Many businesses recognise the connection between economic success, social equity and environmental sustainability, by embracing the “People, Planet, Profit” model. Not only does this greater sense of purpose make us happier, but it can ultimately determine a business’s long term future, as more consumers look to buy from, or work for, companies that do good.

Getting it right isn’t easy; many have got stuck in the quagmire of greenwash. In this guest post, sustainability expert Poppy Stephenson dispels some myths to help inspire more companies like us.


Fact: Offsetting isn’t just greenwash

Offsetting is where carbon emissions are measured and an equivalent volume of carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere elsewhere – or prevented from being emitted – in order to ‘balance’ emissions and become ‘carbon neutral’. When implemented responsibly, this plays a critical role in actively removing carbon from the atmosphere, a crucial endeavour if we are to keep global warming to within 1.5oC.

It funds a variety of projects: from nature-based solutions such as reforestation, locking carbon in tree trunks as they grow, to the development of radical new carbon sequestering technologies. Other projects investing in renewable energy, clean cooking solutions and sustainable agriculture reduce carbon emissions and enhance the quality of life for marginalised populations. In turn, this fosters a more equitable, resilient society for those feeling the impacts of climate change the most.

When done right, offsetting is a core strategy in the global effort to reduce greenhouse gas levels, as it directs financial resources to these vital projects. Once we have reduced our emissions by around 90% (with the goal of reaching net zero by 2050 or sooner), we can offset the remaining unavoidable 10%. However, most of us are a long way off hitting this roughly 90% reduction target, but offsetting along the way helps mitigate our current impact. Therefore, being carbon neutral is a great endeavour for the planet.


Fact: Offsetting is greenwash if emissions aren’t also being reduced

We can’t plant our way out of this. There isn’t enough space on earth, and trees take 40 years to reach maturity and sequester their full potential. We need to act fast. Reducing our impact must remain the priority, through reduced fossil fuel and plastics use, renewable energy adoption, and sustainable practices across all sectors. Without a comprehensive plan to aggressively reduce emissions, offsetting efforts risk being perceived as attempts to excuse, or cover up for, the heavy polluters.

Put simply, we need to do both; reduce our emissions, and offset our remaining impact to draw down and lock away the emissions already released. To borrow the title of the hit film, we need to do everything, everywhere, all at once.


Fact: It doesn’t have to be “offsetting” to do good

Not everything can be measured in terms of carbon emissions released or avoided/sequestered. We’re currently facing a dual threat of global warming and ecosystem collapse, and whilst tracking our emissions directly relates to rising temperatures, biodiversity loss is a more slippery fish.

The delicate balances of life found in wildlife habitats across the planet are vital to safeguarding the natural resources that sustain human as well as animal life, from clean air and water to the food we eat, it’s all connected. As we push our planetary boundaries, we’re in real danger of hitting tipping points that trigger a cascade of destruction with very real consequences to our food chains.

This is why “30×30” policies aim to encourage governments to protect 30% of land and sea as nature reserves by 2030. But we have a moral duty too, as we are now in the fastest mass extinction event this planet has seen, to try not to leave a barren planet for our children to inherit. What about these conservation projects that can’t be counted in carbon? There’s a myriad of amazing ventures from protecting marine reserves and coral, to tigers and birds of prey, to wildlife corridors and urban bees. Investing profits into these doesn’t need to be linked to measured carbon emissions.


Fact: Not all conservation projects are created equal

There’s been negative press recently, with some projects overstating their effectiveness, or permanence. The hard work is undone when, for example, trees burn in wild fires and release stored carbon back into the air, or plants grown are composted or eaten thus no longer locking their carbon away.

It’s crucial to select projects with reputable certification standards, such as Gold Standard or Verra, or use third-party auditing organisations. However, even these verified projects can come under fire. For example, offsetting credits that are sold on the basis of preventing rainforest deforestation are hard to quantify against what deforestation would have happened had the projects not been in place.

Methodologies differ and the dispute over the exact value of carbon sequestration can distract from the fact that either way, there is still great value in doing everything we can to protect our forests. The real issue is the way major companies are using specific carbon values to offset their emissions, rather than reducing them, potentially suggesting their products are more environmentally friendly than they are. To help ensure legitimacy, look for transparent methodologies with clear, verifiable results. Doing your due diligence is essential, but most of all, make it clear that supporting these projects is supplementary to your other great initiatives. You have reduced your emissions and are now working to remove the remaining and restore natural resources.


Fact: Supporting nature can be great marketing

Highlighting our environmental commitments sets a commendable example, whilst leveraging precious budgets towards crucial initiatives. As consumer expectations rise, it’s imperative to stay ahead of the game, with the key to avoiding greenwash being transparency and authenticity. Build trust by backing claims with verifiable data, avoiding vagueness and being honest about the journey we’re all on.

Audiences want to know that sustainability efforts are genuinely impactful and not merely for superficial marketing purposes. They should be backed up with concrete actions to radically reduce your emissions and credible verification. Having a comms plan ready for if the worst should happen and your supported project fails can provide reassurance internally.  A disappointing situation can be turned into an open dialogue with your audiences around accountability, sustainability and trying to do good. Don’t let the fear of failure prevent you from taking action.


Fact: Most of us fall into the intention-action gap

Good intentions don’t always translate into visible actions, usually due to time, resources, client buy-in, stakeholder support or tangible KPIs. However, we can’t keep waiting for other businesses, or consumer choice, to drive change. Companies are made up of people and we often have more power than we realise. To help get it right, there are industry networks, calculator tools and experienced individuals providing guidance and support.

Now is the time for action. We are in the ‘decisive decade’. This is our last chance to be a part of the solution and be able to tell future generations “I did something”.

What will you do?

Poppy Stephenson is an independent consultant for Sustainability Simplified, working to demystify sustainability by providing straightforward solutions to implement change. They work with OOH media owners, events agencies and brands looking to reduce emissions and bridge the intention-action gap for real, visible results that do good as well as look good.