If a business model was a boomer, it would be the one-sided narrative of sucking up resources in the name of profit and nothing else. This isn’t sustainable, ethical, nor very cool.
“Our planet is deeply marked and influenced by our presence. Scientists argue we have entered the Anthropocene, a geological epoch where there are now so many of us, using so many resources that we are disrupting the whole planet’s nutrient and energy flows leaving almost all the planet’s ecosystems with marks of our presence. The systems that are shaped by the interactions between people and ecosystems are the essence of what we call a social-ecological system.” –Stockholm Resilience Centre
Basically, we need to come to terms with the undeniable fact that everything we do as a species leaves an imprint on the planet. Life is like Dancing With the Stars, the planet gets sent home, and us, their clumsy partner with two left feet who missed a few steps, gets the boot too.
In our piece, the Sustainability Shift, we took a look at some of the ways a business can move towards a green scope of practice. But how do brands not just embody it, but sell it to consumers? Turns out there are as many approaches to sustainability as there are words to define it.
From Fast Company:
- Carbon neutral means that an activity releases net zero carbon emissions into the atmosphere.
- Climate positive means that an activity goes beyond achieving net zero carbon emissions to actually create an environmental benefit by removing additional carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
- Carbon negative means the same thing as “climate positive.”
- Carbon positive is sometimes how organizations describe the previous two definitions. It’s mainly a marketing term, and understandably confusing–we generally avoid it
Monitoring our carbon footprint and its impact is hugely important. It’s the energy that is needed to not only make your product, but what’s required and emitted throughout its lifecycle of sourcing and production.
Nowadays, and rightfully so, you can’t just slap your product in a composting shipping bag and call your brand sustainable. Actionable steps must be taken and thankfully, there are some pretty cool companies paving the way.
A large scale example of a massive brand and household name taking on climate positivity would be Ikea. With resources used to build, ship, fill, and transport to their hundreds of stores across the world to your door they have a pretty darn impactful footprint.
“The IKEA vision is to create a better everyday life for the many people. Climate change threatens this, for people today and for generations to come. Becoming climate positive means reducing more greenhouse gas emissions than the full IKEA value chain emits, while growing the IKEA business. We must act now, while securing a just transition so that no one is left behind.
We are committed to doing our part to limit global temperature rise to 1.5°C by becoming net-zero by 2050 at the latest, and halving greenhouse gas emissions in absolute terms from the total IKEA value chain by 2030. By working together across IKEA and with trusted external partners, we aim to contribute to a society that is better for all – with clean air, clean water, improved health, resilient ecosystems, and that is fair and equal.”
Ikea has the budget and means to not just take climate change seriously but to shift the impact in their industry. But what about a smaller brand that’s globally recognized and has been a pioneer of sustainability since their inception? Enter our favourite Sustainable Swede: Nudie Jeans Co.
Nudie Jeans Co. is a climate positive denim brand with a cult following founded in Gothenburg, Sweden in 2001. Their successfully executed vision to become the most sustainable denim brand has given them the position as a leader in the eco-forward branch of textile and fashion industry. With “wear, tear, and repair” as their mantra rather than that the fast fashion adage of “make-take-waste” they attribute the success of their business model to their thriving online presence with a tried and true wholesale platform full of dedicated retailers.
“This model changes our paradigm for development, moving away from the current sectorial approach, where social, economic and ecological development are seen as separate parts. Now, we must transition towards a world logic, where the economy serves society so that it evolves within the safe operating space of the planet.”-Johan Rockström from the Stockholm Resilience Centre and creator of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) structure used by Nudie.
[Author’s note: I was a fashion buyer for years, and Nudie is the only brand I have worked with, or been approached by, that has sent me their sustainability report –without prompting!– prior to a buying appointment.]
Nudie has had an open and transparent supply chain before it was trending. We were able to sit down with the Sustainability Coordinator for Nudie, Kevin Gelsi, to ask him about the steps the brand has taken to boost the traceability of their products, increase customer engagement, and how they are constantly evolving to become even more sustainable.
“We have added a full traceability scale on each product,” said Kevin, “It’s almost ready for every piece but we’ve also added the average water and emissions data for the product now. So that’s also calculated, there will be a text and post about what kind of methodology we’ve used and these figures are average figures based on that exact supply chain. And so this is the first step towards that direction to actually showcase the data [in regards] to the water and emissions impact.”
The work they do towards their sustainable development goals are directly tied and not separate from their economic goals. Through responsible growth and consumption they have turned their climate change measures into policies, strategies and planning. They also understand the importance of giving their consumers the benefit of the doubt and increasing education awareness via climate mapping (scopes 1, 2, 3 –more on this below) and setting realistic climate goals.
Here are some highlights of these goals in action:
Transportation: “In 2020, we started to highlight the transport alternatives in our online shop, in some markets, that are better from an emission perspective to push the customer to choose a less emissions intensive transport alternative. Given the innovations and developments in the logistics sector, such as bike couriers and smart delivery boxes, we see a potential to decrease our “last mile” emissions – transports from the terminal of the carrier to the end customer.” -Via Nudie’s 2020 Sustainability Report
One thing that we have yet to see any other brand highlight is the “user phase” of reducing Scope 3 carbon emissions. Quick recap on Scope, 1, 2, 3 emissions: based on the framework of the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, Scopes 1, 2 –the direct and indirect sources of emissions– and the easiest to reduce– are primarily heating, electricity, and the company’s measurable use of fossil fuels. Scope 3 on the other hand, is where the nastiest of all carbon emitters hang out. Here you will find the emissions produced throughout the value chain and in production, corporate travel (this adds up fast!) and corporate investments.
