Carbon footprint: what is it?
The concentration of carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere is currently almost 412 parts per million (ppm) and rising. This represents an increase of 47% since the beginning of the industrial era, when the concentration was close to 280 ppm, and an increase of 11% since 2000, when it was close to 370 ppm.
According to IPCC AR6 2023 of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, greenhouse gas emissions from human activities are causing the global temperature to increase by 1.1°C compared to pre-industrial values. This is leading to an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events and, consequently, to damage to people and natural ecosystems. According to the report, emissions will have to be reduced by almost half by 2030 if warming is to be limited to 1.5°C.
The need to calculate and subsequently reduce emissions affects all sectors, including the fashion industry.
In 2018, the UN Fashion Industry Climate Action Charter was founded and renewed at COP26 in Glasgow, UK, in November 2021. The Charter's goal is to achieve zero greenhouse gas emissions in the fashion industry by 2050, keeping global warming below 1.5°C.
However, according to the 2023 Progress Report 'Fashion Industry Charter For Climate Action' by UN Climate Change, only 45% of the active signatories of the Fashion Industry Charter for Climate Action comply with the public climate targets necessary to keep global warming below 1.5°C.
This figure again underlines the need to implement significant efforts to reduce the environmental impacts of the fashion industry.
In order to initiate a strategy to reduce corporate emissions, it is necessary to start by calculating the Carbon Footprint: this is a measure that expresses in CO2eq the total greenhouse gas emissions associated directly or indirectly with a product, organization or service.
In particular, there are two types of Carbon Footprint:
- The Carbon Footprint of a product (product carbon footprint)
- The carbon footprint of an organization (organizational carbon footprint)
The product carbon footprint
The product carbon footprint considers the total emissions of all life stages of a product/service "from cradle to grave", expressing them in the impact category of Global Warming Potential - 100 years.
Through the product carbon footprint, it is possible to calculate the total amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) associated directly or indirectly with a product over its entire life cycle.
Specifically, each GHG is weighted with respect to its contribution to the increase in the greenhouse effect. This weighted value is expressed in kg of CO2eq which varies depending on the GHG examined.
The reference standard for calculating the Carbon Footprint of products is ISO 14067 - 'Greenhouse gases - Carbon footprint of products - Requirements and guidelines for quantification and communication', which is based on principles, requirements and guidelines identified in existing international standards on Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), namely ISO 14040 and ISO 14044.
The use of Life Cycle Assessment principles in the calculation of a product's Carbon Footprint makes it possible to:
- avoid the transfer of environmental impacts from one phase of a product's life cycle to another. Without the adoption of Life Cycle Assessment principles in the calculation of the Carbon Footprint, the entire life cycle of the product would not be considered, which could result in a reduction of carbon emissions in one phase of the life cycle (e.g. the change of some materials to reduce the environmental impact) being compensated for by an increase in emissions in another phase (e.g. the end-of-life phase, due to the choice of new non-recyclable materials)
- facilitate the monitoring of product carbon footprint calculation results
- identify potential opportunities for greenhouse gas elimination and emission reductions
- help promote a low-carbon economy
- strengthen the credibility, consistency and transparency of a product's carbon footprint calculation and reporting
- facilitate the evaluation of alternative design and sourcing, production and manufacturing, transport, recycling and other end-of-life management options for the product
The organizational carbon footprint
The carbon footprint of an organization consists of the quantification and reporting of direct or indirect greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions related to the organization.
The reference standards are UNI EN ISO 14064 and the GHG Protocol.
The UNI EN ISO 14064 standard, revised in 2019, consists of 3 parts:
- ISO 14064-1:2018: specifies the requirements for the design, development management, reporting and verification of greenhouse gas inventories of organisations
- ISO 14064-2:2019: defines requirements for quantifying, monitoring and reporting greenhouse gas reductions and removals
- ISO 14064-3:2019: specifies requirements and guidelines for conducting validation and verification of GHG assertions (by certification bodies) related to organisations, projects and products.
The GHG Protocol defines the classification of company emissions, approaches for establishing company boundaries and what should be included in the calculation, methods of quantification and guidelines for disclosure.
- Scope 1: these are direct emissions related to the company's activities (for example, emissions attributable to the company's production processes or generated by the use of fossil fuels to power boilers or company vehicles)
- Scope 2: these are indirect emissions due to the production of electricity purchased and consumed by the company. In this case they are indirect emissions since the electricity is not produced by the company but by third parties in places other than those where the energy itself is used
- Scope 3: these are indirect emissions generated by processes or plants not directly controlled by the company but traceable to its value chain (e.g. transport of purchased fuels, use of products and services sold, etc.).
