This is The Climate Win, the most positive sustainability news around the world every week.
Going green is all the rage in 2021. From airlines and hotel chains to grocery stores, companies are releasing statements claiming eco-friendliness. Some make actionable claims with set, achievable deadlines. Others release vague statements outlining goals that are decades away.
As a consumer, how do you tell which sustainability claims are legit, and which are simply “greenwashing;” that is, seeking the branding benefits of going green without putting in the work to make actual? Matador spoke with Austin Whitman, CEO of Climate Neutral, to find out.
Climate Neutral is a non-profit that works with brands to calculate and reduce their emissions. Once a company reduces and offsets its footprint, and commits to keep doing so, Climate Neutral certifies them as Climate Neutral Certified. That’s the point where a brand reduces and offsets all of the emissions it needs to operate. REI, Allbirds, Kleen Kanteen, and Avocado Mattress are a few of the well-known brands that are certified climate neutral. You know a company is Climate Neutral when you see the circular logo displayed on its products or website:
“Our main intent was to create a consumer-facing symbol that becomes part of consumers’ purchase decisions when they go out to buy outdoor gear, clothes, mattresses, and other products,” Whitman says.
According to Whitman, about two-thirds of businesses aren’t sure where their emissions come from, and even fewer know what to do about it. This is one source of greenwashing: A brand may not be trying to deceive, but it doesn’t know where to begin. When such a company claims to address its greenhouse gas emissions, it may miscalculate them and declare only a small fraction of its total carbon footprint.
Another source of greenwashing is when companies project changes decades in the future, adjustments that require minimal, if any, effort today. To tell who’s making actionable change, Whitman says to look for specific metrics and plan to reach them — as opposed to vague statements claiming a finish line date.
“Typically there’s an issue of how much you’re doing, and when you’re doing it,” Whitman says. “What we typically see are companies promising to do something by 30 years from now, which to us is not a meaningful pledge. It will be a different world in 2050.”
It’s common for brands to highlight everyday efforts like recycling and sending digital receipts rather than paper ones. While these efforts are great, they represent ubiquitous technological advances more than a company actually making intentional operational changes in order to be more sustainable.
“There’s an important difference between vision statements that countries and governments put out there and actual regulatory framework that have a charted plan or path to get to a goal, even if it’s a long-term goal,” says Whitman. “You can have a state that says they’re going to achieve 100 percent renewables by 2050. That’s a vision statement. Whether you believe the messenger or not, that’s up to you, but don’t treat it as something to plan around. It doesn’t guarantee any success or outcomes.”
Part of the problem, Whitman says, is a lack of policing. Any brand can put out a press release, and unless the media follows up, no one will ever know whether a company actually put money and effort into reducing its footprint. He contrasts that to real change states pursued more than a decade ago.
“Conversely, right around 2007-2008, we saw a bunch of states adopt actual legislation that said, ‘We are mandating energy efficiency improvements across our electric sector of 15 percent by 2015 or 20 percent by 2020.’ And then they laid out the implementation plan to get there. With few exceptions, if any, every state met those targets.”
That’s the fundamental difference, Whitman says, in vision statements and actionable framework.
How does this pertain to digital-only companies (of which Matador is one) staffed by a remote team?
“The choices companies make to work from home and do video conferencing are only a percent or two of total global emissions,” Whitman says. “What’s driving the problem is transportation and power generation.”
Employers and staff should consider whether they actually drive more by working remotely. This could be because they no longer live in city centers, or because there is more time to “head for the hills.” Staffers and companies, whether digital or not, need to consider the wide range of activities that go into making their business run. Only then can they develop an actionable plan. Once they’re willing to do so, Climate Neutral is there to assist with developing and implementing a one-year plan to become climate neutral.
“We’ve made it as easy as it can possibly get for companies, and what people often find is that, ‘Wow, it’s actually not as expensive as I thought to do this,” Whitman says. “We’re hoping that the more companies do this, the more others will take notice, and consumers will take notice.”
More Climate Wins this week
Ford Motor Co. announced this week it will invest $11.4 billion in electric vehicle and battery production, The New York Times reported. This investment is a win on multiple fronts. First, it will increase the number of EVs on the world’s roads much faster than anticipated. Additionally, major companies making massive investments shift the narrative on whether and when EVs will be adopted by the masses. Lastly, Ford estimates these new factories will create 11,000 jobs.
The Italian city of Milan announced this week it will plant three million trees by 2030, TimeOut reported.This effort will include planting in natural spaces and green buildings, and will help to clean the air and reduce the city’s “heat island effect.”
Lastly, an actionable take for all travelers. Google announced this week it will display the sustainability rating and efforts of hotels across the globe in its search results. This will help travelers incorporate a hotel’s eco-friendliness into the decision-making process when booking a stay.