Everything leaves a carbon footprint.
What we buy, what we make, what we grow, what we sell, how it gets there—all of these activities (and more) produce planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs).
Now, in order to keep Earth livable, humans collectively need to reduce those GHGs dramatically by 2030—and reach net-zero emissions by 2050.
But how do we get there? Well, Climate Neutral believes that brands can lead the way. Launched in 2019, the independent, not-for-profit organization works with companies to measure, offset and decrease their carbon emissions.
Through these steps, companies—and, ultimately, the consumers who support them—can play a significant role in getting the world to our ambitious net-zero carbon goal.
The theory? If companies are held accountable for their carbon emissions, they’ll have an incentive to reduce them and come up with low-carbon innovations.
In a perfect world, the government would have a great formula solution for capping carbon emissions.
“In a perfect world, the government would have a great formula solution for capping carbon emissions and driving the global economy toward a net-zero future by 2050,” says Austin Whitman, founding CEO of Climate Neutral.
“We would love it if there were an effective policy, but there’s not.”
This is why voluntary markets—think certification programs like USDA Organic or the Forest Stewardship Council—have emerged.
“These voluntary collaborations between industry and experts spring up because there’s a problem that has gone unchecked,” says Whitman. “And there could be no bigger example than climate change.”
Enter Climate Neutral’s certification program.
What Climate Neutral’s certification means and why it matters
A Climate Neutral label means the brand has achieved carbon neutrality.
Climate Neutral’s certification makes it easy for consumers to identify brands that take responsibility for their carbon emissions.
A Climate Neutral label means the brand has measured its annual carbon footprint has achieved carbon neutrality by investing in a portfolio of high-quality carbon offsets (not all offsets are created equal), and is working to reduce its carbon emissions as much as possible.
Before we dive into their process and standards, first things first: What do “net-zero carbon” and carbon offsetting even mean?
Essentially, there are two goals: reducing GHG emissions as much as possible, and offsetting what remains. Carbon offsets are credits that can be purchased toward supporting initiatives or innovations that effectively reduce or remove GHG emissions, such as carbon sequestration, energy-efficiency retrofits and reforestation and conservation.
Put simply, they’re a way to balance the scales.
Carbon offsets are how brands like Amazon and Delta Airlines can meet their commitment to being carbon neutral companies.
Carbon offsets are how brands like Amazon and Delta Airlines can meet their commitment to being carbon neutral companies. It’s a one-for-one calculation: For every unit of carbon emitted, an equal investment into carbon offsets or credits is made. That company’s net climate impact is then reduced to net zero—in other words, their carbon emissions have been neutralized.
A large part of Climate Neutral’s mandate is proving to brands that, thanks to carbon offsets, immediate climate action is possible, not some faraway, elusive goal. And carbon offsets are just the starting point, opening the door for companies to make impactful operational changes to reduce emissions.
“We want the [Climate Neutral] label to become synonymous with responsible climate behavior, or carbon responsibility, on the part of brands,” says Whitman.
How does Climate Neutral certify brands?
Let’s break down the process quickly.
Step one is measuring the brand’s carbon footprint. Climate Neutral’s tool, called the Brand Emissions Estimator (BEE), guides companies through their carbon footprint—from manufacturing to delivery and everything in between—using GHG emissions data and following Greenhouse Gas Protocol.
The emissions are measured in three scopes.
The first covers direct emissions from controlled facilities, such as office heating or running manufacturing plants. The second scope involves indirect emissions, mostly electricity used. Finally, the third measures indirect supply-chain emissions, such as raw materials for product manufacturing, employee commuting, shipping and transport.
Once a company’s footprint is calculated, next come the carbon offsets.
Not all carbon credits have the same level of positive impact, so Climate Neutral has rigorous standards for the types of credits that can be used toward a Climate Neutral portfolio. “We’ve assembled folks from across the spectrum—non-profits, for-profits, consultants, market experts—and put together a set of standards and requirements around carbon offsetting,” says Whitman, explaining how they ensure a project is low-risk and high-quality.
Forestry projects can make up an entire portfolio, for example, while some projects such as large-scale hydropower are not accepted due to negative environmental and social impacts (like significant area flooding or the effects on aquatic ecosystems). Projects need to be less than 10 years old to ensure they’ve been verified by the most recent standards, and they all need to undergo third-party verification.
In the final stage of certification, Climate Neutral works with brands to develop a Reduction Action Plan (RAP) to cut emissions over the next year or two.
By looking at learnings from the BEE, Climate Neutral can help identify areas where brands can shrink their footprint. These measures could include switching out new materials for recycled ones, committing to green power or cutting down on air travel.
When you see a Climate Neutral Certified label, you know that brand has not only measured and offset its carbon emissions for last year, but that it’s also implemented plans to reduce future emissions and will get recertified every year. “This is not a one-and-done process,” says Whitman.
What brands are Climate Neutral Certified?
Since the Climate Neutral certification launched in 2019, more than 190 brands have undergone the process.
Since the Climate Neutral certification launched in 2019, more than 190 (and counting!) have undergone the process. Altogether, more than 200,000 metric tons of carbon were measured and offset in 2019 alone. Browse the full carbon neutral companies list here.
As just one example, sustainable shoewear maker Allbirds worked with Climate Neutral to calculate its carbon footprint per shoe. Using the BEE and operational data from 2019, it was able to estimate emissions at 7.6 kg of CO2e per sneaker. (Allbirds estimates that the average sneaker emits 12.5 kg of CO2e—so, the company is off to a good start.)
To reach Allbirds’ carbon-neutral goals, the company offset the 7.6 kg of CO2e per shoe with a portfolio of carbon credits related to renewables, farms, landfills and forests. The cost? Only $0.08 per shoe to become carbon neutral.
Moving forward, Allbirds’ RAP includes a full transition to a sugarcane-based cushioning material called SweetFoam across its product line, as well as transitioning to renewable energy in its retail stores to cut down on electricity use. “They’ve done a tremendous amount of thinking through how they can decarbonize their supply chain,” says Whitman.
Another example is Pela, a maker of compostable phone cases and sunglasses that is working toward a plastic-free planet.
As part of the Climate Neutral network, it offset 1,497 tCO2e in 2019—a year’s worth of GHGs from the manufacturing and delivery of its products—and it’s now striving to cut emissions in its operations and supply chain.
One important thing to note: Pretty much every activity contributes to carbon emissions—not only those in the spotlight or the most obvious.
“We’ve really tried to recruit a diverse array of brands, from software to tea and footwear to bedding, and that [diversity] reflects the incredibly pervasive scale of the problem,” says Whitman. “We also think it presents a huge opportunity to get people thinking more about everything they do as having carbon consequences.”
How consumers can support carbon-neutral certification
As consumers, we have a lot of power. The importance of companies taking responsibility for carbon emissions only gains traction when we collectively vote with our wallets and our voices, make purchasing decisions based on Climate Neutral’s criteria or similar programs. (Other certifications worth checking out include Climate Neutral Now, a UN initiative, and Carbon Neutral, created and managed by Natural Partner Capital.)
You can also encourage your favorite brands to work toward carbon neutrality.
Maybe in the not-so-distant future—when climate consciousness is simply what we expect—we won’t even think of making a purchase if we can’t be assured the brand is doing its very best for the planet.
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