(Green)wash your Hands of… Carbon Neutrality

Greenwashing is still a thing. And maybe we got slightly better at spotting it over the years, but as climate change and environmental threats are becoming more and more common, companies capitalize on the marketing boon that looking “green”, “clean” or “carbon neutral” represents.

Here are a few questions that I have researched lately.

What does “carbon neutral” mean?

Carbon neutrality means offsetting the GHG emissions produced by sequestrating an equivalent amount of carbon, or buying carbon credits. A lot of companies, even cities, claim that they are carbon neutral (Google, for instance).

If you’d like to read more about how carbon emissions can be offset, see here and here.

Is carbon neutrality a good strategy?
It sounds like a good idea, but a lot of people don’t believe it’s an effective strategy for all kinds of reasons (most importantly: carbon offsets and credits don’t help cut emissions, carbon sequestration projects can lead to population displacements and human rights violations, a lot of fraud has been happening, and they don’t contribute to finding a sustainable long-term solution to climate change – see here and here).

Another major criticism is that striving to be carbon neutral does not necessarily address the reason why greenhouse gases are being released. If being carbon neutral is part of a bigger plan to transition into being completely “clean” (as far as this is possible), then why not. That’s what Google advertises it is doing, pretty much. The biggest source of their carbon emissions comes from the electricity used in their data centers, and they are also working to eventually be powered at 100% by renewable energies.

However, when nothing else is done to address the structural impact created by a company, then it sounds more like a marketing strategy to greenwash their products. Nespresso, for instance, committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2020. They also have set a goal to collect 100% of used aluminium pods by then, which is very different from actually recycling 100% of them (they currently don’t publish the actual recycling rate of their products). So it’s better than nothing, but in the end, it does not make Nespresso’s pods or business model sustainable, and being carbon neutral does not address in any way the fact that legions of aluminium pods are somewhere in a landfill waiting a couple hundred years to decompose.

More importantly, it gives consumers the green light to believe that what they are doing – in this case buying Nespresso pods, drinking coffee, and putting their pods in a bin so they can (maybe) be recycled – is good, that they are part of the solution, when they are actually still part of the problem. It encourages consumers to believe that this is a sustainable part of their lifestyle, even though it isn’t.

Carbon neutrality is most effective when it is used as a means, not as an end in itself. So when you see this touted on a company website, or if you decide to offset your own carbon emissions, ask yourself: is carbon neutrality used as a tool to soften a structural shift towards a more sustainable path, or is it just used to partially compensate for the consequences of a business model that is inherently unsustainable? If it’s the latter, then I’d consider it greenwashing.

(Green)wash your Hands of… Carbon Neutrality

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