Tabitha Whiting
Tabitha WhitingContent & Growth Marketing
How to approach carbon offsetting without greenwashing
How to approach carbon offsetting without greenwashing
To get carbon offsetting right, you need to tie good words to good deeds. And those deeds must be well-thought out to ensure you truly have the positive planetary impact your company is hoping for.
February 1, 2022

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To get carbon offsetting right, you need to tie good words to good deeds.

And those deeds must be well-thought out to ensure you truly have the positive planetary impact your company is hoping for.

In 1930, American Tobacco – the maker of Lucky Strikes cigarettes – published a famous ad claiming “20,679 Physicians say ‘LUCKIES are less irritating’” to the throat. The rest, as they say, is history. We know how cigarettes have damaged public health. With hindsight, American Tobacco’s claim feels quite shocking. Image credit: clotho98, Flickr:

American tobacco industry advert: 20,679 physicians say 'Luckies are less irritating'.

With that in mind, consider the corporate sustainability claims we make today. Might they be judged similarly tomorrow?

Many brands want to align with climate action without doing the required work. Some actively greenwash products and services to direct attention away from the industrial processes that continue to poison the planet’s lungs. But real climate action can’t wait any longer. The impacts of rapid climate change on future generations could be just as damaging as tobacco.

History certainly won’t be kind to companies that wilfully mislead. But what about brands who unintentionally greenwash?

Imagine it. You execute the first carbon offsetting plan at your organisation, and broadcast your great achievement to the world. The press release has pride of place on your company website, is pinned to every social media channel, and links from every staff email signature.

But the offset credits you bought were low-quality and didn’t offset your emissions as promised. In fact, because they didn't have the climate impact they claimed, the offsets have done more harm than good…

Suddenly your brand is in line for a public shaming.

You may not be VW. You may not be orchestrating Diesel-gate levels of deceit. And any fallout won’t cost you $33 billion. But greenwashing headlines can still hit your bottom line.

In the EU, the European Commission is bringing in rules to police green marketing on consumer-protection grounds. Meanwhile, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority is clamping down far harder on greenwashing adverts from 2022 onwards. And they seem to mean business, doling out big fines to Ryanair, BMW and Shell before their new, stricter enforcement policies even kicked in.

Regulatory fines may be only the start of the problems if customer trust is lost.

So just how do you avoid greenwashing?

The greenwashing risk is real - but avoidable

If you work in a sustainability role or you’re a conscientious brand manager building for the long-term, greenwashing accusations might already give you nightmares. You want to be part of the solution, not the problem.

The good news is that, although greenwashing is a very real risk, it isn’t an inevitable part of your company’s climate journey. 

When done right, activities like carbon offsetting absolutely can differentiate you from your competitors, improve brand equity, and increase long-term sales and loyalty. All this, while having an immediate and measurable positive impact on the planet.

The good news is that, although greenwashing is a very real risk, it isn’t an inevitable part of your company’s climate journey. 

Carbon offsetting and your sustainability strategy

Carbon offsetting is often associated with greenwashing. If offsetting is the only sustainability effort a business is making, those accusations may be well-founded.

As businesses, we all need to focus on reducing emissions first. But it's unlikely you'll be able to completely avoid emissions from your business and supply chain, especially if you rely on transportation or manufacturing. In addition, we've collectively emitted hundreds of billions (if not trillions) of tons of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Now, we must remove them. 

This is where carbon offsetting has a vital role. 

Once you've identified all the emissions you can reduce directly, your footprint will be smaller. But you’ll still have a footprint. To minimise the impact of remaining emissions, you can offset them by supporting projects which are either a) actively reducing emissions (carbon offsetting); or b) removing existing carbon from the atmosphere (carbon removal offsetting).

The no.1 rule of offsetting is this: it should always be part of a wider sustainability strategy.

This strategy should:

  1. Show real commitment to reducing your impact on the planet
  2. Be honest and transparent about where you’re currently at
  3. Detail your plans to make improvements – including which offsetting projects you’re supporting and why

If you need a good example, just look at Etsy. They offset shipping emissions using carbon offsets while simultaneously collaborating with industry leaders, shipping reps and policy makers to lead the shipping industry toward decarbonisation.

What’s interesting is the company knew steps towards long-term change were needed, but also recognised that the climate emergency needs short-term action.

With a clear example in mind, let’s now focus on why the quality of the project matters so much…

Etsy impact webpage. 'Committing to a world of good'.

