Chanel Commits $35 Million Toward Solar Energy Projects for Low-Income Californians

And provokes questions about government-led clean energy transitions and carbon offsetting along the way.
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Chanel's Spring 2013 show.

Chanel's Spring 2013 show.

When Karl Lagerfeld sent models down a solar panel runway against a backdrop of wind turbines for Chanel's Spring 2013 show, the references to renewable energy seemed more about an aesthetic than anything else.

But seven years later, the brand is investing in renewable energy for real. On Wednesday, Chanel announced that it would be committing $35 million toward clean energy projects that will benefit low-income families in California. The luxury house is doing so through a partnership with Sunrun, one of the United States' largest home solar, battery storage and energy services companies.

Chanel's money will go towards a fund that supports solar installation for 30,000 California residents, with Sunrun overseeing the actual installations and ongoing system management. According to the French fashion company, the project should help beneficiaries save an average of $40 to $50 a month in energy costs. 

This isn't straight-up philanthropy, though. There's an upside for Chanel, too — this project will generate Renewable Energy Certificates, a Chanel rep tells Fashionista via email, "which will be applied to Chanel's operations (warehouses, offices and boutiques) across the United States and Canada. The amount of renewable electricity generated is sufficient to cover 100% of the company's electricity use in North America."

That means that when Chanel reports on its carbon footprint, it will be able to use the Renewable Energy Certificates generated by this project to declare its North American operations carbon neutral (a claim the brand has made about itself since 2019), even if it's still using fossil fuels to power offices, boutiques and the like. This will help Chanel reach the goals outlined in its Mission 1.5 Climate Plan, unveiled in March, which include reducing some of its own emissions in addition to offsetting others.

Carbon offsetting remains a much-discussed, sometimes-contested practice, with some environmentalists arguing that it can serve as license for corporations to keep emitting climate change-causing greenhouse gases while still calling themselves low- or zero-carbon operations. But others see the benefits of offsets, which incentivize a company like Chanel to use its significant financial resources to help low-income families transition to solar and save on their energy bills. 

As far as offsetting projects go, this one sounds like it may avoid some of the biggest pitfalls that have led to suspicion of offsets in the first place: It contains co-benefits for lower-income communities, and unlike a forest- or tree-based offset, it's less likely that the carbon savings of the project will disappear in the next wildfire

To determine which Californians should benefit from the program, Sunrun is working with housing developers to identify housing projects "where 80% of tenants fall below 60% of the area median income," a Sunrun rep tells Fashionista via email. California's recently-introduced Solar on Multifamily Affordable Housing (SOMAH) program, which offers financial incentives to property owners to install solar infrastructure on residences serving low-income communities, is part of what's allowing Sunrun to provide these services to communities for free. And new projects installed through SOMAH are required to provide direct economic benefits to tenants, which means the energy savings have to be passed on to residents, not just their landlords.

Deployment of this new Chanel-funded solar project is already underway, says Sunrun, and will continue "over the coming few years." (A representative declined to specify exactly how long.)

In addition to the solar projects on multifamily homes, Chanel's investment will also help fund 20,000 hours of clean-energy job training. The goal is to offer "valuable vocational skills and certifications to hundreds of people," says a Sunrun rep. "This will be primarily for solar panel installation skills such as construction, electrical, project management and more." 

While the last few weeks' headlines might lead one to believe that Chanel chose California for these projects due to the recent wildfire devastation in the state, the brand asserts that the choice has more to do with California's "forward-thinking clean energy policies," like the aforementioned SOMAH. 

"We chose to initiate our first renewable electricity project in the United States because the market is advanced on renewable energy investment," a representative for Chanel told Fashionista. "California's SOMAH incentive program made the state a particularly interesting option." 

The partnership brings up a few broader topics worth considering. First, it highlights the ongoing conversation about what role offsetting ought to play in corporations hitting their greenhouse gas emissions targets. Second, it points to the importance of climate-forward policy in making corporate social good possible in the first place — as Chanel and Sunrun pointed out, it was California's SOMAH program that made investment in the state appealing in the first place. Without it, Chanel would've diverted its $35 million elsewhere. 

Lastly, the partnership brings up a larger question as the next American presidential election looms, about the need to rely on foreign corporations — rather than local governments — to help residents transition to cleaner and cheaper energy. It's great for the 30,000 Californians on the receiving end of this program that Chanel decided to invest in their state. But what about the millions of Americans who don't have a French luxury brand volunteering to help them? For those citizens, finding ways to organize, advocate and vote for more clean energy-friendly policies and leaders will be crucial. 

Either way, Chanel's partnership with Sunrun feels like a full-circle moment after the solar panel runway of seasons past. We'll look for an environmental initiative to mirror the iceberg runway set next; with the news last month that global warming is melting Greenland's ice sheets past the point of no return, now would be a good time.

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