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Companies creep away from carbon neutral claims

Leon is to stop marketing its burgers as carbon neutral and the signs are that others could soon follow its lead. By David Burrows.

Foodservice companies are reviewing their carbon neutral pledges in the face of growing pressure from consumers, campaigners, investors and regulators on the controversial approach that relies on offsetting emissions.

“We have known for some time now that the majority of offsets are not worth the paper they are printed on,” says Bob Gordon, director at the Zero Carbon Forum (ZCF). “Something needed to change.” 

Last week, Footprint revealed that fast food chain Leon had quietly started phasing out carbon neutral messaging across its channels. The company had attracted negative press in 2021 with experts questioning some of the offsets it was using in its work with ClimatePartner. Leon disputed the criticism at the time and now says it is “focused on maximising our positive impact, as part of our mission to help people eat, and live well by serving food that tastes good and is better for the planet”.

With the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) last week confirming it is scrutinising carbon neutral (and net-zero) claims more closely and will take “immediate action” when it finds breaches it appears that others will follow Leon’s lead.

Chain reaction

Footprint understands that WSH is currently reviewing its carbon neutral coffee proposition but no final decision has been made. Benugo worked with ClimatePartner to put carbon footprints on menus and bought offsets to ensure all coffees were carbon neutral.

Sodexo UK&I is not currently investing in any offsets but has made a public commitment to reach carbon neutrality across its direct operations (scopes 1 and 2) by 2025. “We are in the process of defining our guiding principles around carbon offsets at both the global and regional level,” explains a spokeswoman. “[We are] also reviewing our carbon neutral target in light of the challenges posed by the carbon offset market around validity, permanence and whether it feels the right approach.” 

Wahaca claimed to be the first restaurant group in the UK to be certified as a carbon neutral company (in 2016). The chain follows the carbon neutral protocol which requires measurement of scopes 1 and 2 emissions and some elements of scope 3. “I think there has been a value in reporting emissions, so that we can focus on ways we can reduce emissions within the business,” says sustainability manager Carolyn Lum. The focus has always been reduction of the business’s emissions and impact, she adds.

Nestlé is also sticking with its approach – to not rely on offsets within its company net-zero plan but to allow individual brands to pursue carbon neutrality. “We continue to support clear, internationally recognised standards and regulation of the carbon credits market,” says a spokeswoman.

Nandos, which has been carbon neutral since November 2021, was also approached for comment. Its website has a Q&A explaining some of the reasoning behind its carbon neutral move. “Offsetting our carbon footprint while we work to reduce our absolute emissions allows us to take immediate climate action,” Nandos notes. It also points to the social benefits of climate action projects. “We are confident that this [offsetting to be carbon neutral] is the right approach to ensure our business is taking its commitments seriously in the immediate term, placing us on a strong foothold to achieve our SBTs [science-based targets] and net zero ambition.”

Indeed, Nandos also refers to the time it will take to reduce its scope 3 emissions, 65% of which come from the food it serves: “[…] we want to ensure that we are doing all that we can do now to reduce the impact we are having on the climate.”

Supporters of using offsets to reach carbon neutral argue that companies are taking action now for the emissions they can’t yet reduce. “[…] while every company determines its own trajectory towards net-zero and hopefully follows a science-aligned internal reduction pathway, they should not do nothing about unabated emissions,” says Rebecca Fay, chief marketing officer at Climate Impact Partners, which works in the voluntary carbon market.

One of the principles of the carbon neutral protocol is to promote “immediate action”. The 2023 protocol reads: “Transformation to a sustainable and resilient net-zero economy is accelerated by carbon neutrality as entities act ahead of and beyond regulation. Carbon neutral entities reduce emissions under their direct control and enable mitigation activities elsewhere.”

Writing for Footprint on Friday, Simon Heppner, founder of Net Zero Now, warned that constant undermining of offsets and the “green-wagoning surrounding carbon neutral claims” is causing net-zero ambitions to be “thwarted by fear”. He wrote: “Maybe media scrutiny around offsetting would be more helpfully deployed around the ‘when’, for example ‘when would we like businesses to voluntarily allocate capital to nature-based action; now, or in 2050?”

Reduction rush

Critics meanwhile point to the 50% emissions reductions required by 2030 to meet net-zero. “Offsets are not the solution at this stage,” says Gordon. “They may be part of the solution a long way down the line, but if you are spending money on offsets now, you are not spending it on something else. If we were to redirect all money spent on offsets towards solutions we could see some acceleration in our approach,” he adds.  

Marks & Spencer was the first retailer to become carbon neutral and has been in its own operations since 2012. However, in its 2022 sustainability report the business said it was “changing its approach” following consultation with experts. “The investment we have historically made in offsetting our scope 1 and 2 greenhouse gas emissions will be redirected into the new [climate] innovation fund.” 

WSH was a carbon neutral company from 2007 to 2017. The caterer retained some carbon neutrality with carbon neutral fleet and business travel until earlier this year, says director of sustainable business Mike Hanson, which was “when we decided that carbon neutrality had run its course”. He adds: “We were early adopters, and we should be proud of our position, but we have now recognised that the world has changed and we must focus on activity to reduce and remove carbon in our own business and client operations.”

Whether companies move to distance themselves from carbon neutral in their marketing, or shift from offsets completely, time will tell. But the likes of Gordon feel we are at a turning point. “I think it will be really hard for widespread offsetting to retain a credible position,” he says. “Changes to legislation will be the biggest driving force, but as we have seen already – [with] plenty of leaders backing off – others will surely follow. There will still be some claims, but they will need to be backed by hard evidence.”

With greenwashing in the news almost daily companies have already begun greenhushing. Perhaps the creep away from carbon neutral is just another example of this. Confidence in the claims being made needs to be higher than ever and one of the biggest challenges of carbon offsetting, as noted by S&P Global in a 2021 blog, is that “there aren’t enough high-quality credits to counteract the massive level of emissions that businesses produce. What’s more, the world has limited capacity to create new ones.”

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has confirmed it is aware that some organisations are making carbon neutral and net-zero claims which are “entirely unqualified and do not explain the basis on which they are being achieved”. Such unqualified claims are “likely to breach existing rules, and the ASA will be taking proactive action immediately to address such claims”, a spokesperson explains. Companies may well beat the ASA to it.