The carbon footprint that is left by the customers is one key aspect of Scope 3 emissions that are easy to overlook. Such as how did they end up purchasing the product? Did they order it online and how is it getting shipped to them? If they purchased it locally, how did they get to the store? Did they drive, bike or walk? And how long will they have the product and what are their plans for it’s end-of-life cycle? Will the customer keep it long term, donate it, throw it away? If they plan on returning the product will they do it in person? Or if they have to ship it back, how many kilometers away is it’s final destination?
“This is one of the educative aspects regarding supply chains, and deliverance methods. The entire chain is becoming more and more relevant,” says Kevin. So how do we address the user phase dilemma?
“By understanding the consumer and what their impact is,” thinks Kevin, “Of course, it’s very important to address and to educate consumers about this, but it’s also a matter of brand and corporate responsibility to set up centralized systems where tracing emissions actually becomes actions of reduction.”
Production: According to Nudie’s Sustainability Report, 58% of their total emissions are generated in the production phase. From every aspect of the supply chain where raw cotton is harvested cotton, to the final stitch sewn on a pair of jeans, this is where the majority of water, electricity, resources, and fuel is used up.
“In our climate work, we realize once again that our long-term relationships and close collaborations with our suppliers are vital for our sustainability advancements. Collecting actual data from our suppliers enables us to follow the real changes of emissions in our supply chain and pinpoint our GHG emissions hotspots. The change to renewable energy in our full supply chain will be challenging, but we know where we need to focus our most important actions and that will be visible in the data.”Eliina Brinkberg Environmental Manager Nudie Jeans
Nudie has offset their full business emissions in 2020 through the UN Carbon Offset Platform by mapping out their entire supply chain’s water data and CO₂ emissions, and with investments in carbon offsetting to cover their business’s full emissions.
Organic Cotton: Organic cotton potentially reduces global warming by 46%, and Nudie’s full product line is currently made with 94% organic and/or Fairtrade, reused, recycled cotton. “We take a stand on [using organic cotton] because we’re firm believers in it,” says Kevin, “the use of organic farming methods and using organic recycled cotton when talking about cutting emissions are the absolutely most sustainable alternative, which is also why we have our take back scheme. We always like to try to keep the integrity of our organic use intact wherever possible.”
When it comes to BCI cotton, Nudie takes a really progressive stance.
“Organic cotton vs. BCI? We do not classify BCI cotton as a sustainable fiber as it is neither organic nor traceable. We recognize the need of a scheme to support the change from conventional farming by promoting better practices, but we do not think we can stop there. We have higher ambitions and will not use BCI cotton when we can use organic cotton.”From their 2020 Sustainability Report
“The BCI label is a better alternative, as you know, it’s just that the average consumer perceives it as like an organic claim,” says Kevin, “within the BCI program the hazardous chemicals are still allowed just smaller amounts of it. The real issue also besides, from the environmental aspects of still using, is that chemicals, you know, penetrate the soil and are dangerous for the farmers themselves. Besides that, it becomes like a complex situation with the green claims and like the labeling of the final product.”
Carbon Offsetting: As mentioned before, they have done this through the UN Carbon Offset Platform. “We have invested in three different projects, two wind power projects; one in Jaisalmer, Rajasthan and Tirunelveli, Tamil Nadu34, and one in Barmer and Jaisalmer, Rajasthan and Shimoga, Karnataka35, and one biomass power plants based in Chimur, Maharasthra. The latter is also certified Gold Standard. All the projects are based in the proximity of either our suppliers or the areas of where the Chetna cotton comes from. All the above projects generate renewable electricity to the regional grid, replacing energy from fossil-based sources. We aim to continue to invest in carbon offsetting covering our business’ full emissions as a complement to actual reduction activities.”
Ok. listen up, folks. Carbon offsetting is typically done to reduce carbon emissions outside of a company’s direct business operations or supply chains. When most companies invest in off-sets they are able to continue to produce and pollute in the same capacity because these off-sets schemes don’t impact how they produce. The political writer and activist, George Monbiot compared off-setting emissions to “pushing food around on your plate to create the impression that you have eaten.” Nudie understands the assignment. Their offset programs aren’t full of arbitrary initiatives in far off places but directly linked to their supply chain. This is how you do it.
“Society is where we act and have an impact on our production, products and customers. The economy represents the outcome of our business, and partnerships across all levels are needed for successful sustainability initiatives.”
Nudie shows us what achievements over ambitions in a company can look like while maintaining increased profit and continued growth. This direct to consumer denim brand has a sustainability report that is on par with the big 5 tech companies we have covered with more transparency and credibility than them all combined. Currently, 98.6% of their products are sustainable. In honour of transparency, they have created a handy Materials Tool as a guide for their production team and designers to get them towards their achievable goal of becoming 100% sustainable.
We recognize that the loss of ecosystem services always has the greatest and harshest impact on people who already live in poverty. Therefore, we constantly endeavor to learn more about the impact of our business and to choose raw materials that do not increase the risk of biodiversity loss” -From the 2020 Sustainability Report
System-level changes are needed for the integration of social and environmental issues in business through an understanding of the dynamically interconnected nature of the environment, society, and the economy. Human and business activities should be acted out in a way that conserves the functions of the earth’s ecosystems and biodiversity.
Take responsibility for biodiversity.