In the era of greenwashing legislation, it’s normal to be suspicious of the legitimacy of measures in the sustainability sphere. One contentious topic is carbon offsetting, with more companies than ever calling themselves “climate neutral” or “climate positive”. So, what exactly is carbon offsetting, and is it a legitimate strategy for consumers and businesses?

The dangers of a warming planet

Here’s the gist: industries from transport to agriculture to fashion burn fossil fuels to produce goods, releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, into the air. This gas traps heat in Earth’s atmosphere, leading to an increase in global temperatures. 

Temperatures have already hit a 1°C increase, and the crucial Paris Agreement in 2015 set a goal to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5°C, compared to pre-industrial levels. According to ClientEarth, “Warming above 1.5°C risks further sea level rise, extreme weather, biodiversity loss and species extinction, as well as food scarcity, worsening health and poverty for millions of people worldwide.”

Something needs to change for humanity to thrive well into the future, and a popular yet contentious solution in recent decades is carbon offsetting. So, what exactly is carbon offsetting, and is it a legitimate strategy for consumers and businesses? Let’s take a look.

What exactly is carbon offsetting?

Carbon offsetting is a concept which first arose in the late 1980s that involves taking action to balance out or reduce one's "carbon footprint". This is usually achieved by investing in environmentally-friendly projects such as renewable energy or reforestation or by purchasing carbon credits from organisations that have reduced their carbon emissions beyond regulatory requirements.

The idea behind carbon offsetting is that it allows individuals and organisations to mitigate their environmental impact by funding efforts to reduce carbon emissions elsewhere. However, it's not clear-cut, and there are benefits and limitations to consider.

The benefits and limitations of carbon offsetting

For consumers

For the conscious consumer, there are several potential benefits to carbon offsetting:

  • May reduce personal carbon footprint: By offsetting carbon emissions, individuals can theoretically reduce their carbon footprint, allowing them to feel better about their role in the fight against climate change.
  • Flexible and easy to implement: Carbon offsetting can be done by purchasing carbon credits, which are easy to obtain quickly and without much effort.
  • Promotes environmental sustainability: By funding projects that reduce carbon emissions, carbon offsetting helps to promote environmental sustainability by supporting the development of clean technologies and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Potential benefits aside, consumers should be aware of the limitations of the practice when making purchasing decisions: 

  • Reduction may not be significant: While carbon offsetting may reduce an individual's carbon footprint to some extent, it doesn't necessarily reduce their overall environmental impact. Offsetting may give people a false sense of security and allow them to continue engaging in activities that are harmful to the environment.
  • Likely not a long-term solution: Carbon offsetting is not a permanent solution to reducing carbon emissions. It may provide short-term aid, but it is essential to consider long-term solutions that address the root causes of emissions.
  • Can be difficult to verify: The efficacy of carbon offsetting projects can be challenging to prove, making it difficult for consumers to determine if their investment is actually reducing emissions.

For businesses

In the current market, investing in carbon offsetting can have some positive benefits for companies of all kinds:

  • Enhances reputation: By offsetting carbon emissions, businesses can improve their reputation by demonstrating their commitment to environmental sustainability and corporate social responsibility.
  • Helps meet regulatory requirements: Many countries and regions have set emissions reduction targets, and businesses can offset their emissions to help meet them.
  • Reduces operating costs: Businesses can reduce their operating costs over time by investing in renewable energy and energy-efficient technologies.

However, the practice is often labelled as more of a “band aid solution”, and there are disadvantages businesses should be aware of:

  • Can be expensive: Offsetting carbon emissions can be costly for businesses, especially if they have high levels of emissions.
  • May not reduce impact on the environment: Carbon offsetting may not necessarily reduce a business' impact on the environment. Companies need to consider other environmental initiatives, such as reducing emissions at source.
  • Not universally accepted: Carbon offsetting is not universally accepted, and some stakeholders may view it as a way for companies to avoid making real emissions reductions.

What to look for when buying from brands

There are some crucial things to look for when participating in carbon offsetting, especially when buying from brands or companies that claim to be “carbon neutral” or “carbon positive”:

  • Transparency: Look for companies that are transparent about their carbon emissions and offsetting practices. They should provide clear information, so steer clear of those making vague claims.
  • Verification: Look for companies that have had their carbon footprint and offsetting practices verified by an independent third party. This can help to ensure that the company's claims are accurate.
  • Additionality: Look for companies that invest in carbon offsetting projects that are additional to what is required by law.
  • Durability: Look for companies that invest in sustainable projects that will have a long-term impact. Projects should be designed to reduce emissions over the long term to maintain climate health for future generations.

So, is it greenwashing?

The gist is that if a large company is using carbon offsetting as a green-hued mask for nefarious and harmful production practices behind the scenes, it is undoubtedly a form of greenwashing. However, it can theoretically form a legitimate part of a more holistic approach to tackling climate change in both supply chains and daily life. Implementation and marketing both play a role here.

When done correctly, carbon offsetting can be a useful tool for individuals and organisations to reduce their carbon footprint and support efforts to reduce emissions, either by investing in long-term sustainability initiatives or purchasing carbon credits.

However, the effectiveness of carbon offsetting can be limited, and it can be difficult to verify the impact of offsetting projects. In some cases, companies may use carbon offsetting to avoid making real emissions reductions, hence the criticism around greenwashing. Worryingly, a recent investigation has shown that the forest carbon offsets approved by the world’s leading certifier Verra used by Disney, Shell, Gucci, and other big corporations are “largely worthless and could make global heating worse”, so a critical eye is essential.

A murky piece of the puzzle

Everyone needs to be mindful of the potential limitations of carbon offsetting and be critical of claims made by companies, especially those that claim to be "carbon neutral" or "carbon positive." Be wary of greenwashing and look for companies that are transparent about their carbon emissions, have their offsetting practices verified by independent third parties, and invest in projects that have a lasting impact. And even after all that, understand that it is a relatively new concept that can’t necessarily be relied on until stricter regulations are in place.

Ultimately, we can view carbon offsetting as one of many strategies to reduce our environmental impact, but it should not be relied on as a complete solution. While it can be a step in the right direction for those wanting to take action, society must continue looking for longer-term solutions that address the root causes of emissions and support the development of clean technologies.

For more conscious consumption ideas, check out our pick of the best sustainable menswear brands...