Why high-quality offsets are the only choice

If you’ve ever purchased offsets, you’ll know there are loads of offset providers, as well as a vast range of project types and carbon prices to choose from.

And while options are good, too many choices can feel a bit overwhelming.

So how do you choose?

First, resist the urge to focus on low-cost and concentrate instead on high-quality.

Purchasing carbon offsets is still a relatively new market – known as the Voluntary Carbon Market (VCR). It’s largely unregulated, so there are an abundance of offsets around which are ‘low-quality’ i.e. the projects are untrustworthy or illegitimate.

By opting for low-quality projects, you may not be offsetting as much carbon as you think. And if you’re really unlucky, you may not offset any carbon at all. This is where many businesses inadvertently open the door to accidental greenwashing.

Avoid risk by learning to identify high-quality carbon offset credits. These credits should come from offsetting schemes verified by an independent 3rd party (such as Gold Standard or Verra) and/or use technology to measure and track the impact in ways that increase confidence in the quality of the project’s work. With verified schemes, you’ll know the offsets will always be:

  • Permanent. The longer the carbon is stored, the better. Forests can store carbon from 10s to 100s of years and technological solutions for 1000s of years.
  • Additional. Emissions reductions or carbon removal is generated in addition to what would have happened without the offset programme
  • Correctly estimated. Projects can only claim reductions or removal where the impact is accurately measured and quantified.
  • Single counted. A carbon registry provides assurance the carbon offset credit has not been claimed by any other entity.

One good example is The Future Forest Company (FFC). The FFC team doesn't stop at planning and managing large–scale reforestation and rewilding programmes. They turn forestry waste into biochar – a very stable form of carbon that persists in soil for thousands of years. They also pull carbon from the atmosphere using enhanced weathering processes, whereby atmospheric CO2 is mineralised in basalt rocks and stored for thousands of years.

If this sounds complicated, don’t worry, a new generation of sustainability partner is emerging just in time to help you navigate the offsetting journey (like Lune!)

Focus on finding a progressive sustainability partner with the expertise to advise you on what’s right for you and your customers. And speaking of customers…

How do you choose the right project?

So, you’ve committed to high-quality carbon offsets. You’ve identified the right project-types. Yet you may still feel like you face tricky decisions regarding the specific projects to support.

Well, here’s the really clever part: you don’t have to choose.

Let’s explain…

We all know consumers are increasingly conscious of their climate impact. We surveyed consumers and found 71% would like to see a 'green payments option' when making purchases. And 77% of consumers would stay loyal to brands that carbon offset purchases automatically. That’s a really healthy majority.

You can use this growing climate consciousness to your advantage by putting power in the hands of your customers.

A quick look at the budgeting app market or charitable giving demonstrates the impact a sense of agency can have. Dynamic progress bars are common to user interfaces in these sectors. There’s a good reason for this. When customers or donors can see their contribution to a specific outcome, they give more.

You can harness the same effect with carbon offsets.

Look for an offsetting partner who can create a portfolio of projects aligned to your needs. Next, let your customers choose which project they want you to support at point of purchase. Later, you can update customers about the impact of their choice.

Helping your customers do their bit as you do yours showcases commitment, both to climate action and customer experience. Along the way, you’ll also discover more about your customer base’s climate priorities while increasing loyalty.

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A note before you drive happily into the offset

To get carbon offsetting right, you need to tie good words to good deeds. And those deeds must be well-thought out. 

One way you can avoid greenwashing accusations is to simply avoid making big offset claims against emissions. Instead, think about amplifying the story of the sustainability project developers and the ways you and your customers are supporting their efforts to lower or remove greenhouse gases. Putting human stories at the heart of your sustainability communications reminds everyone why we’re making this effort. It’s also a more effective tool than statistics for improving customer engagement and recall.

So take some time to reflect on your climate initiatives and honestly ask yourself if you’re:

  • Focusing on quality. Have you checked your sustainability partner only uses high quality, low-risk offsets verified to a respected standard?
  • Being transparent. Have you published your full carbon footprint? Have you explained how offsets fit into your sustainability strategy? Are you reporting carbon offsetting progress in real-time?
  • Engaging your customers. Are you letting customers offset purchases? Are you giving them a say in projects you partner with? Are you connecting their money to successful results?

Keep those questions in your thinking. You’ll be able to quit worrying about greenwashing accusations as you focus on the positive changes you’re making inside and outside your organisation.

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