In 2017, Peak Design founder and CEO Peter Dering wondered how many greenhouse gas emissions the company was responsible for as it sourced, made and shipped camera bags and packs to customers around the world. And what would it take for Peak to reduce its emissions and go carbon neutral?
Turns out, Dering discovered, it didn’t break the bank. After measuring the company’s carbon footprint, he bought credits to offset the emissions Peak couldn’t eliminate. It was the right thing to do given the climate crisis, Dering says now, so why weren’t more companies doing it?
At the time, Dering knew of only one other brand in the outdoor industry that had a net-zero carbon footprint: stove and electronics maker BioLite. So over dinner one night, he and Jonathan Cedar, co-founder and CEO of BioLite, scratched out the idea for a new Climate Neutral certification on the back of a napkin.
Dering and Cedar wanted a new label to certify that businesses are carbon neutral, much like the USDA Organic label certifies that food is grown without pesticides, among other things. Their new label would recognize companies that can balance out all their carbon emissions by removing carbon from the atmosphere—typically by investing in projects elsewhere that install wind farms, remove heat-trapping gases from landfills, reforest lands or sequester carbon via farming practices. The label would then let consumers shop brands that align with their environmental values.
“The world needs a very clear and simple binary label—which is: Did you pay for your carbon or didn’t you?” Dering says. Peak bought $113,400 in carbon credits to offset the emissions it couldn’t reduce in 2019. Some of those credits were invested in a South Carolina project that converts waste into energy, he says.
Since debuting last year—at an outdoor industry panel hosted by pro rock climber Alex Honnold—the independent nonprofit Climate Neutral has certified more than 146 brands such as Vuori, MiiR, Rumpl and Klean Kanteen. To use the label, each company must measure, reduce and offset its emissions.
REI joins Climate Neutral
Last week, REI Co-op become the latest company—and largest brand—to join Climate Neutral. As part of the co-op’s climate commitment to halve its carbon footprint by 2030, REI President and CEO Eric Artz announced that the co-op would be carbon neutral in its operations starting in 2020. That means the co-op will pay for each metric ton of carbon it emits from its own brands and operations, or roughly 250,000 metric tons.
Artz says the climate crisis is the greatest existential threat to the future of the outdoors, and everyone has a role to play in the climate fight.
To avoid major impacts on human health and ecosystems, global emissions would need to reach net-zero by 2050 to limit global warming to 1.5°C as outlined by the Paris Agreement, according to the 2018 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Private business can lead the way where public governments haven’t been able to act, says Michael Vandenbergh, co-director of Vanderbilt University School of Law’s Energy, Environment and Land Use Program. “It’s more likely that we will get public governance if companies play a leading role, commit to reduce their carbon footprint and convince others to do so as well, because that will reduce their incentive to lobby against federal action.”
How it Works
Companies go through a three-step certification process. First, they measure their carbon footprint each year. (Large companies must hire a third-party consultant to verify their footprint calculation; smaller ones may estimate using a tool provided by Climate Neutral.) Everything counts, though, from the time a product is made until it reaches a customer. From raw materials to office lights to emissions along the supply chain, including the energy powering overseas factories and fuel burned by cargo ships.
Second, companies must offset the emissions they weren’t able to eliminate by buying carbon credits. That money funds projects like reforestation that remove and sequester carbon from the atmosphere and are verified by third-party certifiers such as American Carbon Registry and Gold Standard. Third, companies must create and implement a plan each year to reduce emissions. (To be re-certified annually, companies must report their progress on those goals.)
To offset its 13,423 metric tons of emissions in 2019, for example, drinkware maker Klean Kanteen bought $68,452 in credits that funded farming, landfill and transportation projects that remove carbon from the air. “We believe what we can’t reduce we should pay for. We own it. It’s our responsibility,” says Danielle Cresswell, senior sustainability manager for Klean Kanteen.
Klean Kanteen has worked to reduce its emissions by installing 216 solar panels that generate enough power to run its Chico, California, operations. It’s also worked with distributors to switch to less packaging. But to shrink its carbon footprint further, the company will have to look at changing its material and product design and engaging with overseas factories to be more energy-efficient—and those efforts will take time, Cresswell says. Offsets, on the other hand, are an immediate way to do something now while supporting a price on carbon and helping consumers raise their voices on the issue of climate change, she says. Through these methods, Klean earned its Climate Neutral label last year.
There’s a financial incentive to reducing emissions, too, and brands like Klean are finding that, while it can be challenging, it’s also a strong driver of innovation. When you pay a price each year to offset the carbon emissions released, Cresswell says, it creates an incentive to shrink your carbon footprint. “It can’t just go away when other things come up,” she says.
But offsets aren’t without criticism. Some say it’s an excuse to buy your way out of polluting. Austin Whitman, CEO of Climate Neutral, counters, “We’re at least ensuring that some mitigation takes place now, while companies are required to file reduction plans with us talking about how they’re going to reduce their emissions.”
He adds: “We would much rather see a company offset its entire carbon footprint today than make a promise that it’s going to reduce its emissions over 20 years. What happens if they don’t?”
Rumpl, a 15-person company that makes outdoor blankets, paid $17,944 to offset 3,844 metric tons of carbon emissions in 2019. Meanwhile, the brand has been working to reduce emissions by redesigning its shipping box and talking to trading partners along the supply chain about energy efficiency, among other efforts, says Patrick O’Neil, operations director for the 7-year-old company based in Portland, Oregon. The company plans to increase use of post-consumer recycled material with the aim of 99 percent PCR by 2023.
“There are real projects out there that are continually emitting carbon that we can take action on,” O’Neil says. “Of course, we need to reduce, but there’s no reason that companies should not be investing in offsetting that carbon.” O’Neil says he hopes consumers will start to look for those Climate Neutral tags before they buy.
Some consumers may see the label, know it’s good for climate and make their purchase without thinking much more about it—and that’s fine, Whitman says. But for consumers who want to dive deeper and learn what a brand is doing on climate change, they can get that information online at a level that has not been available before, he says.
“Businesses [should just] volunteer to do it,” says Dering, of Peak Designs. “Because it’s the right thing to do.”
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