Do Climate Neutral Business Certifications Matter?
Written by Tobias Roberts
More than ever, individual consumers across the country and the globe are demanding more sustainable and environmentally-friendly products and services. Perhaps due to the apparent inability of governments to agree on any legally binding emissions limits, many consumers believe they have an individual responsibility to shift their purchasing decisions to support companies that address climate change.
The Global Sustainability Study 2021, conducted by global strategy and pricing consultancy Simon-Kucher & Partners, found that "sustainability is rated as an important purchase criterion for 60 percent of consumers. In the US, this number is just over the global average at 61 percent." The study also found that attitudes towards sustainability affecting consumer decisions will continue to increase in importance, with over 50 percent of consumers today ranking sustainability as a top five value driver in their purchasing criteria.
Furthermore, the 2021 Climate Awareness report found that over 90 percent of consumers believe contributing to climate action is fundamentally important, and around 50 percent already pay attention to information on the carbon emissions of products, especially in the cases of food and cosmetics.
Unfortunately, understanding companies' complex (and sometimes vague) environmental claims regarding their products and manufacturing processes can be confusing. Corporate greenwashing is a regrettable practice that has become the industry norm in many sectors of today's economy. One recent survey even found that 45 percent of self-identified environmentalists did not understand the correct definition of "carbon neutrality" for businesses. Part of this inability, of course, is because virtually every business makes claims regarding its efforts to reduce emissions and support the environment.
So what exactly is left for people who genuinely want to make informed, ethical consumer decisions that support businesses that take the needed commitment to a carbon-free future seriously? Here at Project Hive Pet Company, our commitment to the environment is not simply a selling point we loosely use to attract the passive consumer. Rather, sustainability is at the heart of everything we do—from manufacturing to distribution to disposal. Our goal, and our company's mission, is to show that business impact can be as positive as possible—on our customers, our employees, and our planet.
Below, we take a quick look at climate-neutral certifications many businesses use—one at the brand level and one at the product level. We then offer a few suggestions for what consumers should look for in these certifications to make the most informed, ethical purchasing decisions.
Brand-related Carbon Neutral Certifications
Almost every business and brand today has made some statement or promise regarding reducing future carbon emissions from their business practices. Given each new IPCC report's increasing severity and ominous nature, however, meaningful action on climate change needs to happen now, not in 2050 or beyond. As a consumer, creating demand for verifiable carbon-neutral products and services is one of the best ways individuals can influence market forces and help motivate the transition to a carbon-free future.
Climate Impact Partners offers the CarbonNeutral® Certification based on their CarbonNeutral Protocol, developed in 2002 as one of the first clear set of guidelines.
Climate Neutral Certification is perhaps the most well-known and trusted third-party certification system for business climate neutrality, though only 334 brands have been certified since December 2022. To become Climate Neutral Certified, a company must show that it is working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from making and delivering its products and services. Specifically, this certification requires companies to transparently measure their cumulative emissions from cradle to customer, take practical, quantifiable steps to reduce value chain carbon emissions. Additionally, companies must pay the Climate Neutral organization for all their yearly emissions via verified energy credits, also known as carbon offsets.
Purchasing carbon offsets has become controversial, as many see it as greenwashing. Indeed, in November 2021, Greenpeace.org published the article Carbon Offsets are Scam, arguing that purchasing offsets is merely a license to pollute. Adding to skepticism of "net zero" corporate marketing claims, Auden Schendler eloquently recently wrote in his article The False Promise of Corporate Carbon Neutrality. Schnedler argues that businesses should use the money they would have spent on carbon offsets to cut their own greenhouse gas emissions. We agree, and that's why we argue for corporate transparency on any "climate neutral" claim—even if a company is Climate Neutral certified.
Product-related Carbon Neutral Certifications
In many cases, a large company may want to certify the carbon neutrality of a specific product or service they offer instead of certifying their business as a whole. This approach is similar to a large paint company certifying some of their paint products as VOC-free, while they continue to sell other products with high levels of volatile organic compounds. The online retailer Amazon recently adopted this approach by identifying individual products sold on their platform with their "Climate Pledge Friendly" program.
The Carbon Fund is another well-respected organization offering product-related carbon-neutral certifications. Carbonfree Product Certification provides a meaningful, transparent way for businesses to demonstrate to their customers the environmentally-responsible and carbon-neutral nature of certain products. The certification measures the product's carbon footprint, outlines strategies for reducing that footprint, and sets goals for offsetting any remaining emissions through the Fund's third-party validated carbon reduction projects.
Businesses and brands wanting to receive this product certification need to:
- Perform a Life-Cycle Assessment (LCA) to determine the carbon footprint of the product(s);
- Register the product(s) as Carbonfree.
- Offset the product's carbon footprint quarterly, based on actual sales.
- Promote your product(s) environmental benefits to your customers and stakeholders.
As an added benefit, every product certified through the Carbonfree Product Certification will automatically become part of the Amazon Climate Pledge Friendly Program.
Costs and Benefits
As we mentioned at the outset, the average consumer today is actively searching for companies and products that take climate change seriously. Investing in climate-neutral certifications allows companies to differentiate their brand and product, improve customer loyalty, and ultimately increase sales and market share.
Though there are costs associated with these certifications (both directly in applying for the certification, changes to supply chains, and paying for the necessary carbon offsets), the business advantages are clear. If there weren't verifiable economic benefits to climate neutrality, many of the biggest corporations simply would not be investing in these programs. And while carbon offsets aren't the ideal solution, they are better than doing nothing.
JetBlue, for example, declared in 2020 that it had fulfilled its objective to become carbon-neutral on all domestic flights. Starting in the summer of 2020, the airline began offsetting all domestic flights' carbon dioxide emissions from jet fuel. They are also investing in sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).
What to Look For When Choosing a Climate-Neutral Business Certification?
For businesses, finding the most honest and transparent climate-neutral certification is a great way to show that a profitable business does not have to sacrifice its people and the planet. For consumers, third-party verified carbon neutral certifications can help distinguish between real and meaningful climate action and empty "net-zero" pledges often made by the corporate sector.
But it is important also to be skeptical of the carbon offsetting programs upon which many carbon neutral claims rest. One recent analysis determined that even if businesses, governments, and individuals successfully deployed all the possible natural carbon offsets in the world—without cutting emissions—we won't limit warming below catastrophic levels.
Carbon offset programs such as planting trees, cutting methane emissions from landfills, and investing in renewable energy projects in developing countries can serve a good purpose. However, they do NOT replace the urgent need to cut emissions now. In the case of JetBlue, their carbon offset program connects to real investment in a different type of low-emission jet fuel. As a consumer, finding companies that are paying for offsets and taking practical steps to eliminate their emissions today should be a priority.
And if you've read to the end, you might enjoy John Oliver's take on carbon offsets on his HBO show Last Week, Tonight.