As big businesses face more pressure to act on climate change, corporations have unleashed a tsunami of environmental pledges, net-zero commitments and sustainability certifications, all designed to show they are part of the solution.
Often, critics say, these claims are just “greenwashing” — environmental marketing with little or no substance behind it. One recent review of 500 commercial websites by the United Kingdom’s Competition and Markets Authority found 40% of environmental claims to be misleading in some way, such as using terms like “sustainable” without defining them or omitting pertinent information about environmental harms. “Carbon neutral” usually does not mean a firm has zero carbon emissions. A green certification label on a product’s packaging may have no connection to a standard-setting group.
For the average consumer, it can be difficult to assess which companies are taking meaningful steps to combat climate change, said Frederic Hans, a climate policy analyst at the New Climate Institute, an independent, Germany-based organization that promotes measures to slow Earth’s warming. The group this year analyzed the climate plans of 25 big companies and found many of them overestimated the extent to which their actions would reduce carbon emissions.
“In many cases, the consumer might really be in a difficult situation to identify and differentiate which companies are the front-runners on climate action and which are not,” Hans said.
The Washington Post spoke with a range of environmental experts and collected their best tips on how to approach corporate climate claims with a critical eye. With each tip below, we highlighted one company’s environmental claims and showed how they might be overstating the real actions they have taken to mitigate climate change.
Tip No. 1: Net-zero pledges don’t tell the full story.
Many companies now make “net-zero” pledges: commitments to reduce some of their carbon emissions and balance the remaining emissions by purchasing “offsets” that remove carbon from the atmosphere. But critics say these pledges can be incomplete, because they often don’t account for the full scope of emissions generated in the creation and consumption of their products.
Last year, Travelers made an “Earth Day Pledge” to become carbon neutral by 2030, a target the insurance company said in a news release was aligned with the Paris climate agreement goal of limiting global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees Celsius over preindustrial levels. Travelers said the goal included emissions generated directly by its operations and indirectly by energy it purchases. The pledge excluded all emissions generated by companies in which Travelers invests or provides insurance policies.
This broader category of customer and supplier emissions makes up the largest portion of emissions for most companies, but is also the carbon footprint that is most difficult for firms to measure and directly influence. For those reasons, governments and standards-setting groups have disagreed over whether companies should be required to include these emissions in net-zero pledges.
Travelers has said it does not report those emissions because the data is hard to track. But more than 20 leading insurers who are part of the United Nations’ Net-Zero Insurance Alliance have begun tracking and reporting those emissions and have committed to including them in their pledges to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.
Two shareholder groups, Green Century Capital Management and As You Sow, are pushing Travelers to measure and report emissions generated by its customers and investments. Without understanding this broader carbon footprint, the groups say, Travelers cannot know how it is exposed to the likely financial risks of increasing climate catastrophes.
Insure Our Future, a coalition of climate groups, has also urged Travelers to stop underwriting environmentally destructive fossil fuel projects, saying the company is enabling an industry that contributes to climate change. Travelers this year said it would stop investing in or providing insurance for new coal power plant and tar sands projects. But it continues to invest in and underwrite oil and gas projects.
“As society’s risk managers, insurers have an obligation to help avoid climate breakdown — and the power to help drive the transition to clean energy,” Insure Our Future said in a news release last month.
A Travelers spokesman declined to comment.
Tip No. 2: Carbon is not simple to offset.
A claim of “carbon neutral” usually means a business has offset its emissions by investing in projects that reduce environmental harm in other ways. These trade-offs are often not as simple as companies make them out to be, because the true benefit of carbon offset projects can be difficult to measure.
On Earth Day last year, Google began using its homepage to advertise a claim that the company has been “carbon neutral since 2007.” The Alphabet-owned company said it accomplished this goal by buying credits from “highly-quality” carbon offset providers. A recent analysis of these projects by the New Climate Institute found many of Google’s offset credits to have “highly questionable environmental integrity” because some of them might have happened without Google’s involvement.
In one project, Google pays a municipal authority in upstate New York to convert methane gas from a landfill into usable electricity. Because the methane given off by decomposing waste is more potent than carbon dioxide, it is a significant driver of climate change and therefore a major target of global efforts to curb emissions.
Google has said its project with the Oneida-Herkimer Solid Waste Authority eliminated half a million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent in its first seven years. That’s roughly the same carbon footprint as Google’s entire business over a two-week period, based on data in the company’s most recent environmental report.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai explains the company’s climate goals in a video from 2020.
But as with many offset projects, it’s hard to tell whether the volume of emissions being reduced would really equal the emissions they are intended to replace. It’s possible that an outside investment in the Oneida-Herkimer project was the only way emissions from the landfill would have been avoided.
But it’s also possible those emissions could have been reduced without that support, according to the New Climate Institute.
Landfill operators have growing incentives to capture methane and convert it to electricity themselves. In some places, these efforts have resulted in a profitable new business that can generate revenue for landfill owners and communities. Increasingly, state and federal laws also require landfills to install this technology.
Google has acknowledged the difficulty of knowing conclusively that offset projects lead to carbon reductions that wouldn’t have otherwise happened. In 2011, a year after Google first funded the Oneida-Herkimer landfill, the company said in a white paper that with methane offset programs, “It’s possible that the revenue from the gas or electricity would have been enough to make the project financially attractive.”
