We have enormous power to accelerate society’s shift away from carbon pollution and toward carbon-free, renewable energy sources. Winning big climate policies, such as the Inflation Reduction Act, are critical steps. To win this fight, we need other actions, too, like regulations to prevent companies from greenwashing their products and misleading the public on false climate solutions.
The Green Guides put out by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) are a key tool for stopping greenwashing. In essence, they tell companies what marketing language should be used, or not used, to avoid the risk of penalties for deceiving consumers.
Unfortunately, in the decade since the Green Guides were last updated, greenwashing has become rampant, with many companies making deceptive claims about the climate friendliness of their products. A Green Guides update is badly needed to tackle this problem.
Greenwashing 101: Carbon offsets
One of the biggest greenwashing problems is the marketing of climate progress that is based on the purchase of dubious carbon offsets. Offsets are instruments that allow someone to claim credit for either greenhouse gas emission reductions or removal of carbon from the atmosphere. Sometimes companies market offsets to consumers who are hoping to reduce their personal carbon footprints, such as offering you the chance to buy offsets when you take a flight to visit your family. More commonly, companies buy carbon offsets themselves in order to claim that their products are climate friendly. In other words, companies frequently rely on carbon offsets so they don’t have to do the work of reducing their own greenhouse gas emissions.
If that failure to clean up operations wasn’t bad enough, many companies exaggerate the climate benefits of the offsets they buy. Most offsets projects don’t actually remove additional carbon from the atmosphere, but instead just claim to protect forests or promote renewable energy development. That’s a problem because a company can’t cancel out the damages of its climate pollution simply because someone else reduces pollution from its own activities. The only way to truly offset greenhouse gas emissions is to remove at least an equivalent amount for the same or longer duration.
Unfortunately, very few offsets projects are designed to remove carbon from the atmosphere and almost none do so on a time scale that would effectively compensate for the hundreds to thousands of years that carbon pollution resides in the atmosphere.
Typically, forest protection and renewable energy projects offer the promise of reduced pollution. Yet even these promises are often not achieved when offsets are purchased. In many cases, the promised emissions reductions would have happened even in the absence of the payment.
If you have seen companies claim that they are on track to “net-zero emissions” or that their products are already “carbon neutral” or “climate positive,” you have likely been exposed to offsets-related marketing. Many companies using these terms aren’t prepared to brag about cleaning up their own operations and supply chains, so they buy cheap offsets to claim credit for what others are doing — or at least what others say they are doing.
Greenwashing in action
These greenwashed claims of climate action are all around us and come from many sectors.
For example, Anheuser-Busch is marketing Bud Light Next as carbon-neutral based in large part on its purchase of offsets. KLM is marketing its flights with claims that it is on a pathway to net-zero emissions by 2050, despite substantial reliance on offsets purchases.
JBS, the world’s largest meat company, claims that it is on a path toward net-zero emissions by 2040. In fact, its emissions increased by 51% in a recent 5-year period; its net-zero claim rests in large part on offsets purchases. An industry-led body charged with countering deceptive advertising has called upon JBS to discontinue the net-zero claim.
Some companies do recognize that they need to rapidly cut their own emissions, but it’s tough to identify these stronger performers in the absence of clear marketing standards.
What you can do
The Sierra Club and other environmental groups are writing to the FTC requesting that it take action against this type of deceptive marketing. We are asking that companies be required to provide details to consumers about their use of offsets so that consumers can make informed judgments about whether marketing claims about a product’s climate friendliness are truly warranted.
Here is where you come in. The FTC is interested in hearing about specific cases where a company has misled consumers about the climate friendliness of its products and influenced the purchase decision. If you believe that this has happened to you, the Sierra Club would love to hear from you.
Please tell us about your experience, specifying the name of the company, its marketing claims, and how those claims affected your decision. We will research your stories, and if we are able to find evidence the claims you tell us about involve offsets-related deception, we will prepare a supplemental comment letter to the FTC with your evidence and our background research. Thank you in advance for sharing your experiences!