What does it mean to be a “carbon neutral” brand?

It’s becoming more common for brands to describe themselves as “carbon neutral”. What does it actually mean?

Covalent's products feature a unique "carbon dates" which can be used to trace their production


An increasing number of brands are now describing themselves as carbon neutral. The term is popping up in reference to everything from sunglasses to nail polish, and there are now well over a dozen brands in the Thingtesting directory that explicitly say they are minimizing their carbon footprint in some way. Even getting food delivered can be done without adding extra emissions to the atmosphere in some parts of the world.

A product’s carbon footprint – that is, the amount of CO2 that’s emitted during the process of making it, selling it and shipping it out to customers – is often quantified in grams, and it’s an easy metric for customers to digest.

“[It’s] a tangible way to compare products when making a purchasing decision,” Linda Kelly, vice president of partnerships at Carbonfund.org says.

Knowing what this number is also allows brands to “neutralize” their carbon footprints – either through offsetting or reducing their carbon emissions – thus becoming carbon neutral.

Some brands have taken this idea a step further by claiming that they are “carbon negative”. This term means that unlike carbon neutral brands, which typically focus on bringing their overall carbon footprints to zero, carbon negative brands actually try to remove more CO2 from the atmosphere than they emit. Examples of carbon negative brands include Sheep – which reduces its footprint where it can, and then purchases ten times the amount of offsetting credits to more than neutralize the remainder – and Newlight, the maker of AirCarbon.

To showcase AirCarbon’s carbon-negative qualities and its potential to replace leather and plastics, Newlight has gone on to launch two sub-brands: Covalent (a sunglasses and accessories brand) and Restore (which makes reusable foodware for catering companies).

“There’s a broad recognition that climate change is one of the most important issues we face today, and people want to be part of the solution,” Newlight’s co-founder Mark Herrema says. “But carbon neutral is not enough; to solve this problem in the timescale that we have available to us, we need to go further.”

What can shoppers look out for?

Brands that make claims around carbon neutrality should be able to demonstrate that a third-party assessment has been carried out to determine what its overall carbon footprint is. Its offsetting efforts should also be certified by a third party such as the Carbon Trust or Carbonfund.org.

While a lot of brands communicate their carbon footprint calculations and the companies they are working with to offset it, fewer provide clear details on how (or if) they are attempting to reduce their carbon footprint in the first place.

Both parts of this equation are important. While offsetting is better than doing nothing, it has been criticized as letting companies or people “have their cake and eat it too”, as it lets them carry on with CO2 guzzling operations today, while the offsetting projects they sponsor (such as tree planting schemes) may take decades to actually remove those emissions.

“Consumers should understand that a brand describing itself as carbon neutral has assessed the estimated annual carbon emissions associated with all aspects of its operations, then has reduced and neutralized those emissions,” Kelly explains. “A brand that promotes a specific product as carbon neutral should be able to show the product’s ‘cradle-to-grave’ carbon footprint based on a Life Cycle Assessment of that product.”

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