Methane conversion projects like the one in upstate New York represent the majority of over 40 carbon offsets from which Google has bought credits to meet its standard of “carbon neutral,” the New Climate Institute found. Google has said it closely scrutinizes offset projects to ensure that they reduce emissions that would not be reduced another way.
“We believe the Oneida landfill to be ‘additional’ reduced emissions because the Authority did not have any incentives to install the gas destruction project other than the offsets revenue,” a Google spokeswoman said in a statement. “In other words, this project would not have happened had it not been for the offsets.”
A representative from the Oneida-Herkimer Solid Waste Authority did not respond to a request for comment.
Separately, Google says it plans to source all of the electricity used to power its corporate campuses and data centers with renewable energy sources by 2030. That claim does not involve the use of any carbon offsets.
Tip No. 3: Read the fine print.
Companies tend to be extremely careful in how they phrase their commitments, and sometimes the fine-print details can dilute the substance of an environmental goal that sounds ambitious.
As part of its commitment to the 2014 New York Declaration on Forests, McDonald’s pledged to “eliminate deforestation in supply chains” for its beef, chicken, palm oil, coffee and fiber-based packaging products by 2020. After that deadline passed, the fast food chain said it had nearly completed a goal that sounded similar but was worded slightly differently: Most of these products “support deforestation-free supply chains.”
On its website, McDonald’s acknowledges that the two terms have different meanings. Originally, McDonald’s said it would eliminate all deforestation from its supply chain. Now, McDonald’s says it is more careful about sourcing commodities from parts of the world with a higher risk of deforestation. In the footnotes, the company lists several exemptions to its deforestation goal, including beef used as a flavoring in sauces, soy used as an ingredient in food products, coffee extracts used in drinks such as frappés, and fiber in wood stirrers, cutlery, tray liners and straws.
In an emailed statement, a McDonald’s spokeswoman said the company “is committed to a longstanding journey to eliminate deforestation from its global supply chain.”
Cargill, one of McDonald’s suppliers, is a leading driver of deforestation according to Glenn Hurowitz, whose nonprofit, Mighty Earth, has led calls for a moratorium on these suppliers. The agriculture giant buys goods from farmers who destroy native vegetation in Brazil and elsewhere, Hurowitz said.
McDonald’s claims “are pretty much complete baloney,” he said. “If McDonald’s actually wants to stop deforestation, they simply need to stop sourcing from the companies that are driving it.”
On its website, McDonald’s says it worked with suppliers including Cargill on deforestation measures, such as estimating the global footprint of its soy business. McDonald’s has not publicly responded to calls to end its business with Cargill, and a spokeswoman declined to comment on the issue.
A Cargill spokesman said the company supports efforts to end deforestation and has focused these efforts on South America, which it calls the highest-priority region for soy sustainability. “We are committed to eliminating deforestation from our supply chains in the shortest time possible and are accelerating our efforts,” the spokesman said.
Tip No. 4: Focus on parent companies, not individual products and brands.
Some corporate marketers attempt to position many of their products and brands as green. But in some cases those claims are outliers when considered more broadly with the actions of their parent company.
On Earth Day last year, KitKat pledged to become carbon neutral by 2025 through a combination of emission reductions and investing in “high-quality offsetting.” At the same time, KitKat’s parent company, Nestlé, has laid out a much more conservative timeline for cutting emissions in half by 2030 and eliminating carbon emissions by 2050.
Because individual products usually share much of the same personnel and operations as their parent companies, it’s unlikely that one product would be much more ambitious on climate goals than its parent, said Hans of the New Climate Institute. Rather than actually being symbols of systemic progress, such products are usually just getting more attention from corporate marketers who want to position them as green, he said.
In an interview, Benjamin Ware, Nestlé’s head of climate delivery and sustainable sourcing, said the company’s decision to announce the KitKat goal was due to a market demand for chocolate bars that have been created sustainably. “For certain brands, there is a consumer appetite for carbon neutral claims,” he said. “We want to remain relevant in the marketplace.”
The KitKat goal is consistent with the broader Nestlé goal, Ware said, because both plan to reduce absolute emissions 20% by 2025 and eliminate them by 2050. The “carbon neutral” goal for KitKat relies on carbon offsets, unlike the broader Nestlé goal, which does not, he said.
Tip No. 5: Certifications may have little meaning.
Consumers should approach green product labels with skepticism. Some labels that suggest a product meets strict environmental criteria may be purely an invention of the company’s own marketing department, said A. Wren Montgomery, an assistant professor of sustainability at the University of Western Ontario.
“A lot of consumers are looking for labels, thinking they want it certified,” Wren said. “So companies are saying, ‘Well, I’ll just make up a certification.’ “
A few years ago, paint maker Benjamin Moore marketed some of its products with a “Green Promise” label, which the company made itself, along with claims that the paint has zero chemical emissions and is “green without compromise.” The Federal Trade Commission sued Benjamin Moore in 2017, arguing it was making untrue claims about its Natura line of paint and deceiving customers into believing the products had been certified by an independent group.
After the FTC ordered Benjamin Moore to be more transparent with customers, the company added a warning to clarify that its paints “emit chemicals during the painting process and while drying,” according to the FTC order. It altered the label to include the words “Benjamin Moore’s Green Promise.” It stopped selling Natura paint last year.
Kelly Sinatra, a spokeswoman for Benjamin Moore, said in an email that some of this information is inaccurate, without providing details. She didn’t respond to requests for clarification.