More Products Are Adding Carbon Labels. But What Do They Really Mean?

An increasing number of consumer products—from bacon to body wash—now bear labels pertaining to their environmental impact. Here’s how to separate the truly meaningful claims from the marketing speak.

A photo of a woman scrutinizing the label on a package at a natural food store

(Photo: istock)

Carbon neutral, carbon zero, carbon offsetting…what does it all mean, and why should you care? Well, all these terms have a role to play in helping us understand and take action on the climate crisis. At the same time, their intense proliferation and deep inconsistency has made it hard to get a handle on what producers are actually trying to tell us about their goods and services. Of course, at the end of the day, it’s also about marketing: companies want consumers to think they are doing right by the planet, even if in reality their actions aren’t quite so straightforward. So let’s dig into the language so we can better understand these copious carbon claims.

Let’s start at the beginning: what’s carbon?

Carbon is an element that exists in all organic compounds, even us! When we burn fossil fuels like oil, coal, and natural gas, we release carbon into the atmosphere. The problem isn’t that carbon is bad (plants and people release carbon all the time), but that emitting carbon at the scale at which the world is currently doing so is bad. As these gasses accumulate, they trap heat in our atmosphere that causes the earth to warm. We need to get that carbon back into the earth, into soil, or just about anything that will have it. The term for doing this is sequestration.

Why are there so many carbon labels and why are they suddenly everywhere?

You’d be forgiven for being confused by all the ecolabels in the world these days. At latest count, Canadian label tracker Ecolabel Index was monitoring 456 different ones in 199 countries, all of which provide varying degrees of useful information.

The past year has seen a flurry of companies intent on burnishing their climate bonafides, for reasons both heartfelt and perhaps merely pragmatic—increasingly, consumers say they care about the environmental footprint of the products they buy and are making good on these sentiments. From Unilever’s commitment to denote how much greenhouse gas was produced in the manufacturing and shipping of each of its 70,000 products to Amazon’s climate pledge, there’s been a noticeable uptick in climate transparency efforts. “What we see is once a company makes a commitment, their competitor starts to make a commitment.” says Laura Timlin, a director at the Carbon Trust, a consultancy that helps businesses reduce their emissions, and offers various certifications.

Why is carbon labelling important?

Carbon literacy is the first step towards understanding the emissions produced by the products we buy. Without this information, consumers are being asked to make decisions in an information vacuum. “If you’re in a grocery store, you can find out the ingredients, and the amount of calories. It would be helpful if we had that for carbon footprint as well,” says Seth Wynes, a postdoctoral student who studies climate change mitigation at Concordia University in Montreal. “It wouldn’t have to be limited to food. We already do that with Energy Star products and that’s really helpful. These are big decisions that are locking in emissions for the lifetime of a product.”

What does it mean to be carbon neutral?

According to the Carbon Trust, “a carbon neutral footprint is one where the sum of the greenhouse gas emissions (CO2) produced is offset by natural carbon sinks (natural systems that absorb carbon, like plants, thus offsetting carbon emissions) and/or carbon credits.” In other words, a company pays for emissions reductions by third-party companies in order to mitigate the emissions they themselves produce. To receive the accreditation, an organization or product must adhere to PAS 2060, which is the preeminent globally-recognized carbon neutrality standard. And while this certification doesn’t mean an org is doing the absolute most to halt their emissions, it’s a laudable gateway standard. “A lot of organizations are starting with carbon neutrality as a way of [getting] on board, and are then going to go on and set a net zero strategy or science-based target,” says Timlin.

The key difference between carbon neutrality and carbon zero is partly measured by the extent to which companies are taking responsibility for their emissions. Emissions are categorized into three scopes; while it’s largely accepted that scopes 1 and 2 are the direct responsibility of the company (they include the emissions made in the production of the goods, as well as the energy purchased to make the goods, respectively), scope 3 includes things like the emissions produced by using a company’s products. These type of emissions are much harder and more extensive to manage.

Unlike carbon neutrality, carbon zero (or net zero) means a company has reduced its emissions across all scopes, and met the requirements laid out by current science to keep the world under 1.5 degrees of temperature rise.

So the companies claiming carbon neutrality are still producing emissions?

Yes. A company may not be able to entirely get rid of the emissions produced in the creation of their products or services. They purchase credits or offsets from certified organizations that guarantee a commensurate amount of emissions have been removed from the atmosphere.

Offsets come in all shapes and sizes, from nature-based carbon sinks like planting trees to carbon sequestration by direct air capture (yes, exactly what it sounds like—capturing carbon emissions from the air and sequestering them underground or even in diamonds!). They can also buy credits from companies who have an allotment of emissions room that they have not used, because their own efforts have been less energy intensive.

Is this legit?

Yes and no. While there are fantastic organizations that legitimately lock those emissions away forever—by burying them, for example—there are lots of murkier offerings, where we can’t be sure that the emissions have been sequestered, or that they aren’t carbon mitigation efforts that would have happened anyway. For example, a plot of land that is going to be planted with trees needs to be guaranteed to exist forever in order to legitimately sequester those emissions. And a forest that was going to be planted with trees anyways likewise does nothing ‘additional’ to curb emissions. In other words, it’s quite complicated. And even huge corporations and environmental groups have been hoodwinked by some of these fraudulent offsets. Vague promises of trees being planted in faraway forests are not good enough.

