Why carbon offsetting doesn't cover the damage

Gareth Dinnage, Managing Director of Seacourt, winning company of B Corp’s Best for the World 2021, outlines the precedent that has been set by the court ruling on Shell’s ‘Drive Carbon Neutral’ campaign for the future carbon offsetting strategies of businesses large and small.

Gareth Dinnage

Recently one of the largest brands in the world, Shell, was rapped by advertising watchdogs for running a campaign promoting its goods and services as 'carbon neutral' by providing customers with the option to purchase offsets. Many businesses, both large and small, have used carbon offsetting as a marketing strategy, and yet their real efforts have little to do with reducing their impact to the planet. There are four key lessons for businesses to learn from the recent repercussions.

People see through the PR plan when it’s just fluff 

We are in the climate decade, where information on climate change is not just discussed by scientists, it is on our TVs in mainstream popular programming, on our radios and podcasts, and littered (pun intended) on our social media feeds. Many brands and high profile individuals are using their platforms to urge businesses and the wider public to make planet conscious decisions. While this shift is part of the reason businesses consider ‘offsetting’ campaigns in the first place, there is a reality that negative and environmentally harmful activity cannot simply be waved away with a slogan and some tree planting. Consumers can see when a company is investing more time and money on marketing their products or brand as “green” rather than actually doing the hard work to ensure that it is sustainable. With watchdog organisations and individuals ready to call out a symbolic reference that has little actual outcomes, businesses would be better off using the investment in ways to truly reduce impact. 

Offsetting doesn’t cover the damage 

Carbon offsets don’t actually cancel out the emissions to which they are linked. Offsetting projects simply don’t deliver what we need – a reduction in the carbon emissions entering the atmosphere. Instead, they’re a distraction from the real solutions to climate change. As a result, offsetting allows companies to continue with their unsustainable behaviour while shifting their responsibility for the climate onto the customer. 

Tree planting is frequently mentioned by companies as their approach to being sustainable. Forests are one of our best lines of defence against climate change and restoring them is crucial, but this can’t be a substitute for reducing carbon emissions. A newly-planted tree can take as many as 20 years to capture the amount of CO2 that a carbon-offset scheme promises. We would have to plant and protect a massive number of trees for decades to offset even a fraction of global emissions. In my industry, printing, sadly most companies continue to use and pollute water, they use lots of highly volatile chemicals and generate landfill waste. Offsets cannot be used to gloss over these practices. It is like breaking a leg and popping a sticking plaster on it.

The tide is changing 

It becomes easier to see greenwash when contrasted with a business which truly takes responsibility for its environmental and societal impact and is actively working to reduce it. Here at Seacourt we ‘walked the supply chain’ to see our paper being produced for ourselves; and measured the impact of paper supplies, transport methods and even how our employees travel to work on their daily commute. This x-ray of the company’s carbon footprint has allowed us to work on each aspect because we understand each individual action that has a carbon impact. We realise it is getting increasingly difficult to differentiate the good from the bad, this is why we have an Environmental Calculator to transparently show the actual carbon footprint attributed to your print order, along the entire supply chain. And we use actual data, not industry estimates, allowing our clients to report accurately too. 

As a Certified B Corporation, we are seeing more businesses step up in their industries and taking responsibility for their carbon footprint. I’m also happy to say that we are seeing businesses invest in implementing plans that are robust, detailed and open to scrutiny. Our clients and customers can see through the  ‘net- zero’ plans that contain very little detail, or are based on unproven processes, such as carbon capture and storage.

The true purpose of offsetting 

Just to be clear here, I am not anti-offsetting. Protecting forests and restoring natural ecosystems are vital both for wildlife and the climate. It is important that we are doing that as well as cutting emissions directly, not as a substitute. To ensure Seacourt is going even further than meeting its carbon responsibilities, we offset our entire footprint plus 10 per cent by investing in the widely recognised Climate Care, a world class company that seeks to deliver social, economic and environmental benefits. They are about much more than trees, and prioritise positive sustainable change for communities around the world. Currently, we are assisting with more environmentally friendly cookstoves in Ghana and Bangladesh which use less fuel and reduce exposure to toxic fumes. Empowering lasting change is important to our business. 

The main learning to take away from this all, is that businesses cannot pay for a few cheap offsets to counteract their chemical use, water pollution, biodiversity impact, and landfill impact. Businesses need to make real change from their core and actively reduce their emissions. In the process they will avoid the dreaded greenwash and truly become something their staff and customers can be proud of – both important factors in commercial success.