As the fashion industry continues to address its role in the climate crisis, brands are beginning to consider more seriously the ways they can offset their carbon footprint.
In September Gucci announced it would join brands like Reformation and Allbirds to become 100 per cent carbon neutral.
For a brand to be carbon neutral it must remove the same amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as it puts in to it, whether it be from production, to transport to packaging – to offsetting its directly managed usage.
For a brand as giant at Gucci, the move signals a commitment to significant business-wide change.
But is carbon neutrality enough?
Not for Eszard van der Wyck, one of the original co-founders of hosiery brand Heist, who launched knitwear label Sheep Inc. in October.
The mission? To create the world’s first carbon-negative fashion brand.
“There has been a lot of talk about carbon-neutrality at the moment as the solution, but our position is that it doesn’t push things far enough,” van der Wyck tells the Standard. “If we want to get out of the situation we’re in, we need to become carbon-negative.”
To do this, Sheep Inc. works with the most sustainable suppliers it can find, from carbon-neutral farms, to manufacturers that run on 100 per cent renewable energy, and then offsets the remaining carbon footprint of each of its pieces, tenfold.
They launched the brand with a single 100 per cent biodegradable crew neck sweater design, offered in a muted colour palette and made from ZQ-certified Merino wool.
“We chose a special blend of Merino wool that has all the softness of cashmere, with all the technical benefits of wool. Meaning it is heat regulating (warm when cold, breathable when hot) and doesn’t need to be washed often, as it naturally repels dirt and doesn’t hold moisture or odours,” he explains. “On top of that, it is incredibly durable, whilst simultaneously being 100 per cent biodegradable.”
Each sweater comes with an NFC tag on the hem, marked with a unique serial number. When scanned with a smartphone, the full details of the garments manufacturing journey and carbon-footprint are unlocked.
“We have an internal guiding light of ‘carbon negativity for future positivity,’” says van der Wyck, who launched the company with friends Michael Wessely and Gavin Erasmus. Wessely, an old friend of van der Wyck’s, has a background in finance, while Erasmus has a background in blockchain tech, which allowed him to build the transparency system in Sheep Inc.’s products that allows you to track each sweater back to its farm origins through the NFC tag.
While the tag itself is not yet biodegradable, it’s made from an ecological plastic called EcoPaXX - a high-performance, bio-based, 100 per cent carbon neutral polyamide made primarily from renewable castor bean oil which holds the silver Cradle to Cradle certification and can easily be popped off and recycled when you no longer want your sweater. Put the rest of the woolly jumper in the ground, and nothing will remain within 12 months.
In amongst all the information and insights on material origins, water usage and production techniques that appear when you scan the tag, is also the name of the sheep who provided the wool for your sweater. Cute? Yes. But it’s also a very practical way of encouraging consumers to consider the life cycle of a garment, and the processes that go into making it.
Thanks to an RFID tag in every sheep’s ear, the company is able to send regular updates about your ovine adoptees movements and wellbeing, “its major life events. Where it is, what it’s up to. When it’s had a haircut. Even whether it’s had lambs,” says the company website. “It’s our way of bringing you back in touch,” says van der Wyck.
While Sheep Inc works hard to reduce the carbon footprint of its manufacturing process, any remaining impact is offset by allocating five per cent of all revenues to biodiversity projects, with their investments all carefully vetted by an independent advisory panel of climate change experts.
From biodiversity projects on the farms they work with and projects that restore areas impacted by over-farming, to more immediate issues like deforestation of the Amazon (they’ve already protected 9000 square metres of the Brazilian Rainforest in the Acre state of the Amazon basin since launch), the fund’s investments are varied and wide-reaching.
“Our environmental fund allows us to offset around 325kg of carbon per sweater, although our mix of investments means our actual positive impact is in fact far higher,” says van der Wyck.
Most importantly, they ensure that for every sweater made, its carbon footprint is offset a minimum of 10 times over, which is light-years ahead of what most other industry players are even coming close to doing.
“The carbon offset investments proposed by a few of the bigger fashion companies recently really are a pittance compared to their profit,” says van der Wyck. “To give you an indication: compared to a recent carbon-offsetting commitment by one of the bigger fashion houses, Sheep Inc. invests about 50 times more. Whilst they are fixing to make their supply chains more sustainable, we really want to push the wider industry to commit a lot more.
And that’s the point really. While Sheep Inc. is currently a tiny insurgent in the fashion industry’s war for people’s wardrobes, it’s determined to set an example of what is possible. Beautifully made, wonderfully soft (trust me, I’m wearing one as I type) and truly classic designs that put more back into the earth than they take out
Whether Sheep Inc. can create a revolution in the category of woolly jumpers in the same way Allbirds has done for trainers (and, to an extent, what Heist is already in the process of doing for hosiery) remains to be seen, but there can be no doubt it’s a product with heart that will, as a minimum, make consumers and competitors alike stop to think
“Our aim is to push the industry, fashion or otherwise, to do more,” says van der Wyck. “And to do it now.”
The Sublimely Soft Unisex Sweater costs £160, available from sheepinc.com