Carbon Labelling In Fashion: A Must, Or Misleading?

By Olivia Pinnock

As the race to battle the climate emergency continues, labelling products with their carbon footprint has become the latest fashion trend to encourage consumers to make more sustainable choices.

Allbirds, a sustainable footwear brand, became the first major fashion brand to do this for their whole product range last year. In an introductory video for the initiative, they say: “We want to spark a conversation that one day, hopefully, leads to every product being labelled with its carbon footprint because, let’s face it, how are people supposed to make better decisions when it comes to the planet when they have zero information?”

They’re not alone in their mission. Swedish tech startup Doconomy launched the 2030 Calculator last summer, a free tool for brands and suppliers to instantly calculate the footprint of products, focusing their attention on apparel and footwear first. The company hopes that by making the process affordable and accessible to any business, it will mean more brands can start publishing their products’ footprints.

With any brand now able to do this, would carbon labelling really help us to shop better?

On first mention it seems like a good idea, and consumers agree. A survey commissioned by The Carbon Trust found that 67% of consumers would support the introduction of carbon labelling on products, despite 51% admitting that they don’t think about the footprint of products when shopping.

However, carbon labels are still relatively meaningless to most people. Ask your average citizen to guess the carbon footprint of a typical pair of trainers and you’d likely be met with either a wild stab in the dark or a lost look of confusion (it’s 12.5kg CO2e, in case you were wondering). Until most brands start making this common practice, you’ll never truly be able to make low carbon shopping decisions.

Nike, for example, released Space Hippie, its “lowest carbon footprint shoe ever” in February 2020, a story that grabbed headlines. However, the actual footprint of the shoe has not been published, leaving consumers unable to see how much of a difference they might be making or how they compare to other low carbon alternatives.

It’s not just other fashion products that need to disclose this information though for the numbers to make sense to the average person. Is it possible to offset a new trainer purchase by making a trip on public transport instead of the car or by turning down the heating a few degrees? Probably, yes, but we don’t have this information readily at our fingertips. Realistically, most of us will be doing things in our daily lives that make a much more significant difference to our footprint than adding one trainer over another into our shopping basket. Just like companies, we cannot begin to make change until we know the full picture of how our lives create an impact on the planet.    

Carbon transparency is not just a trend in fashion. Food brands are also using it to promote sustainable eating. Quorn and Oatly publish the footprint of the product on their packaging and even Nestle is rumoured to be considering joining them. Its use in the food sector makes much more sense than fashion for two key reasons: it is easier for consumers to make swaps in their food purchases and the carbon footprint at the end of life for food is much easier to calculate.     

The decision-making process that goes into shopping for apparel and footwear is complex and highly unique to each individual. It is a much simpler ask to suggest people avoid strawberries out of season (which could add up to 1.65kg of CO2 per punnet compared to their in-season counterparts) and opt for another fruit, than it is to swap out one piece of clothing over another. The price of clothing is more varied, we have unique needs according to our body size and shape, and that’s even before you factor in personal style. And, truly, the most sustainable shopping decision you can make (other than buying nothing) is to buy something you really love and fits well.

Similar to food, the worst thing you can do to apparel and footwear in terms of its carbon impact, is throw it away. A report by WRAP in 2012 found that extending the life span of products and washing them less could make the biggest savings in fashion’s overall footprint, cutting them by 31% in comparison to a 24% reduction which could be made through eco-efficiencies in the supply chain. If brands want to sell you a product on the basis of its low footprint, they must make it clear that it’s a shared responsibility between us and them.

It’s fairly simple to calculate what might happen to food after it leaves the supermarket with a few variable factors (is the food eaten or does it go to waste, do you recycle the packaging or throw it in landfill?). With fashion, the lifespan of a piece of clothing could be anywhere between a day and 100 years and its footprint will also depend on how frequently it’s washed over this time frame, at what temperature and whether it’s tumble or air-dried. When you factor this in, carbon labels start to look hugely inaccurate.

Allbirds does explain this on their website and has also factored in “average use” for their products in its footprint label. This is much easier to do for a pair of sneakers that will be washed infrequently and can be tested for how easily they wear down. This is not so easy for apparel.

For all the valuable information carbon labelling might give us about who is actively addressing their company’s carbon emissions, and drive positive sentiment towards brands that promote transparency and sustainable improvements, it may also push a false sense of comfort on shoppers. While we may pat ourselves on the back for saving 5kg of CO2 by choosing Allbirds over “the average pair of sneakers”, this could all be outdone very quickly by throwing away a bin bag of clothes each spring.

Perhaps one day, in the future, if each household was given a strict carbon ration to battle the climate emergency will the individual footprint of fashion products carry weight. For now, they might help us make decisions, but not necessarily the best ones. The best decision is one far simpler, and one brands are far less comfortable sharing: reduce the amount you buy and make what you do last.

Olivia Pinnock

Olivia Pinnock is a London-based fashion journalist, lecturer and the founder of The Fashion Debates. She is dedicated to uncovering insightful stories and promoting positive change for a more sustainable future. As well as writing for some of world’s top publications and, Olivia also holds regular lectures at London College of Fashion, London Metropolitan University and Norwich University of the Arts, inspiring the next generation of fashion professionals.