We don’t need to tell you that the environment is in trouble. The record-setting temperatures, monstrous wildfires and numerous other historic natural disasters of the past few years should give you some inkling that the planet isn’t doing too hot. Or, rather, is actually doing a little too hot. Everyone is trying to figure out how to do their part, from buying reusable straws to cut back on single-use plastics, to using eco-friendly cleaning products at home. The common approach for large brands and corporations? Going carbon neutral. But what does that actually mean?
After hearing basically every large brand from Amazon to Starbucks to Microsoft hold a press conference and announce that they were going “carbon neutral” we’ve been asking ourselves that question. Does it actually mean something in the age of climate change, or is it a PR stunt that’ll hopefully abate the climate activist critics for the time being? Is it a real action being taken by these brands that will have an impact, or trendy eco-friendly branding language that will do little to thwart the effects of climate change?
We decided to do a little digging to find out.
What Does the Phrase “Carbon Neutral” Mean?
First, a little eco language vocab lesson. Companies use a few different phrases when defining eco-friendly products and whole-brand initiatives, and it’ll help to define a few before we move on.
Carbon Neutral: A brand, product or company that’s been certified “carbon neutral” has pledged to or is already removing the same amount of carbon dioxide it’s emitting into the atmosphere to accomplish its goals to achieve net zero carbon emissions. This usually means that a company has purchased a certain amount of carbon “offsets” or credits to offset its impact by supporting sustainability projects. These projects might look like reforestation or supporting production of renewable energy. The credit system happens through the nonprofit Climate Neutral that works to eliminate carbon emissions.
Zero Carbon: Zero carbon typically refers to buildings or modes of transportation, rather than brands or products, and means it’s been certified by the International Living Future Institute for offsetting its energy uses through using renewable sources. It also needs to offset the emissions that resulted from its construction in order to reach this certification.
Carbon Negative: This phrase is used interchangeably with the term “climate positive” and means a company is removing more carbon from the atmosphere than its releasing. This goes above and beyond offsetting carbon emissions, and is achieved by few large-scale brands today.
When Did Brands Start Becoming “Climate Neutral?”
In 2002, the environmental consultant agency Natural Capital Partners established a clear set of guidelines for businesses wanting to reach carbon neutrality, that have since been updated on an annual basis. This guidance includes ways to define a brand’s carbon outputs, measure carbon outputs accurately and how to set realistic targets for offsetting. Unfortunately, there are no standardized guidelines for companies wanting to achieve net zero emissions, only the work of nonprofits like Climate Neutral.
Carbon Neutral has certified 339 brands for carbon neutrality and offset over 800,000 tons of carbon in the process. The brands they work with have pledged over 700 reductive actions for offsetting carbon emissions during that time as well. However, since the definition of effective carbon neutral offsetting is still a bit up in the air, companies and countries can create their own definitions, rendering the actions somewhat ambiguous in terms of how effective they are.
Is “Going Carbon Neutral” Actually Effective in Addressing Climate Change?
This is the million dollar question. The answer is, unfortunately, a bit unclear. The methods brands are using to offset their carbon emissions are what matter the most, since very few of the brands making the pledge are agreeing to actually reduce their carbon emissions in the first place. Research has shown that few of these methods have the impact they’re pledged to have, and that the easiest one for companies to pledge isn’t feasible for fixing the problem in its totality.
One of the most popular methods used for “credits” with Climate Neutral is reforestation. Planting trees is an effective way to reduce release into the atmosphere, but a recent study conducted by Oxfam revealed that the total that would be required to meet the carbon offset goals of every company that has pledged carbon neutrality would be five times the size of India, or all the viable farmland on the planet.
This isn’t feasible, but it’s only one method of carbon offsetting, there are other approaches companies can take and combine with reforestation to reach their goals.
However, research from the Taskforce on Scaling Voluntary Carbon Markets, a task force working to scale carbon credit markets and make it easier to reach the goals of the Paris Agreement, has shown that less than 5% of offsets actually remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Does this mean all hope is lost? Not necessarily, companies just need to be that much more transparent about the data behind their carbon neutrality and exactly how their actions are translating to them meeting their goals.
Ways to Support Climate Neutral Brands
We’ve pulled some favorite products from some of our favorite climate neutral brands, if you’re feeling inclines to support brands that have effectively taken the pledge. We’ve also included relevant info about how and when they’re pledging to meet their climate neutral promises.
Allbirds first pledged to be carbon neutral in 2019 and has since offset their entire carbon footprint through credits from renewables and forests. Here are a few of our favorite products from Allbirds, who happens to create the most comfortable footwear in addition to being eco-friendly.
Men’s Tree Runners
Allbirds signature pair of sneakers is still a hit, for its incredible lightweight and cushioned midsole that’s super comfortable for wearing all day long. The shoes are machine-washable and come in numerous color options for the upper and sole.
Men’s Trail Runners SWT
Allbirds also makes more rugged shoes designed to be worn in terrain that isn’t an office or apartment. These Trail Runners are built with a grippy outsole designed to keep you steady on the trail, and the ripstop mudguard is tear-resistant and designed to protect your feet from rough terrain. They also have a collar that hugs the ankle closely and blocks debris.
Men’s Tree Loungers
Allbirds has also transformed the lightweight, breathable materials they use for their running shoes and made slip-on loungers that are perfect for wearing around the house. They’re made with the same eucalyptus fibers as their signature tennis shoe and are designed to be easy to slip on and off. They’re perfect for warmer summer days, are machine washable and designed to minimize odor as well.
Vuori was certified carbon neutral in 2019 and has since offset 14,397 tons of Co2 through investments in forests and renewable energy sources.
Vuori is known for their great men’s shorts, whether you’re looking for performance fabric or more of a relaxed, loungey vibe. Their Kore shorts have an athletic fit and are a little longer, falling just below the knee. They have a boxer brief liner so you can go commando if you wish, and come in a bunch of bright and neutral colors.
Sunday Performance Jogger
Vuori joggers are perfect for working from home or running errands because they’re comfortable and presentable, with a sleek design that also moves with you throughout the day. They’re built with less bulk around the ankles and have a soft stretch. They’ve got zip pockets for secure storage and moisture-wicking fabric for keeping you comfortable throughout the day.
Ponto Performance Crew
A lightweight crew neck is a necessary wardrobe staple for all men, and this one is made with Vuori’s DreamKnit fabric that’s super soft, has performance stretch and is quick-drying as well. It has a side zip pocket for storing a key or credit card, and comes in a bunch of neutral colors.
Rumpl was first certified with Climate Neutral in 2019 and has since offset 4,142 tons of Co2. They’ve received their climate offset credits from landfills, cookstoves and renewables, and many of thier products are made with recycled materials, a climate-friendly practice. We’ve written about Rumpl before on the site and love their products.
Nanoloft Travel Blanket
Rumpl makes a super small, compact travel blanket that can fit in a stuff sack the same size as your average water bottle. It’s made with a 100% post-consumer recycled polyester shell and the Nanoloft insulation is designed to mimic down with less weight. It has a Cape Clip for hands-free use and is machine washable.