Can This Carbon Neutral Label Save the Planet?

Climate Neutral has already signed on dozens of companies, including Peak Design, Sunski, and Avocado Green Mattress, among others.
David Carr


On a Tuesday in June, during the first day of Outdoor Retailer, the adventure world’s largest trade show, a few hundred people are gathered before a small stage inside Denver’s Colorado Convention Center to hear about the industry’s new plan to tackle climate change. The big idea, on display behind the stage, is a circular logo that looks like a sun. As far as designs go, it’s fairly basic, to say the least. But that little symbol, it’s hoped, might one day affect consumer buying decisions as much as Fair Trade or USDA Organic.

The nonprofit behind the idea, Climate Neutral, has plans to hang the logo off of kayaks, computers, apparel—nearly all consumer goods—signaling that the company behind the product is removing as much or more greenhouse gas than it creates. Up on the stage, the man behind the idea, Peter Dering, one of Climate Neutral’s founders and the CEO of photo gear company Peak Design, had the microphone. “Who flew in for this show?” he asked. A couple of hundred hands go up. “Now how many of you bought carbon offsets?”

Climate Neutral
Courtesy of Climate Neutral

In reply to Dering’s question, all but two hands go down. This exercise is meant to demonstrate where most people are still at when it comes to global warming: They’re willing to show up for a conversation about it but prefer to have the hard work of living sustainably done for them—or at least made easier. This is where Climate Neutral comes in. It wants to inspire companies to reduce their carbon footprints to zero, then reward them with a logo that consumers will seek out when shopping. A recent survey by management consulting firm A.T. Kearney found that 71 percent of consumers consider the environmental impact of their purchasing decisions, and more than half of those have adjusted their decision to buy a product labeled as sustainable.

“The whole thing is basically a marketing exercise, in the best possible way,” says Alex Honnold, the climber and star of the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo, who hosted the panel discussion tied to Climate Neutral’s launch. “The thing I like about it is that it’s so obvious, simple, and straightforward.”

Dering came up with the idea for Climate Neutral late last year, and by its announcement at Outdoor Retailer in June, 18 companies—including Klean Kantene, LifeStraw, and Allbirds—had signed on. That number is rising steadily. To earn the badge, companies have to do three things: calculate the amount of carbon or other greenhouse gasses with similar effects released through their entire supply and distribution chains; show proof that they’re making efforts to reduce that number; and bring the balance to zero by purchasing carbon offsets—paying third-party organizations to help mitigate the company’s emissions by doing things like planting trees or investing in wind farms. This process will be repeated annually, and all the numbers will be published online for consumers to see. It’s an independent process much like how buildings are certified as LEED-certified (i.e. energy efficient) by the U.S. Green Building Council.

After the initial announcement in Denver, some 200 companies, most in the outdoor industry, reached out to inquire about joining Climate Neutral’s freshman class. It was a strong start, but the organization’s bigger challenge will be to appeal beyond the backpackers and rock climbers of the world.

“If we got the entire outdoor industry, our addressable market would be 4 or 5 percent of total U.S. emissions,” says Austin Whitman, Climate Neutral’s CEO. “It’s a big number, but our goal is to be much bigger than that. We want to have software companies, food and beverage companies, fashion companies—basically any consumer brand.”

Climate Neutral is currently courting a number of large brands such as Salesforce and Lyft, many of which have already made commitments to reducing and offsetting their carbon footprints. They just haven’t been certified by a third-party organization. Yet.

CLIMATE CHANGE IS FRONT OF MIND RIGHT NOW. PEOPLE WANT TO KNOW THAT COMPANIES ARE DOING SOMETHING ABOUT IT.

Certifications are hardly new, and there are dozens, if not hundreds of them, dedicated to some aspect of sustainability. But few ever reach a mass audience, says Anastasia O’Rourke, a consultant at industrial economics in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “We’ve certainly seen other eco labels fail to capture the imagination of the consumer,” she says. “They didn’t back up their message with strong marketing, or maybe they didn’t have the right systems in place.” Wildlife Friendly and Shade Coffee are just two examples.

Most labels aim at a single issue—wildlife or deforestation, say—but Climate Neutral is unique in that it’s giving the people swiping their credit cards an easy way to tackle the world’s biggest issue. “Climate change is very front of mind right now,” says O’Rourke. “People want to know that the companies they’re buying from are doing something about it. So I think Climate Neutral has a good opportunity to meet the market.”

For companies looking to become sustainable, cost is usually the biggest barrier. But carbon offsets are surprisingly affordable these days, and companies have a wide range of options to choose from, ranging from protecting the Amazon rain forest to providing clean cookstoves to villagers in Kenya. At today’s prices, companies can offset a ton of carbon for $3 to $5, and Climate Neutral estimates that most manufacturing companies can offset their entire operation by spending less than 1 percent of their revenue. The burden grows when they factor in the costs of analyzing their supply chain and making honest efforts to improve it.

A wind farm along the Pacific Crest Trail in California
A wind farm along the Pacific Crest Trail in California paintmeyer / Shutterstock

Reaching carbon neutrality and proving they’ve done so to a third-party certifier is a massive accounting project, especially for big companies with hundreds of factories that ship globally, like Apple. But the challenge, in some ways, is relatively straightforward. Right now, according to its 2019 environmental report, Apple is producing 25.2 million metric tons of CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalents). To go carbon neutral, it would likely need to buy a bunch of different offsets, but even if the company opted for the least expensive ones—say rain forest protection, which goes for about $3.50 per metric ton—the cost would be $88.2 million. A hefty sum, no doubt, but not so overwhelming when you consider Apple’s net sales in 2018 were $266 billion.

Of course, to motivate companies to adopt the Climate Neutral label, consumers actually need to make purchasing decisions based on it. And that’s where Honnold, perhaps the most recognizable star in the outdoor world, comes in. He’s donating his time and celebrity to help give the logo a boost, based in part on his frustrations with the opacity of the carbon-offset world. “I did a lot of research into carbon offsets, and I found it all slightly confusing,” Honnold says. “It makes sense that there would be a simple certification around climate the way there is for sustainable forestry or fishing.”

This fall, Climate Neutral will launch a campaign to begin driving consumers toward its logo. “We have such a huge problem with the climate, and people are looking for a new solution,” says Whitman. “So we want this badge to be as well understood as any label out there. And we’re feeling good about it.”

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