There are many different ways for a business to become greener, but there are also many different ways for a business to make itself appear greener without ever putting in that investment of time, money, or moral energy to make any genuine, meaningful impact on the world.
We know this. We have all encountered instances of blatant greenwashing or found that a company has managed to draw us into a story of social responsibility and positive action using a technique of smoke and mirrors. From changes to their packaging to making vocal commitments to buzzword endeavours like ‘carbon offsetting’ which offer very little to the world, there are plenty of household-name corporations out there that would rather squeeze profits from a positive movement than actually contribute to that positive movement. It’s a little like drilling for oil in the middle of the Royal Botanic Gardens.
There are plenty of irrefutable ways of building a more sustainable, positive business. Small commitments like locally sourcing ingredients, better waste management, and remote work – or larger commitments like commercial solar or pursuing B Corp certification – are all readily available to these corporations, but carbon offsetting’s reputation as a superficial alternative has continued to go from bad to worse over the years.
Carbon Offsetting, in a Nutshell
Put simply, carbon offsetting is compensating for carbon emissions. It’s the equivalent of rebalancing the scales – acknowledging the harmful emissions that pour from large corporations’ chimney stacks each and every day of the year and doing something to make up for it.
If that sounds a little wishy-washy, it’s because it is. It’s a very shallow, posturing attempt at reimbursing nature, and it’s built on the fallacy that we have a quid-pro-quo relationship with the natural world. The idea that we can make up for massive air pollution is incredibly flawed. Carbon offsetting does not neutralise the carbon in our atmosphere like activated charcoal ingested for poison – it simply does a little good alongside a terrible wrong.
So, how does it work? Organisations can neutralise their carbon emissions – or the emissions associated with a specific area of the business, such as travel or importing specific materials – by working with a third party to calculate those emissions, then paying them to ‘offset’ that figure on their behalf.
Some companies plant a specific number of trees per tonne of CO2, which absorb excess carbon from the atmosphere. A lot of schemes centre on developing nations, offering resources that help improve quality of life while reducing the burden on the environment.
Does Carbon Offsetting Ever Work?
Yes, at times.
Make no mistake, these programmes do bring some good to the world, particularly when they improve life in underprivileged areas. The criticisms levelled against carbon offsetting – and the controversy surrounding it – are referring to the fact that we cannot escape the climate crisis with a ‘like-for-like’ mindset. A major oil company could never plant enough trees to right the wrongs they’ve committed over the past century; escaping the current crisis requires a lot more than a forest.
In 2006, environmental and political activist George Monbiot compared carbon offsetting to the practice of selling absolution to catholic churchgoers – forgiveness for sins in exchange for a donation to the church.
It’s not completely black and white, of course. Some small enterprises – and even individuals – have made a practice of offsetting their carbon emissions and, on a smaller scale, it works. But enterprises that are near the top of the list in terms of annual carbon emissions are exploiting a system that could offer some small good to a world in peril.
The hollowness of carbon offsetting’s promise is not a new discovery – businesses that chose to side with this practice have little defence for that decision, as reports about inefficacy have been circulating for almost as long as the practice itself.
The Corporations that ‘Bought Into’ Carbon Offsetting
Carbon offsetting is like any other practice that can be brought under the umbrella term of ‘greenwashing’. It’s a form of social absolution that can be leveraged time and time again, no matter how many transgressions are made. Outsourcing effort and moral goodness allow for business continuity free from the inefficiencies of probity. It’s no wonder it’s such a popular choice with large enterprises, conglomerates, and multinational companies that leave ogre-sized carbon footprints across the face of the earth every day.
Here are some familiar names that have embraced carbon offsetting over the years.
One of the most conspicuous names in the realm of consumer goods, Unilever’s logo appears on a massive array of familiar brands, including (but not limited to) Dove, Ben & Jerry’s, Comfort, Magnum, Lifebuoy, Domestos, Cornetto, Colman’s, Persil, Cif, and TRESemmé. Their contribution to the supermarket is immense but pales in comparison to their contribution to carbon in the atmosphere.
In 2020, Unilever reported their annual climate footprint to be 60 million metric tonnes, which is more than some countries produce in the same timeframe. A quick Google reveals a wealth of posts and announcements made by the company over the past decade – promises for carbon neutrality, and insights into the ways they’ve already succeeded in reducing their emissions. In early 2022, however, a report made by the NewClimate Institute rated Unilever’s Integrity Level as ‘Very Low’ – a worse result than Amazon, Volkswagen, Walmart, and Google.
Unilever stated that they disagreed with some elements of the report.
Shell’s impact on the environment needs no introduction. Most recently, their decision to hand billions to shareholders off the back of record profits made earlier this year in the midst of an ongoing cost of living crisis, raging wildfires, deadly heatwaves and flooding, stands as a prime example of their approach to the climate crisis.
In 2021, Shell committed to investing up to £80 million each year into carbon credits. Given the fact that, in the first three months of 2023 alone, the company earned £7.6 billion in profits, such a commitment feels incredibly weak.
Just this month, Shell signalled a sudden shift away from carbon offsetting.
With a near-ubiquitous presence and more than 2,000 brands at its fingertips, Nestlé stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Unilever in terms of its prominence. On their own website, they state carbon emissions of 90 million tonnes in 2018, with 95% arising from the long supply chains that feed them.
Just a few years ago, the company set carbon-neutral targets for specific brands by deadlines as early as 2025, including KitKat and Nespresso through the purchase of high-quality carbon offsets, among other things.
Now, however, they join Shell in their decision to abandon carbon offsetting – and, along with it, the targets they set previously.
The restaurant chain operates on a much smaller scale than the names listed above – and there are far more largescale, international enterprises that have invested significantly more into carbon offsetting – but their use of the term ‘carbon neutral’ as a result of offsetting deserves attention.
In January of 2023, Leon rolled out the UK’s first carbon-neutral burgers – neutralised, of course, by carbon offsetting, and a decision to omit beef (a carbon-intensive meat) from the list.
The announcement immediately came under fire from critics and, now, Leon joins that same list of large entities forced to rethink their approach to carbon offsetting as a way of achieving claims of neutrality.
Why Are Brands Abandoning Carbon Offsetting?
As we mentioned above, the controversies surrounding this practice are nothing new, and criticisms have been levelled against corporations that use this as a way of obtaining claims of carbon neutrality for many years already.
But pressure has been mounting for some time. Earlier this year, in an article on false solutions to the climate crisis, we referenced a recent exposé published by the Guardian, Die Zeit, and SourceMaterial collectively that demonstrated how the overwhelming majority of rainforest carbon offsets meant (and offered) nothing of substance.
Carbon Trust, which has been a key player in offering carbon management services to large scale businesses, just recently stopped applying the term ‘carbon neutral’ to schemes that utilise carbon offsetting. As a result, businesses that could previously pledge commitments to carbon neutrality – or even advertise products as carbon neutral, such as Leon’s carbon-neutral burgers – would have to rewrite their statements, or look for alternatives to maintain those same commitments to neutrality.
After many years of resounding support from businesses, carbon credits and offsetting practices may finally be resigned to the history book of failures. The net is closing in, and businesses who want to profit off claims of carbon neutrality or commitments to sustainability are faced with fewer and fewer options that don’t necessitate real, genuine action.
Consumers are looking for authenticity and, in general, are willing to pay a premium to side with more environmentally sound brands. There is still a lot of money to be extracted from hollow solutions but, now, that number has finally begun to drop.