5 Reasons Allbirds' New Shoe Might *Not* Be Carbon Negative - Carbon Responsible
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5 Reasons Allbirds' New Shoe Might *Not* Be Carbon Net Zero

Allbirds have stuck their head above the parapet of 'greenhushing' to boldly proclaim a new carbon net zero shoe. We take a look underneath the hood and investigate, though, if these claims would stand up to growing ASA and consumer scrutiny.

Ciara from Carbon Responsible's Team

Ciara Davies

Carbon Accounting Lead

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Allbirds M0.0N Shot Shoe

Allbirds new shoe is carbon net zero. Or, at least that is what they claim. No doubt the work Allbirds has done to create sustainable products is laudable, but as ever with marketing campaigns around carbon claims,  a healthy dose of greenwashing sceptisicm is encouraged.

In February the ASA published new guidelines regarding carbon neutral and net-zero claims. Other regulators have gone a similar route. What Allbirds have claimed,  carbon negativity within the wool of the shoe, requires an even greater level of scrutiny to verify. Carbon negative products need to demonstrate durable carbon sequestration. Meaning, these products, throughout their production, use and end-of-life need to show that the amount of emissions sequestered by the use of the materials in the product is greater than those required to utilise it. For consumer goods, with all the attendant logistics, retail, consumer use and disposal issues, this is an incredibly difficult bar to clear (though one industry should definitely keep striving for).

Allbirds has invited investigation, and again while we congratulate them on the new product and appreciate their transparency, here are 5 issues we found with these claims, and why they might not stand up to ASA guidelines[1] in the future:

  1. The process is somewhat transparent, but the carbon accounting methodology certainly isn’t – the detail required in the numbers, estimates, assumptions and exclusions that can support Allbirds claims is actually quite opaque. Companies should avoid using unqualified carbon claims. The less prominent qualifying information is, the more likely the claim will mislead consumers and ASA has already upheld complaints where claims cannot be substantiated, whether or not they are inaccurate.
  2. Companies that refer to lower carbon activities without including information about their overall carbon impact would be flagged by the ASA.[2] The carbon net zero claim appears to largely be based around use of wool which carries an assumption of being net negative. But the wool at best balances the farm’s emissions – not Allbirds, which, in addition to other materials and third-party manufacturing, snowballs to corporate offices, shops, employee commuting, and business travel to enable the shoe to be realised.
  3. Companies must be explicit about dependencies and methodologies for making not only carbon neutral but especially carbon negative claims, particularly if relying on methods that are known to be imprecise. In this case, the carbon negative wool claim depends on sequestration on the farm. Notoriously, sequestration is an immensely unstable foundation on which to base any carbon claim. The amount of carbon sequestered (and therefore supporting the carbon negative claim) in the soil is highly vulnerable to re-entering the atmosphere based on changes in land use management, weather, and climate over time. This means that the carbon intensity status of the wool is itself in flux, and ultimately is unlikely to be able to maintain a carbon negative claim. Additionally, the farm hasn’t yet published their sequestration measurement methodologies or carbon accounting. The theory of balancing emissions using sequestration is similar to that of offsetting (meaning it should be reported as net emissions separately to, and outside of, the actual emissions profile). This is to avoid leading consumers to wrongly assume that products generate no emissions.
  4. Albirds at present relies on renewable energy credits, also known as renewable energy certificates, rather than direct-line renewable energy production. Analysis of corporate use of renewable energy certificates suggests they don’t lead to additional renewable energy production, and in fact inflate estimated effectiveness of mitigation efforts[3]. Spurious claims about having ‘zero emissions’ from corporate infrastructure because a firm purchases renewable energy certificates demonstrate a surface-level understanding of how energy markets work and how purchasing decisions flow through to one’s own carbon accounting. The ASA is likely to take a much firmer line on these ‘claims’ in the very near future as they are one of the primary avenues through which companies find themselves accidentally greenwashing.
  5. Lastly, the carbon net zero claim is aspirational – it appears to rely at least in part on future changes in adoption of marine biofuels, electric freighting and widely available recycling of their packaging. The availability and capability of these technologies are not grounded in today’s reality, which is currently still dependent on fossil fuel use; these should be reflected in the emissions of the shoe. ASA states that claims based on future goals relating to being carbon net zero (such as societal uptake of EV trucking) should be based on a verifiable strategy to deliver them.[4]

Allbirds have made a positive move by starting this journey, and it should be celebrated that they are trying to bring the industry along with them. However, when it comes to carbon claims, a greater degree of transparency and completeness of disclosure, particularly relating to carbon accounting and related measurement methodologies, is required to substantiate claims and avoid the risk of inflaming advertising standards. It is certainly not as complete or transparent as they claim, and, without detailed disclosure of the related carbon accounting and methodologies, any carbon negative or net zero claim remains unsubstantiated.

[1] Updated environment guidance: carbon neutral and net zero claims in advertising

[2] CAP-guidance-on-misleading-environmental-claims-and-social-responsibility.pdf (asa.org.uk)

[3] Renewable energy certificates threaten the integrity of corporate science-based targets

[4] Updated environment guidance: carbon neutral and net zero claims in advertising – ASA | CAP

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