“There have been so many failed projects of fraudulent activities that offsets have become a sketchy word,” says Landon Brand, co-founder of Wren, a California-based company which offers monthly carbon offset subscriptions to individuals or organizations. Wren tries to provide the greatest transparency on its offset projects, with monthly updates. While negating emissions is a core part of Wren’s work, Brand also sees the broader purpose of offsetting as helping people take action. Through Wren, people can see their money applied to a handful of different carbon-reducing projects, and read monthly reports on these efforts. “There’s so many people who feel like they want to do more but they don’t know what to do,” says Brand.

So should I buy offsets to use against my own emissions?

Dr. Kate Ervine, an associate professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, is not a fan of this for a few key reasons. She’s dubious of the validity of offsets (if they were going to plant that forest anyway, what is the point of your tree-planting offsets?). And she worries about moral licensing—as in, let me just pay for this offset so I can still go on my vacation and not feel bad about it. “Carbon offsetting doesn’t lower emissions,” she says. “In theory it just cancels them out and brings us back to baseline.”

Which is extremely problematic when we need solutions that are about aggressively bringing emissions down. “This is where the danger comes in,” she says. “We’re thinking we’re doing more.”

Dr. Ervine’s recommendation is not necessarily to buy offsets, but to instead “look for worthwhile projects to contribute to.” This sentiment is echoed by Robinson Meyer, of The Atlantic, who recently wrote a handy guide to the most worthwhile ways to support climate efforts. In a sense this is what good offsetters like Brand believe, too—you shouldn’t be buying offsets to cancel out your bad deeds, but instead using them to support good projects.

Perhaps the takeaway is that offsetting is worthwhile itself but no substitute for reducing one’s personal emissions. We know that one percent of the world’s population takes 50 percent of its flights. These jetsetters could probably offset their flights and then some, but what we truly need is for them to fly…less.

Now, onto carbon zero or net zero

“Carbon neutrality is an annual process that you have to repeat,” says the Carbon Trust’s Timlin. “Whereas if you’re looking at a net zero target, you’re going to reduce and rescue (capture emissions), and when you can’t do it anymore, you offset.” It’s a more fulsome way of trying to reduce emissions, and it comes with science-based targets, or global standards that mean your efforts will meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. These targets aim to keep global emissions below 1.5 degrees of warming, the point beyond which the world warms to dangerous levels. Ideally, all companies should be aiming for net zero.

Maple Leaf Foods, for example, says it is “the first major food company in the world to be carbon neutral.” It has set science-based targets and says its offsets are industry accredited. The label it has created for its products, however—denoting them as ‘carbon zero’—doesn’t mean there were no emissions created in the production of your bacon. Instead, the company itself has reduced emissions across its supply chain (and across all three of its scopes) in an effort to compensate for the emissions produced by that package of meat sticks.

So what does this kind of carbon label actually mean?

Well, until we see widespread and standardized carbon labelling…not all that much. We need a ubiquitous carbon labelling system so we can compare different products across a category. Until then, a product made by a manufacturer who has a company-wide effort in place to neutralize emissions is obviously superior to a product produced by a company that does not. The science-based targets of a net zero commitment are not easy to meet, so they help back up the validity of a company’s efforts.

How can we encourage more companies to use carbon labels?

We need upstream policy intervention. Wynes imagines a world where airlines are forced to disclose the emissions intensity of their flights. Being transparent about this information is easy to do, but lots of sectors won’t do it without a push from government. If mandated, we’d be able to clearly see the emissions produced across any good or service we purchase.

But is all of this just greenwashing?

“If you had a spectrum of greenwashing, from ‘we are actually trying to convince you to use a horrendous product’ on up, carbon emissions disclosure is towards the better end,” says Wynes. It helps educate consumers, and it forces companies to tackle their emissions to a measurable effect. But it’s not a substitute for systemic change. “The biggest bang for your buck is legislation that influences the industries to reduce emissions themselves. That could be a price on carbon, on jet fuel, incentives for farmers to sequester more carbon in their soil or use a smaller amount of fertilizer. But sometimes to do those things you need the support of consumers and awareness,” says Wynes.

Last November, Canada committed to increasing the carbon tax until 2030. This type of top-down policy change should help usher in the zero emission future we need, as the costs of high-carbon goods will go up while the cost of low-carbon alternatives grow more appealing.

Admittedly, carbon is a complex topic

Ultimately, all of the terms defined in this piece are about wrestling to understand carbon, a topic Dr. Ervine explores in her appropriately named book, Carbon. She explores myriad dimensions of the compound, that only add to the complexity of it. “We just want to be careful because not all carbon is created equally or produced equally. Researchers go in the global south and find out the Indigenous people got booted off the land to make way for the carbon project.”

You answered some of my questions but also just confused me more

Indeed. All of this just needs to get simpler and easier for citizens. Clear carbon labels—and standardized carbon certification backed up by government-mandated carbon disclosure—is where we need to go. Not too hard, right? In the meantime, make the best decisions you can, given the information you’ve got. “if you’re looking broadly, the most effective things you can do are living car-free, eating a plant-based diet, and avoiding air travel,” says Wynes. “These are big bang for your buck. Often we get distracted by tiny things that aren’t that important. Focus on the big stuff, and don’t beat yourself about the rest.”