When Gucci announced it was going carbon neutral in September, the news was received with much fanfare. But to Edzard van der Wyck, co-founder of brand-new label Sheep Inc., carbon neutrality should be considered the bare minimum commitment that fashion companies make.
"Suddenly this idea of carbon neutrality is becoming the kind of alpha and omega of sustainability," Van der Wyck says on the phone. "At current growth rates in the fashion space, none of this is going to solve anything."
It's not that he has a problem with brands prioritizing their carbon footprint. If anything, he's thinks that's the right focus. But why stop at carbon neutral, he reasons, when you could be carbon negative?
That's his plan for Sheep Inc., the brand he co-founded with Michael Wessely and Gavin Erasmus. Launching next week with a single product — a merino wool sweater in a few different colorways — the brand promises to offset the carbon footprint of every one of its pieces "tenfold." On top of that, Van der Wyck says, the brand is careful to create its pieces in the most environmentally friendly way possible. The goal is to combine an inherently low-impact supply chain with carbon offsetting to result in a brand that does more good than harm.
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Van der Wyck and his partners have clearly done their homework about what matters to a sustainable fashion consumer.
They understand the importance of transparency and traceability, so they're permanently embedding tags in their sweaters that consumers can scan to learn about the product's whole supply chain. They list the benefits of working with a material like wool that's both long-lasting and also biodegradable at the end of its life. They know they need to have a high-quality product that people will wear forever, and they're confident they've achieved that. They're investing money in the farms they partner with to increase biodiversity and protect animal welfare. They even encourage customers to get connected with the story behind the product by letting them "adopt" a sheep that can be tracked through those same scannable tags.
They have plenty of info about the factory workers involved in their supply chain and could share their pictures and bios the way other "ethical" brands do, Van der Wyck explains, and maybe they even will in some capacity. But for now, they're more invested in letting customers track the sheep rather than the people involved in the making of their sweaters, because it feels like less of an invasion of privacy for the workers.
For all they seem to be getting right, it's not clear whether Van der Wyck and his partners fully understand the potential pitfalls of carbon offsetting if it's done wrong. Though Van der Wyck and Erasmus assert that they have an advisory panel with two experts on it helping them decide what kinds of carbon offsets to invest in, they're also quick to share that they're investing in REDD+ forestry projects. It's an understandable approach — who doesn't want to save the Amazon rainforest, as they say they do? — but it's not particularly confidence-inspiring when you consider the number of climate scientists and offset experts that consider forest offsets the riskiest type to invest in. The negative impacts these kinds of projects can have on indigenous communities who live near the project sites are just the beginning of the concerns.
Prior to launch, Sheep Inc. was promising to "protect, permanently, four square meters of the world's forest" for every person who signed up for its email list. Sounds lovely, but another of the things that makes forest offsets suspect hinges on exactly this point: It's almost impossible to ensure a forest that's meant to be sucking carbon out of the air will stay standing for any length of time.
"You can't really guarantee anything in life," Erasmus says on the phone. "I'd rather try and be potentially imperfect than not try at all."
Point taken — it's better to try to protect forests than not try because you might fail — but if you're consciously doing something that's impossible to ensure will be permanent, why promise permanence to your customers? Oversimplifying the matter, as many brands like to do, might make for snappier copy, but it doesn't come across as particularly honest or transparent.
Erasmus and Van der Wyck go on to assure me that their offsetting portfolio is diverse and includes many other non-forestry related projects, which is at least one point in their favor.
Curiously, Sheep Inc. isn't, at the time of our interview, pursuing the use of carbon-sequestering wool in its sweaters. Wool is one of the few fibers that researchers have proven can be regeneratively farmed in such a way that it sequesters more carbon than it releases. Admittedly it's a pretty new field, and most of the farms doing this are in the pilot stage, but there is some "climate beneficial" wool already on the market, most notably sold through the North Face and the Fibershed marketplace. For a new label that's focused on carbon sequestration, wool and the latest technology developments, this seems like a missed opportunity for Sheep Inc.
When I bring this up to Van der Wyck and Erasmus, the interview takes an odd turn: Soon I'm the one being asked the questions. Erasmus asks me to share more details about my own research and opinions on the efficacy of climate-beneficial wool to gauge if it's "something worth pursuing."
It's an unusual position to put an interviewer in, but in some ways I respect their instinct. Rather than shutting down or pretending that they know everything in the face of a question they can't answer well, Erasmus and Van der Wyck seem genuinely eager to learn about what they might be missing.
All in all, the average consumer who wants to be able to buy something new without feeling guilty will likely find Sheep Inc. a fit. The brand checks all the right boxes, has a slickly designed website, boasts solid-looking product and employs clever marketing full of relevant buzzwords. But it's that little glimpse of humility — of the founders admitting they might not know everything — that could, if the founders are genuinely as willing to learn and adapt as they seem, turn the brand into something that actually wins over skeptics in the long run.
Sheep Inc. is hopefully a startup that will encourage other companies to ask themselves probing questions about their own environmental impacts.
"The good thing about this idea of becoming carbon negative is it's accessible for every [brand] and that's the point we're trying to make," Van der Wyck says. "We're the world's first carbon-negative fashion house, but we don't want to be the last."