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Could there be an "organic" label for a product's climate impact?

Climate impact on a label
  • More and more companies are pledging to do good on climate, but it's hard for most everyday consumers to keep track of who's doing what.
  • A startup aims to highlight climate-friendly consumer products with the label "Climate Neutral Certified" which it hopes will work like an "organic" label for vegetables.
  • However, the certification also includes carbon offsets, which have been criticized as ineffective.

More and more people want to buy green. Few know where to start. But what if there were something like an "organic" label but for a company' carbon footprint?

That's the premise of a startup called Climate Neutral, a year-old nonprofit that aims to make climate-friendliness easy enough to put on a product label.

"Right now, there's no single indicator on a package that tells you about the carbon content of that product," said Austin Whitman, the group's executive director.

Even when companies are being truthful, distinguishing among various climate-friendly, low-impact or otherwise "green" pledges can be daunting. How do you compare Apple's pledge to run its locations on renewable electricity to Lyft's promise to offset the greenhouse gas emissions from its drivers?

For Climate Neutral, the answer is all-or-nothing. Getting a "Climate Neutral Certified" label means a company has gone through multiple process, said Whitman. That means measuring all of its direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions, including emissions from its operations, from the electricity it buys and from its vendors and suppliers; committing to reducing those emissions; and, once it's gotten as close to zero as possible, offsetting the remainder. A brand needs to do all three to be certified—"there's no halfway, can-we-partially-offset option," Whitman said.

So far, 44 brands have signed on to get certified next year, including Klean Kanteen, Allbirds and ChicoBag.

"The tide is turning"

Companies are betting that the climate-friendly labeling will translate into more consumer pressure and force bigger companies to catch up, if for no reason besides good marketing.

"Companies are quite keen to publicize the fact that they're low carbon, and consumers interested in consuming sustainably can safely buy their products," said Geoffrey Heal, a professor of social enterprise at Columbia University.

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In fact, plenty of those companies fall short, as Athens, Georgia, consumer Elle Lewis discovered the hard way. The 32-year-old jewelry designer shops locally, composts her food scraps and chooses her purchases based on how sustainable their packaging is. She even buys carbon offsets to counteract the shipping from her business. But she's had mixed success getting vendors to play along.

"I purchased materials a while ago and they were supposed to be made in America but arrived from an international location. I cringed thinking about the carbon footprint of that," Lewis told CBS MoneyWatch.

Her vendor's explanation? They were headquartered in Arizona, although the stones themselves were cut in China. That wasn't good enough, Lewis said, and she hasn't used them since.

"The vendor who lied about being based in America understands that the tide is turning against businesses whose practices harm our planet and yet didn't care enough to actually do anything about it. I can't do that," she said.  

Early adopters

Many of Climate Neutral's early adopters have spent a great deal of effort building up their sustainable bona fides. For these companies, labeling is a logical next step. Klean Kanteen, a maker of bottles, mugs and other beverage holders, started buying carbon offsets to negate the emissions from shipping purchases from its website about a decade ago, said Danielle Cresswell, the company's senior sustainability manager.

"At that time we said, we don't know what our total emissions impact is, but we know this is a piece of it and we can afford to offset it," she recalled. When it comes to the emissions from the company's entire operations, though, "It's a much bigger number than just offsetting the shipping. It's probably on the order of 10 to 15 times more," she said.

"It's like a tax," she continued. "You're taxing your business, and it says to the world outside, 'We're going to take responsibility, and we believe it's the right thing to do.' Even if there's not a public price on carbon today, we're going to put a price on carbon and pay it."

The company won't be submitting a full emissions reduction plan until the first quarter of next year, but Cresswell listed off a range of areas she's looking at: Pushing for the China factories of its suppliers to switch to renewable energy; reducing the company's use of air freight, which creates more carbon pollution than ocean shipping; and reevaluating how frequently employees fly.

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Getting a first cohort of brands who are already tied into a "green" identity is part of Climate Neutral's strategy, since creating peer pressure requires a critical mass of peers to apply that pressure. The group is focusing on consumer brands, and aims to sign up 200 companies by 2021, according to Whitman.

Central to Climate Neutral's proposition is the idea that making a product sustainably isn't that much more expensive than making it cheaply and offloading the pollution costs to society.

"We think of climate as a multi-trillion-dollar problem, but at the product level, it's not that much," Whitman said. Partly because offsets, the last part of reaching carbon "neutrality," are still very cheap, getting the certification could work out to an increase of less than a dollar on a pair of shoes, according to Whitman.

The inclusion of offsets is also potentially controversial. Offset programs, in which a company invests in a clean energy or emissions-reduction program elsewhere to counteract carbon pollution it creates in its operations, have come under criticism for lax oversight as well as the conundrum it creates by potentially allowing polluters to buy their way out of cutting down on emissions.

"We also can't allow offsets to be an excuse for more pollution. Carbon offsets should only be used as a last resort," said Deb Markowitz, vice president of initiatives and campaigns at Ceres, a nonprofit focused on corporate sustainability issues. But she said that offsets, as well as corporate investment in non-destructive products and methods, could help scale up clean alternatives.

"When a company that's not a manufacturer says, 'We need this kind of vehicle,' and they're ready to purchase enough of it to make it worthwhile for a manufacturer, that new product become available to all of us," she said.

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