Carbon Low vs Carbon Neutral

By Shannon Mora

Recently, I proposed the concept of carbon neutrality to an amazing company, whose mission I admire deeply. Their response was not unlike many I have heard before:

“As a carbon-conscientious company, [we] realizes the heavy toll that returns shipping takes on the environment and we have committed to offering more eco-friendly solutions. Our boxes and packing paper are actually made from 100% post-consumer recycled materials…. You won’t find a company more committed to maintaining and improving on our values and sustainability!”

As an environmentalist and a carbon accountant, quotes like the one above provoke a question I believe we all need to ask ourselves, “are we doing enough?”. The likely answer is unfortunately, no. This is not to discourage emission reduction efforts in our personal lifestyle and/or production method changes. Nor is this answer intended to discredit the differences such conversions can make! Quite the opposite. These efforts should be celebrated! Yet, they must also be viewed through a realistic lens.

The reality is, carbon low is good. Carbon neutral is better. If we can achieve better within our capacity, why should we compromise?

True Footprint

Typically, operational emissions, those released through the use of the product, take the spotlight in sustainability conversations. However, we also need to consider the supply chain emissions.

The general idea here is that every product that is made releases greenhouse gas emissions during the extraction, manufacturing, and disposal process. These are referred to as upstream and downstream emissions, which have been largely ignored in consumer decision making and highly underrepresented in retail pricing.

For example, we often hear about emissions released from vehicles on the road and the reductions made by switching to more fuel-efficient options. Yet, the emissions associated with creating and manufacturing these alternatives are excluded from the equation and thus are ignored by the consumers. This gives the false sense that operational reductions are sufficient enough, when in fact much more is needed and can be accomplished!

We Can Do More

We cannot solve a problem that we have not fully evaluated. While engaging in reduction practices such as fuel switching, recycling material, and decreasing waste are important, they can only get a product to carbon low.

To be carbon neutral or even carbon positive, companies first need accurate information about the emissions that are released in their supply chain so that they may make appropriate reduction decisions and educate their consumers. These data points can be obtained by conducting a life-cycle assessment (LCA), which calculates all emissions associated with their products and services. Hotspots for innovation can then be accurately identified and reduction strategies may be implemented in areas they will be most effective.

However, after making as many environmentally conscious changes as possible based on LCA data points, there will still be unavoidable emissions associated with the product. Even a fully repurposed product made from all recycled, organic vegan materials must be processed in some way and likely shipped to their consumer. This is the cross roads between carbon low and carbon neutral.

Currently, the most realistic and reliable way to achieve carbon neutrality is via carbon offset purchases. Offsets allow business owners to offset the unavoidable emissions from their products and services after they have decreased their output to as low as possible. Offsets also allow individuals to take matters into their own hands, and offset their own purchases where business owners have not yet implemented carbon neutrality. One can offset a vacation flight, their online shipments from various stores, and so much more!

We can always imagine one day there will be a product made completely by recycled materials, manufactured in an entirely solar powered plant, packaged in upcycled organic materials, with zero waste, and shipped to each of their customers via electric powered cars. Until that product actually exists, companies with a sustainable-mindset should not be satisfied with current reduction efforts. When it comes to preserving our planet and our resources, you can never do too much.