clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

More companies want to be “carbon neutral.” What does that mean?

Terms like “carbon negative” and “climate positive” have recently popped up in branding.

Phrases like carbon neutral have been around for awhile, but it’s only recently that companies have started to adopt them for mainstream use.
Sarah Lawrence for Vox

Within the past six months, I’ve received a slew of pitches for products and services that all sound eerily similar: a “climate positive” parka and burger, a “carbon negative” vodka, a “carbon neutral” shipping service, a “carbon zero” commuting app, and “zero carbon” coffee.

For scientists and environmentalists, these phrases have been around for a while, but it’s only recently that companies, from small startups to established corporations, have adopted them for mainstream marketing use. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos pledged to have the company be carbon neutral by 2040; Microsoft has committed to be carbon negative by 2030; Starbucks aims to be “resource positive” within a decade by reducing carbon emissions, water withdrawal, and landfill waste by 50 percent; JetBlue intends to make all of its domestic flights carbon neutral starting in July; and Heathrow Airport in London pledged to be carbon neutral in its operations by 2030, excluding the emissions from flights.

In June, the consumer goods giant Unilever — which manufactures 70,000 types of products, from skin care to ice cream — announced its aim to be carbon neutral by 2039 and how it will disclose on labels the amount of carbon used to produce items. The company also stated it will try to cut emissions as much as possible before purchasing carbon offsets to achieve neutrality.

These terms can admittedly be confusing for the average consumer. But the move toward specific terminology isn’t just semantics. Eco-friendly language can help yield actual change by encouraging businesses to be more proactive and transparent.

First, let’s define what these phrases mean:

  • Carbon neutral: A product or company that’s carbon neutral (or carbon-free) is removing the same amount of carbon dioxide it’s emitting into the atmosphere to achieve net-zero carbon emissions, usually by purchasing carbon offsets or credits to make up the difference. For example, the Australian shipping service Sendle buys credits through the South Pole Group to “cancel out” the carbon its deliveries emit by supporting sustainability projects.
  • Zero carbon: Zero carbon is a term commonly applied to buildings and modes of transportation that are carbon-neutral. For a building that’s zero carbon-certified by the International Living Future Institute, it must offset its energy use through renewable sources, in addition to any carbon emissions resulting from its construction.
  • Carbon negative: A carbon-negative company removes more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases (the phrase “climate positive” has been used interchangeably with carbon negative). This requires going beyond achieving carbon neutrality. Air Co, a vodka company based in Brooklyn, sources waste gases and carbon dioxide from beverage manufacturing plants or ethanol factories. The gas is then liquefied and shipped to the company’s facility, where it’s converted to alcohol.

Consumers, for their part, have long been wary of buzzy marketing terms. Corporate greenwashing, which started in the 1960s, is a marketing practice that leads customers to believe that a company’s products are more eco-friendly than they actually are, when companies display words like “conscious,” “sustainable,” and “ethical” on their ads.

Surveys have found that consumers today are actually buying sustainably marketed products, not just saying they want them. The market is filled with sustainable products, and there’s a higher risk of being called out for not walking the walk. In 2018, the fast-fashion giant H&M was criticized by the Norwegian Consumer Authority for “misleading” marketing of its Conscious Collection. The retailer wasn’t specific about what sustainability entails or what types of “sustainable” materials its clothes were sourced from, which could confuse shoppers.

That’s because many words used to market “green” products, as is the case with most branding lingo, are opaque and can be interpreted differently by consumers. But this new wave of carbon-specific lingo is different, and it’s not just brands setting these kinds of carbon reduction targets — cities, states, and, in some cases, countries are setting them, too. Companies or localities can’t just say they’re carbon-neutral; they should, theoretically, be able to document and show that they’ve, for instance, switched from fossil fuel energy to renewable energy.

Suitcases displaying the logo of H&M’s Conscious Collection at an event in Miami, Florida.
H&M launched its first Conscious Collection in 2010, a move toward sustainable clothing that some critics consider greenwashing.
Vallery Jean/FilmMagic

While green jargon has mainly been used to promote products — rarely the companies themselves — newer phrases like “carbon neutral” and “climate positive” refocus the attention on the brands, suggesting a sense of corporate responsibility when it comes to supply chain logistics, labor, energy, and materials. There’s also a shared underlying goal: actively reducing a product or company’s carbon footprint in a measurable way through, in the most rigorous cases, science-based targets.

