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Should Fashion be Labeled by its Carbon Footprint?

Updated: Jul 17, 2021

Similar to the calories listed on our food? Such a barometer doesn’t exist for clothes or shoes or anything else we purchase; in fact, the average person probably doesn’t know the carbon footprint of anything they consume.

Four years ago, Tim Brown and Joey Zwillinger launched Allbirds with one pair of wool sneakers. Whether you’re in New York, London, or a small town in France, there’s a good chance you’ve seen them - or dozens of them. Barack Obama is even a fan. Allbirds sneakers (of which there are now several styles) are popular for their simple design, plus they’re lightweight, comfortable, and have a softer look than traditional running shoes.

“Most sneakers are made with a lot of synthetics, so we looked to the natural world for alternatives,” Brown explains. “We wanted to find materials that wouldn’t compromise the product, but would also be better for the environment.” They landed on New Zealand merino wool for its natural and biodegradable properties, and the rest of the sneaker incorporates castor bean oil, sugarcane, tree fibers, and some recycled polyester.

In short, Allbirds sneakers are definitely gentler on the earth than the average pair, which might be comprised of a dozen plastic parts. That’s enough to attract an eco-minded shopper, but Brown stressed that materials are just one factor in a brand’s environmental footprint. “We’ve started to understand that sustainability means so many different things - it’s air quality, microplastics, biodiversity, fair trade labor,” he says. “All of these things are important, but ultimately, the singular ‘score card’ is carbon output. Carbon is a universal idea that we need to rally around. It has to be your north star.”

Allbirds’s ambition is to one day reach a “net zero” carbon footprint, and the company’s next step toward that goal was to conduct life cycle assessments across their entire supply chain. They calculated the carbon footprint of every single sneaker and sock down to a 10th of a kilogram—and today, Allbirds is the first fashion brand to label their products with those numbers. A pair of classic Wool Runners, for example, emits 7.2 kilograms of carbon dioxide. That number is the result of calculating every step in the shoe-making process, from the materials to the packaging to the shipping.

Brown compared the concept to the way our food is labeled by calories. “No one really understands what a calorie is, but they use it as a guideline to make decisions,” Brown says. “It isn’t the only reason we choose what we eat, though. That isn’t what we’re suggesting—we aren’t saying you should stop eating ice cream. We’re saying you should be aware of the impact and choices you make, so you can make better ones.”

This all seems eminently sensible to OGN Daily. That barometer just doesn’t exist for clothes or shoes or anything else we purchase; in fact, the average person probably doesn’t know the carbon footprint of anything they consume, whether it’s a handbag or a flight. Is 7.2 kilograms of carbon considered a lot for a pair of sneakers? Allbirds offered some other helpful comparisons: A pair of jeans comes in at 29.6 kilograms, while a T-shirt emits 13.6 kilograms. An economy flight from New York to San Francisco emits 688 kilograms, while a banana’s footprint is less than one kilogram. “You have to think about carbon in terms of how you travel and eat and shop - all of these things add up,” Brown says. “It’s about understanding how the small actions and decisions we make contribute to the global emissions we need to collectively reduce.”

Original story: Vogue

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