The Guardian this week ran a story stating that carbon neutral claims “face [a] UK ban”. Which is true, kind of. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is, on the back of its consumer research, looking at what evidence brands will need in order to make such claims but “no decisions have yet been made on the forms of evidence, including offset schemes, that are more or less likely to be considered as acceptable evidence to substantiate such claims” a spokesman told Footprint. “We’ll announce our findings in due course,” he added.
The clickbait headline has certainly set the cat amongst the pigeons. We can reveal that Leon has begun “phasing out the carbon neutral messaging across our channels”. The chain launched its carbon neutral burgers and fries in January 2021 but has now removed the details of the scheme from its website. “We’re currently reviewing which ESG projects Leon will be supporting for the next 12 months,” a spokeswoman told Footprint.
Leon’s use of offsets to claim carbon neutrality was criticised in September 2021 with reported use of “phantom credits”. Leon strongly disputed this. But offsetting is – rightly or wrongly – steadily becoming synonymous with greenwashing.
The Changing Markets Foundation has a website dedicated to greenwashing and the front cover of its recent report ‘Feeding us greenwash’ has an image of a burger topped with a carbon neutral flag. The campaign group has been particularly critical of brands using carbon neutral to ‘green’ emissions-intensive products like meat and dairy. In a poll the foundation found that 42% of consumers were more likely to buy a product with a carbon neutral label and 29% would pay more for it.
Efforts to improve the voluntary carbon market are ongoing. Regulators in the UK and EU are closely scrutinising the systems, though. So will other food brands start quietly quitting such schemes too?
Benugo, Nando’s, Sodexo, Starbucks and Wahaca are among those to have gone carbon neutral or set carbon neutral targets. The argument supporters make is that by offsetting they are taking immediate action to tackle emissions they can’t yet reduce. Writing for Footprint this week, Simon Heppner, founder of Net Zero Now and the Sustainable Restaurant Association, argues that constant undermining of carbon offsets is causing net-zero ambitions to be “thwarted by fear”.
Writing on LinkedIn, Rebecca Fay, chief marketing officer at Climate Impact Partners, which works in the voluntary carbon market, responded to the UK “ban” story in The Guardian as well as the European Parliament’s vote in favourof banning environmental claims based on offsetting (it’s a long way to final approval). “Carbon neutrality demonstrates action being taken right now to avoid and reduce emissions,” Fay wrote, and one of its “key strength[s] […] is that it ties private sector, voluntary action, to a footprint”. She continued: “For sure, there are bad actors who mis-use carbon or climate neutral labels to avoid reducing their own footprint. But the evidence demonstrates that is not the norm.” (Footprint has approached Fay for further details of “the evidence”).
The Competition and Markets Authority’s green claims code says carbon neutral claims “should include accurate information about whether (and the degree to which) they are actively reducing the carbon emissions created in the production of their products or delivery of their services or are offsetting emissions with carbon removal”. That’s a lot of information for brands to display and for consumers to digest.
The CMA’s view on all this should become clearer when it publishes the findings of its investigation into the environmental claims being made by food and drink companies. And let’s not forget that it’s not just carbon that brands are offsetting: some are using plastic credits to claim plastic neutrality too.
On the subject of plastic, the UN published a report this week detailing how to “turn off the tap” on plastic pollution. A roadmap also details how to cut plastic pollution by 80% by 2040 through reduction, reuse and recycling. The report also suggests swapping out 17% of “short-lived products” which include wrappers, sachets and takeaway items, with “sustainable substitutes”.
Paper can save on emissions in some cases, the report’s authors noted, but not in others. Life cycle assessments comparing materials can produce confusing results but this passage was telling. “[…] comprehensive assessments including environmental and socio-economic indicators often demonstrate that not all alternatives to plastic lead to better outcomes. Usually, the better alternatives are reusable products, regardless of their material.” McDonald’s, as we now know, disagrees.
And finally we head to Rishi Sunak’s food summit. Or we would, but from what we can see there was little discussion of sustainability in the 3.5 hours of talks and presentations. Even those industry bigwigs that did attend appear less than impressed by the prime minister’s appetite to deal with crises that span climate, inflation, affordability, health, security and more. Which is alarming but not surprising.