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Why we can't cheat our way to net zero

Sponsored: Just how much carbon offsetting is simply greenwashing? As a sustainability director, I have become versed in what it means for a company to manage its environmental impact.


Sendle Compostable Satchel 3. Image courtesy of Sendle

This article is sponsored by Sendle.

When John Oliver spent 30 minutes roasting the carbon offset market, it made me, my friends and colleagues sit up and pay attention. We were left with the distinct impression that carbon offsetting might, at best, be an elaborate form of greenwashing, and at worst, a total farce. Oliver’s incisive comedy has helped me think critically and laugh during hard times, and this episode was no different. But there’s more to the story, a nuanced follow-up that isn’t best suited for late-night comedy.

So, just how much carbon offsetting is simply greenwashing? Are some companies developing and investing in questionable projects just to tick the "corporate responsibility" box? Can carbon offsets be a vehicle for earnest climate action? As a sustainability director, I have become versed in what it means for a company to manage its environmental impact, and how companies intentionally (and unintentionally) avoid accountability.

Changing businesses, systems and our approach to the planet requires honest self-reflection. It takes a lot of dedication and focus to re-examine our beliefs and actions. Working on sustainability and social change, we have to be open to two possibilities with carbon offsetting:

  1. It’s a farce and a marketing tactic.
  2. It’s a legitimate solution with a lot of complications around it.

But how do we figure out which?

Is carbon offsetting just another form of greenwashing?

Are there legitimate carbon offset projects that produce the environmental and social outcomes they set out to? Yes. Are there carbon offsets that inflate claims or otherwise mislead? Absolutely. For Sendle, carbon offsetting is one way we reduce the harm of shipping, and it is underpinned by a company-wide commitment to doing what it takes to reach net zero emissions by 2030.

This level of commitment and dedication, currently rare, needs to become the norm. Our goal at Sendle is to be the sustainable shipper of choice for small businesses while not compromising on rates and service. But it's also to prove that it's possible to run a competitive logistics business with sustainability at the forefront. To hold the whole shipping industry to account and truly decarbonize. We challenged our biggest competitor in Australia, Australia Post, to join us in being accountable for their carbon emissions, and it worked — the emissions from a portion of their packages are offset.

For industries such as shipping, until technologies such as sustainable aviation fuels are available, offsetting will be necessary to take accountability for emissions. But what a shame if, after the hard work of getting companies to care about their carbon footprint, they're sold projects that don’t actually account for their emissions. As early adopters, we have to call for reforms so that when more companies take accountability for their carbon footprint by reducing and then offsetting their emissions, the projects that are sold are thoughtfully and accurately designed to avoid emissions or put the carbon back in the ground.

Reforms to the voluntary carbon market are necessary and possible. Businesses should be able to trust that their investments prevent the release of carbon or capture and store it. Verification organizations can easily introduce more scrutiny, including being more stringent on exaggerated baseline scenarios which inflate impact by claiming more trees would be cut without the conservation projects.

Do carbon offset projects do more harm than good?

Some of the worst offset projects further harm people and the planet with practices such as removing people from their land or introducing invasive, non-indigenous plant species. To prevent harm, project developers need to measure success by the benefits to vulnerable people and ecosystems, rather than vanity metrics such as miles "reforested."


Image courtesy of Sendle


At their best, carbon offsetting projects can further regeneration, reconciliation and resilience. When the goal is regeneration, pitfalls such as monocropping are avoided and natural technology re-emerges in ecosystems. Homes are created for endangered and threatened species when major land tracts and wilderness passages from adjoining projects are created. Our projects have supported many species in the U.S., Canada and Australia.

At the request of Sendle team members we began proactively seeking projects that are managed by, or financially benefit, indigenous peoples. Our most recently supported project is owned through the Klawock Heenya Corporation by indigenous Alaskans. We hope more projects such as these become available and businesses consider funding indigenous projects as one means of reconciliation for stolen lands.

Projects are also high-impact when they not only mitigate climate change, but also help us adapt to more frequent extreme weather. Businesses can invest with a climate justice lens by funding projects in more vulnerable countries such as a mangrove wetland project to help absorb flash floods or a distributed solar project to provide vital power in emergency situations.

The real change needed for net zero

If companies use carbon offsets, but aren’t doing anything else to transform and decarbonize their businesses, then we’ll never see the scale of change necessary to avoid the worst outcomes for people and the planet. With the reality of shipping with current technologies, we will have unavoidable emissions and need carbon offsets to compensate for that impact.

Regardless of how much carbon markets and removal methods improve, preventing emissions will always be the best solution. When companies tackle head-on what it’ll take to get to net zero, they not only see ways to be more efficient but also unlock creativity to reimagine their business to meet the constraint of zero emissions. The transition can be intimidating, but it will be more difficult and costly to manage climate impacts than investment in sustainable systems. At Sendle we know that our journey to net zero by 2030 will come from both incremental and transformative changes with our customers, carriers and across the entire operations.

Despite issues, the path forward is clear

It can be overwhelming to make big changes to your business when navigating the nuances of environmental impact. But, in response to the climate crises, we need action, not apathy. Don’t let those challenges hold you back. Your next steps are clear no matter what. Start by understanding your carbon footprint and emissions sources. One great tool is the Brand Emission Estimator from Climate Neutral, a non-profit that helps companies understand, reduce and compensate for their climate impacts, and through a Climate Neutral label, helps consumers find and support these companies. Look critically at where you emit the most and develop strategies to reduce.


Image courtesy of Sendle


Finally, find partners who will do their best to manage their piece of the puzzle, including sustainable suppliers. When we purchase compostable mailers from Better Packaging Co, a B Corp that makes sustainable packaging, we know that all product decisions are backed by lifecycle analysis and aligned values. When small businesses ship with Sendle, they know that they are sending with the most sustainable national carrier in Australia, the U.S. and Canada. But where we are today isn’t the goal. We all need to take an honest, rigorous and nuanced journey to net zero emissions.

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