After completing the Carbon Footprint calculation, we proceed with the identification of the areas that have the greatest impact, the definition of strategies to reduce direct and indirect emissions, and the search for solutions to offset residual carbon emissions through carbon offsetting projects.
The importance of carbon footprint calculation to achieve carbon neutrality
The calculation of the carbon footprint is also the first step towards achieving the goal of carbon neutrality, i.e. a state in which greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions released into the atmosphere by an entity (individual, organisation, company, country, etc.) have been reduced or avoided and the remaining emissions are offset through carbon offsetting projects.
Carbon neutrality is a key objective to ensure that corporate efforts are in line with global climate goals.
The only internationally recognised carbon neutrality certification standard is PAS 2060 (Publicly Available Specification), a standard applicable to activities, products, services, buildings, projects, cities and events.
PAS 2060 involves four different steps:
- Measurement: the first step involves the calculation of the Carbon Footprint of product or organisation or other sub-systems, according to internationally recognised standards. The calculation must include 100% of Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions and all Scope 3 emissions that contribute more than 1% of the total carbon footprint
- Reduction: then proceed with the reduction of the calculated emissions following a decarbonisation-oriented Emission Management Plan that contains a public commitment to Carbon Neutrality. At this stage, it is necessary to specify the time scale, targets and means available to achieve emission reductions, but also how to offset residual emissions
- Offsetting: emissions that cannot be reduced must be offset through certified carbon credits
- Disclosure & Validation: this last phase requires a declaration that the standards have been met, with public disclosure of all documentation supporting the Carbon Neutrality declaration (evidence of emission reductions, Carbon Footprint report, Emission Management Plan, etc.).
Case Study: Calculating the carbon footprint in the fashion industry
Veja: Veja is a sustainable fashion company committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions. The company published on its website a detailed report on the calculation of greenhouse gas emissions generated by its activities, ranging from the production of raw materials to the delivery of products to customers.
Veja's report shows that most of the company's greenhouse gas emissions are generated by scope 3, i.e. supply chain activities, in particular the production of the organic cotton used to make the shoes.
Veja has also set targets to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions. The company's targets are:
- reduce greenhouse gas emissions from all three areas by 15% by 2023
- increase energy efficiency by 10% by 2023
- use renewable energy sources for 50% of electricity consumption by 2025
The brand has also launched several initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the supply chain. For example, the company is working to promote the sustainable cultivation of organic cotton, reduce the environmental impact of transport and distribution activities and improve the energy efficiency of production factories.
Kering: The sustainability strategy of the French luxury group Kering involves assessing progress according to 73 Environmental Performance Indicators (EPIs) covering all operations and the supply chain, from raw materials to processing, to shops, offices and warehouses (Scope 1, 2 and 3 upstream of the Greenhouse Gas Protocol).
Over the past few years, Kering and its maisons have made considerable progress in achieving their sustainability goals, while expanding their corporate ambitions. Now, they are setting a new ambitious target covering Scopes 1, 2 and 3 of the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, as decarbonising global operations requires a shift from carbon intensity reductions to absolute reductions.
Within the Sustainability Progress Report 2020-23 published in March 2023, Kering stated its new emission reduction targets, which include:
- 90% reduction in absolute greenhouse gas emissions for Scope 1 and Scope 2 by 2030 (base year: 2015).
- 70% reduction in Scope 3 greenhouse gas emission intensity by 2030 (base year: 2015).
Patagonia: the American outdoor clothing brand, which has always been committed to promoting sustainability and ethics, has set the goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2025. Despite the very ambitious target, the brand stated that the majority of the company's emissions, 95%, come from the supply chain and material production.
Specifically, in 2020, Patagonia's carbon emissions were 224,565 metric tonnes of CO2eq and broke down as follows:
- production of materials: 84%
- production of finishes: 7%
- product transportation: 4%
- apparel production: 2.5%
- HQ/retails/distribution centres: 2%.
- business trips: 0.5%.
Patagonia's environmental responsibility team is working to reduce the amount of energy used by its suppliers along the supply chain, implementing actions such as using renewable energy sources and installing more efficient machinery. In addition, the company is investing in carbon sequestration projects through regenerative organic farming and forest restoration.
The reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and the transition to a low-carbon economy represent a real challenge for the textile and fashion industry.
However, the adoption of measurement tools such as the carbon footprint can be a key starting point for the transition to a business model in line with global climate goals.
Measuring and calculating the emissions associated with a product, a company and the entire supply chain, in fact, makes it possible to identify the main environmental criticalities on which to act and, consequently, the solutions to reduce emissions and compensate for those that remain or are impossible to reduce, making it possible for the fashion sector to align with the ambitious global climate objectives.
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