A nonprofit organization is trying to give consumers an easy way to make sense of the flood of environmental pledges that companies are suddenly making, with a new product label. Kickstarter and Klean Kanteen are two of the 135 brands that have been “Climate Neutral Certified” by the nonprofit, Climate Neutral.
To be carbon neutral, a company needs to essentially cancel out all its heat-trapping pollution. It might do this by investing in tree-planting efforts or emerging technologies that capture carbon dioxide. Purchasing those carbon offsets or credits, however, is no replacement for actually cutting down greenhouse gas emissions.
And as bigger and bigger polluters, including Delta and BP, make their own pledges to become carbon neutral, there’s growing uncertainty over what it will take for a company to actually achieve those aims. Who will hold them accountable?
Climate Neutral launched last year with the hopes that when consumers see its Climate Neutral Certified label on a brand, they can rest assured that the company’s green efforts are legitimate. Climate Neutral CEO Austin Whitman recently spoke about how to know when a company’s promises to take on climate change are good, or greenwashing — which happens when a company tries to appeal to environmentally conscious consumers without actually taking any serious environmental action. The interview below is slightly edited for the sake of clarity.
If a brand has this Climate Neutral Certified label on it, what does that essentially mean?
Certifying those companies effectively means that we are helping them estimate their carbon emissions — including their supply chain emissions, everything it takes to make and deliver their products to their customers. And then, we are requiring them to buy carbon offsets because it’s [the previous year’s] footprint that we’re measuring. In order to claim carbon neutrality, they’ve got to offset the whole thing.
They also have to provide a reduction action plan for us, which is a forward-looking plan that says, over the next 12 to 24 months, I’m going to reduce emissions from, you know, one source over here by 15 percent, another source over here by 5 percent, and so forth. And then the final step is we authorize them to use our label, which then goes out into the world on their products and their marketing materials and communications.
It is all self-reported data. We can do a pretty decent job of predicting what their footprint should be. So if someone comes to us and says their footprint is 20 percent of what we expect it to be, we’re going to dive deeper into those numbers and actually ask them to substantiate that. For companies that are over $100 million, we require a third-party verification.
Have you had to deny certification to anyone in order to maintain the integrity of your label?
We’ve had a couple cases where companies have said they want to use carbon credits that are not verified, it doesn’t meet our standards. We’ve had to tell them that unless they’re willing to comply with that piece of the certification, we can’t certify them. We’ve had a couple companies come to us and say that, “We want to do this, but we don’t have the ability to offset our entire footprint. Can we only do a given product?” And we basically say no, this is a brand-level service. We just think it’s too confusing to consumers, and frankly invites greenwashing for a company to be allowed to pick one product from their product line, just certify that one, and then boast about carbon neutrality.
There’s a lot of carbon neutral chatter out there now. Many companies will say, “Oh, we’re carbon neutral for our corporate headquarters and one of our factories.” And that’s kind of the extent of their claim. No one’s looking at how much of a share of their footprint that actually represents, they’re just saying “Hey, that’s cool that the company is doing something that’s great for the environment.” But if we want to take the need to [globally reach net-zero carbon emissions] by 2050 seriously [Ed. note: The United Nations panel of climate scientists set this as a target in order to avoid more catastrophic effects of climate change] we’ve got to stop accepting very incomplete pledges.
Are there going to be bigger challenges when it comes to certifying companies like, say, BP, which said it aims to be carbon neutral by 2050?
We won’t certify a BP, a fossil fuel company. The math simply doesn’t work out to offset the entire carbon footprint in the production and consumption of fossil energy. There aren’t that many carbon offsets in the world. So we’re staying away from commodity providers, cement and fossil energy, and so forth. We’re really focusing on the brand level.
Are we in a unique moment where we’re going to be seeing more of these types of pledges?
Things are fundamentally different now around the politics of climate, around consumer awareness, and around employee and professional engagement on the topic. There’s absolutely no question that we’ve reached a tipping point. That will force companies to do more.