The environmental consultant agency Natural Capital Partners established one of the first carbon-neutral frameworks in 2002, creating a clear set of guidelines for businesses aiming to reach carbon neutrality. It’s not the only set of standards companies can ascribe to. The British Standards Institution (BSI Group) in the United Kingdom has a carbon-neutral program called PAS 2060, and the nonprofit Climate Neutral works with brands like Allbirds and Reformation to help them offset and reduce emissions.

“A protocol like ours is valuable because it provides this certified framework that businesses can point to, and all of this information is publicly available, so it’s a transparent process,” Rebecca Fay, Natural Capital Partners chief marketing officer, told Vox.

Natural Capital Partners’ protocol offers more than 30 kinds of carbon-neutral certifications a company can choose to comply with. For example, a business has the option to separately certify its office space, a product, or parts of its operation as carbon-neutral. It will then work with the agency to independently assess its total emissions and carbon footprint, and set a target to achieve net-zero carbon emissions. This might require it to implement small changes in its offices, like upgrading a lighting system, or entirely changing its operations, like moving to renewable energy in manufacturing processes, Fay said.

The path to carbon neutrality looks different for every business, she added: “If you’re leasing an office in a big block, you might have less opportunity to change things in your building. If you’re a company with 10 employees, reducing your emissions internally might be easier.”

Environmentally minded companies are generally focused on reducing their carbon footprint overall, and most are aware that offsetting emissions isn’t enough to substantially halt climate change. We still have a big climate debt to make up for, said Peter Miller of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Buying offsets is better than doing nothing, but it’s not in and of itself enough.”

Compare our climate debt to using a credit card that’s nearly maxed out: We’re able to keep using the card because we’re paying off the recent debt we’ve accumulated (in the form of carbon offsets), but we’re not close to paying off the entire value of the card if we just keep spending. As Vox reporter David Roberts writes, “Truly defeating climate change will mean getting to net-zero carbon emissions and eventually negative emissions. That means decarbonizing everything. Every economic sector. Every use of fossil fuels.”

“In our experience, none of our clients just offset their emissions,” Fay said, citing the agency’s research that companies with a carbon-neutral target are six times more likely to also have a goal to internally reduce their carbon footprint. “For some companies, offsetting makes up for what they can’t reduce internally. It’s a powerful mechanism to ensure that emissions are being reduced now.”

It’s easy to point fingers at major sectors like transportation and electricity when it comes to carbon pollution, but there are both small and large companies looking to overcompensate for their emissions — effectively going beyond carbon neutrality. For a business to actually be “climate positive” or carbon negative, it must take additional steps to ensure it’s removing even more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

For larger corporations and even states, pledges to reach either carbon neutrality or negativity are much more common, on the premise that these large-scale changes are gradual and take time to achieve. Microsoft (which works with Natural Capital Partners) said in a January blog that “neutral is not enough to address the world’s needs,” and outlined a clear plan to drive its emissions closer to zero within the next decade.

It’s important for consumers to “dig into the specific claims made by companies” whether they be pledges or plans, Miller said. Are these businesses only offsetting their emissions, or are they setting targets to holistically reduce their carbon use overall? If a company has pledged to reach a specific carbon target by a certain date, what set of certifications is it abiding by and who is helping it accomplish this goal?

Too often, the capitalist burden of choosing what to buy falls on the consumer. It’s irresponsible to completely ignore the role the consumer plays in demanding better, more sustainable products, but the growing popularity of carbon neutrality shows how corporations are becoming more transparent about their footprint and taking active steps to reduce it.

“We all have a responsibility to do whatever we can to address this climate crisis,” Miller said. “That’s true for individuals as well as companies.”

Sign up for The Goods’ newsletter. Twice a week, we’ll send you the best Goods stories exploring what we buy, why we buy it, and why it matters.

Sign up for the newsletter Today, Explained

Understand the world with a daily explainer plus the most compelling stories of the day.