November 7, 2022

Busting Buzzwords: What Does It Mean To Be Carbon Neutral?

Consumers are changing the face of business as we know it, demanding more sustainable options and opting for companies who are transparent about earth forward practices. Therefore, it behooves businesses to fall in line with their messaging. 

Even if the consumer doesn’t fully understand the nuances of green terminology, simple psychology takes over, and terms like “net zero,” “carbon-free,” and “carbon neutral” are often enough to tip a conscious-minded purchase. 

So what is carbon neutral? Does choosing a carbon neutral company truly leave a net positive impact on the earth? Can the term be used to nefariously dupe consumers?

Busting Buzzwords: Carbon Neutral 

Most everyday consumers have some knowledge of the bad reputation of carbon emissions. Heck, if you live in a big city, you can literally see the remnants of carbon emissions on your windows. In addition, if you are prone to respiratory distress, your inhaler keeps count of the local pollution index daily. In these cases, being carbon neutral sure seems like a win compared to being carbon positive.

To make things more confusing, carbon is not really the bad guy; it’s humans. In fact, carbon is an essential element to all life on earth; that's right, it regulates the earth’s temperature, makes up the food that sustains us, and is a building block to fossil fuels. All living things contain carbon, including us. 

However, we have a problem when the interconnected ecosystems can’t process CO2 back into living things and fossil fuels through the earth’s natural rhythms. A problem that has been elevated to an environmental crisis. The expansion of economic and industrial sectors and a booming population on planet earth have grown our collective “carbon footprint.” This footprint is one where size does matter, and preferably it is as small as possible. 

Let’s break down the actual intended meaning behind what it is to be “carbon neutral.”

What Is Carbon Neutral?

The United Nations Environment Programme defines carbon neutrality as balancing a net amount of carbon released with an equivalent amount sequestered or offset. 

Where Is The Carbon Coming From

Companies form their carbon footprint with every action associated with a product's lifecycle. From the ingredients and packaging materials they choose to manufacturing practices to the type of paper that is being used at the office printer. As a result, every process has an associated carbon emission. 

If You Can’t Avoid A Carbon Footprint, What Is The Solution?

Even companies with sustainability in their core DNA have a carbon footprint.

The unrealistic solution is to ask everyone to change their practices to renewable energy and do a sustainability evaluation of every part of their product’s lifecycle.

The realistic solution, because some companies emit more CO2 than others, is to have companies take stock of their total carbon footprint and offset their negative impact by participating in programs or purchasing credits that make the equivalent reduction of CO2 emissions into the atmosphere. 

Carbon Credits

Carbon credits, credit card for offenses against the environment, or a brilliant solution for mandating a company to take responsibility for their carbon footprint? The jury is still out on this issue. 

Purchase of carbon credits can be made through companies like Terrapass or SouthPole, both of which offer an investment into a carbon offset portfolio that balances a company’s sustainability checkbook. Both services provide programs for the public and business sectors, so if you are an environmentally conscious business person who racks up frequent flier miles and wants to undo your carbon emissions sins, you have the option. 

Is Carbon Neutrality The Key To Business Sustainability

While these allow companies, voluntarily or through mandates, to make good on their balance of positive and negative carbon emissions, it is not a clear-cut win for the environment. In a sense, we could be “feeding the beast, " allowing companies with large carbon footprints to carry on with bad practices and buy their way out to carbon neutrality and that shiny sustainability token they want to include on their product’s packaging. 

At its worst, making a carbon-neutral claim while not taking any tangible actions towards reducing impact is greenwashing. At its best, it is helping to fund much needed projects that will help to reduce carbon emissions impact in a crucial period of time on earth. 

What should companies do instead? 

  • Conduct frequent lifecycle analyses of their processes.
  • Reduce dependence on non-renewable resources.
  • Make actionable strategies to reduce toxic and non-degradable materials from their processes. 
  • Set strategies and timelines to make evolving sustainable changes.
  • Create an internal culture of learning and doing better when they know better. 
  • Share what they learn with other businesses.