Skip to main content

Is the food sector moving away from carbon offsetting?

At GreenBiz 22, sustainability leaders talked about how carbon credits will play a role in their sustainability strategies.

Buffet at GB22

Food was a hot topic at GreenBiz22. Both from our events offerings and on what CPGs will be doing on Scope 3. Image by Theresa Lieb. 

Last week in Scottsdale, Arizona on the GreenBiz22 main stage, Richard Mattison, president of S&P Global Sustainable1, called net zero "the zeitgeist of this generation" and "now a destination, not just an ambition."

Recognizing the imperative The Science Based Targets initiative (STi) released new guidance in October for net zero that is bold and hard — 95 percent decarbonization in Scope 1 and 2, and 90 percent of Scope 3 decarbonization by 2050. "Not either/or but both" is a common line when it comes to solutions for getting to that net-zero state. That we need every strategy, technology and approach to meet the greatest challenge of our — or perhaps any — generation.

Carbon credits have often been one component of the "both" argument. The prevailing argument is that businesses need to establish robust carbon reduction strategies and processes while also engaging in offsetting to account for unavoidable emissions.

"There’s been an emergence of this norm to have science-based targets and really deep emissions reduction targets within your operations and even within your value chain," said Brad Schallert, director carbon market governance and aviation at the World Wildlife Fund during a session at GreenBiz 22. "We tend to think of carbon credits as complementary to strategies, if you’re doing all that work internally."

How is that playing out? The buzz around the conference with sustainability folks in the food sector was about working to spin down their reliance on carbon credits in favor of more operational reductions.

Part of that shift could be related to the criticisms and negative headlines offsets have generated in the past few years. In fact, Schallert wouldn’t use the word "offsets" in his GreenBiz 22 presentation, instead opting for "credits," saying that the word offsets "implies a certain type of use."

Here’s what three other companies at the conference said about how offsets will play a role in their sustainability strategies

Leslie Hushka, Senior Vice President, Global Corporate Social Responsibility at Bumble Bee Seafood

"What we’ve tried to focus on is are there seafood-focused projects we can focus on in the space of regeneration that reduce carbon emissions? Projects that have a double purpose. They help restore ecosystems and at the same time they help sequester carbon. Buying carbon offset credits without doing anything to help the ocean, that doesn't seem to be true to our purpose."

Carolina Leonhardt, Senior Manager, Environmental Responsibility at Clif Bar

"We want to make sure that our strategy is focused on reduction first. But the reality is that we're not going to get there overnight. And B, there will always be residual emissions. So we are recognizing that offsets play a role, especially in the interim, as we're moving towards deep reductions. I think what I see us doing is moving away from offsets and transitioning to insetting. Working more within our own supply chain."

Emily Johannes, Head of Sustainable Sourcing at Nestle

"Offsets do not play a role at all. We cannot offset to meet our net zero target. We don’t consider that to be net zero. Anything we do has to be a reduction. There are some brands, as they make the transition towards carbon neutrality, that are in the interim buying offsets as a way to say they're on the journey because they'd like to say earlier rather than later that they're doing something. Like our Gerber [brand], the first baby food brand to be carbon neutral by 2022. Because there’s really no way to market carbon emissions on products right now, the only things we have are carbon neutral claims. So when you really look to a marketing strategy, you’re pretty limited. [Our goal] is to reduce [offsets] year over year."

Catch up on all our coverage of GreenBiz 22

It seems that just as the carbon market begins to explode, starts to evolve clearer guidance and is begins to requiring more high-quality projects, industry leaders are moving away from them. But Dana Wilke, climate strategies managing consultant at South Pole, noted that no company will be able to get to zero carbon emissions.

"[Credits] are one tool in the tool belt," she said. "There are going to be residual emissions and that's where the carbon credits come into play. It’s super important to get those investments and finances happening now, I think it’s a necessary strategy. You can’t achieve net zero without offsets."

More on this topic