If there’s one thing I’ve learnt in my time writing about sustainable style, it’s that not one brand can agree on the best way to do it. While some companies spend their revenue investing in environmental projects, others are focusing on using organic cotton and recyclable packaging. One luxury label, Gucci, recently revealed that it was now officially carbon neutral, and last year brands like Burberry, Adidas and Hugo Boss pledged to do the same by 2050.
Edzard van der Wyck
However, for Edzard van der Wyck, the co-founder of new knitwear label Sheep Inc, these methods simply aren’t going far enough. ‘We want to take to task the idea that carbon neutrality is enough. It’s all too little, too late,’ he argues.
Instead, van der Wyck is aiming for carbon negativity with Sheep Inc. This involves cutting emissions, offsetting any that are made, and acting regeneratively as company so that you’re putting more back into the planet than you take out.
‘I wanted to put a new marker in the sand for how you can behave as a company from a sustainability point of view,’ he explains. ‘In our case, we put five per cent of our revenue into biodiversity projects, offsetting 10 times the impact of our sweater. So we take 320 kg of carbon dioxide out of the air through our biodiversity investments.’
But carbon negativity is just one of van der Wyck’s strategies for building a sustainable fashion business. The other is making people think more carefully about how they use their purchasing power – and this is where the sheep come in.
‘We tried to find the most environmentally friendly materials possible, and merino wool came out on top,’ he explains. It’s 100 per cent biodegradable, doesn’t need to be washed often, and merino sheep are farmed in a sustainable manner that has minimal environmental impact. If looked after (and with good mothballs), a jumper made from merino wool should last a lifetime – and more.
And, along with the merino wool sweater (Sheep Inc only makes one product), adopting a hardy sheep living in the wilds of the New Zealand backcountry comes as standard with every purchase. This is so customers can track – via a chip imbedded in each jumper – their sheep, and become more educated about the wool’s progress from animal to jumper. ‘I wanted to get the customer to care more,’ says van der Wyck. ‘We can talk about change all we want, but if customers out there won’t put their money where their mouth is when it comes to sustainability, then nothing will change.’
This is all very admirable. But, like the other brands I’ve spoken to, not quite an infallible solution to solving the negative impact fashion has on the planet. There’s the emissions caused by shipping the wool to Sheep Inc’s mill in Italy, and onwards to the manufacture in Spain (although van der Wyck claims that the carbon footprint of the products’ travel is less than one per cent of the total). There’s delivering the jumpers to an international customer base. There’s the – perhaps misguided – faith that consumers will finally change their shopping habits and rather than buying four £50 jumper choose one unisex £190 sweater, instead. And, finally, there’s the carbon offsetting projects that Sheep Inc uses to claim its carbon negativity.
Offsetting has had a bit of a bad rep of late, with some experts labelling projects like tree planting ‘greenwashing’ at best, and actively damaging to local communities and the environment at worst. How does van der Wyck square that particular circle? ‘Paying to plant trees is the biggest misconception about carbon offsetting,’ he argues. ‘What we do is invest in things like regenerating mangrove swamps, which not only helps the environment but also employs local people. Planting trees is only part of the solution.’
Sheep Inc also has an independent environmental panel that advises the company on all its offsetting projects, which includes Professor Mark Maslin, a climate change specialist at UCL. ‘We make sure all the projects we pick are externally audited by them,’ explains van der Wyck. These include investing in the biodiversity of the farms the sheep come from, as well as areas which are negatively affected by the fashion industry. Reforestation in the Amazon after the devastating fires is also something Sheep Inc is supporting.
Like every other sustainable style company I’ve spoken to, Sheep Inc doesn’t have the perfect answer yet – so far no one has found the golden solution to fixing the fashion industry (if there even is one). But what’s really important is that they’re trying to make a difference, and showing how it could be done.
‘We want to promote the idea that as a company you can actually have a positive impact on the world,’ van der Wyck sums up. ‘We want to show how the industry can and should behave. My worst vision of the future is in six years the big fashion houses going: ‘we’re finally carbon neutral.’ Because we’ll be past the point of no return by then.’