a post-COVID world, it’ll be even more important to ensure that every resource is applied in the most effective, efficient way possible.”