We have all seen cases of climate-greenwashing on products and in corporate branding. From questionable use of “CO2 neutral” and “net zero” and fluffy terms like “climate friendly” and “climate smart”, to big splashes about reduced emissions from packaging, where packaging itself is a only tiny part of the products climate footprint. There is more on the way. The good news behind this is that consumers are seeking products with less climate impact. If the market is to play a positive role for better climate choices, consumers have to be able to trust that products with climate claims really are a better choice.
In order to promote genuine climate action, stem the tide of misleading climate claims, and give companies better guidelines for use of these claims, danish food companies, retail leaders and organizations representing consumers, climate, and the organic and conventional food industry, contributed to a new report True and Fair Climate Claims on Food (dec 2020). The focus is on food, but most recommendations are suitable for any sector.
The report is in the somewhat exotic danish language. And google translate is, well, google translate. So here is a short summary of key recommendations to:
- Authorities, regarding new danish guidelines for climate claims and sanctioning of greenwashing.
- Food companies and retailers – a checklist with eight principles for true and fair climate claims, and avoiding greenwashing
- Food industry organizations—regarding a broad mobilization assisting food companies in more systematic climate reporting, and better collaboration in the entire value chain. Preferably on the basis of the Science Based Targets Initiative .
New guidelines on the way in Denmark
Among the key recommendations to danish authorities, who are expected to release new guidelines for climate claims later this year, are:
- Set a high bar for all climate claims. Corporate branding and product claims must be based on reductions aligned with Paris climate goals for maximum 1,5 degree increase in global temperatures.
- Any claims of net zero must include documentation for the entire supply chain, not just a company’s own facilities, packaging and transport. For food, 75-95 percent of climate footprint is at the farm level. This has to be included.
- Goals and documentation should be based on Science Based Targets, and Greenhouse Gas Protocols
- Use of “Climate neutral” or “CO2 neutral” as a stand-alone claim on products is misleading and should not be allowed as a stand-alone claim, as is the case today. Use of climate offsets must always be specified.
- Climate offsets, such as establishing new forests, must be validated and certified from a short list of credible certifiers such as Verified Carbon Standard or Gold Standard.
- Use of “net zero”, “carbon neutral” on the basis of carbon offsets can only be used where the company has already reduced carbon emissions far below industry averages and aligned with Paris climate goals.
- Terms like “reduced CO2” should require documentation for product-based emissions minimum 30 percent under industry averages, for the entire product footprint.
- Maksimum emissions for products using the term “low carbon emissions” found today on products with 3 kg CO2/kg product!
- Fluffy terms such as “climate smart” “climate friendly” “climate controlled” “climate eggs” etc. should never be used. They are misleading and always promise more than they can deliver. For the same reason, “Climate positive” should never be used.
Any use of “carbon neutral” on the basis of climate offsets was controversial for some stakeholders, because all products have emissions, and consumers can get the idea that a product results in no emissions. But carbon offsets like new forests —done right, addressing documentation, durability and local community interests—play a critical role in reducing CO2 levels. So it was recommended that “CO2 neutral” could be used on the basis of offsets, but emissions must first be deeply reduced, and consumers must always be informed that emissions were compensated, and how. And there must be high quality verification.
New global guidelines also on the way
Many of these same principles are being debated all over the world. Science Based Targets Initiative released last week draft guidelines for net zero target criteria and timeframes, requirements for both emission reductions and neutralizing residual emissions, and for documentation and communication. This is now in a broad public consultation and survey until February 26.
Check list for companies to avoid greenwashing
The report includes a short check list for companies with eight principles for true and fair climate claims and avoiding greenwashing. The principles are consistent with recommendations to authorities, and are intended to keep companies, and their PR bureaus, on track:
- A little better is not enough. Climate claims require significantly lower emissions.
- Climate performance must be documented according to international standards and independent control
- No food is “CO2 Neutral”. Consumers must be informed about climate offsets
- Climate offsets must be real: additional, permanent and certified by credible sources
- Tell the whole story. Be clear about what small improvements mean for the whole product.
- Climate claims should not undermine the shift to more plant-rich diets
- Numbers and logos must be credible, relevant and transparent.
- No hidden harm. Fx to climate, nature, environment or local communities.
The principles are meant to encourage companies to take more bold climate actions, and avoid many of the typical trip-ups and misleading claims, that often occur because companies want to communicate small climate steps, like writing “35 percent less CO2” in large print, when it only applies to packaging or purchase of green energy. Or buying climate offsets from less reputable sources.
The report also alerts food industry organizations to the need to mobilize far greater collaboration on climate action in the entire supply chain. Among the recommendations was a broad effort to expand the use of Science Based Targets, develop new reporting tools for smaller companies, agreements on climate data reporting to improve value-chain collaboration on climate, and agreement in retail, food service and in public procurement on climate performance as a “license to deliver” in the food sector.
Note: The report “True and Fair Climate Claims on Food” is not a consensus report, but a consultancy report, though great efforts were made to find principles and guidelines that suited the broad industry, consumer, farming and climate interests, and there is broad support for many recommendations. The report was paid for by six food companies and three leading retailers, but the authors—Holmbeck EcoConsult (project leadership), climate thinktank CONCITO, Sall&Sall Advice and FOOD BUSINESS—are solely responsible for the final recommendations.