Jacquie Ottman's
Green Marketing Blog

How to Avoid the Carbon Offset “Gotcha” Game

In a market that demands nothing less than completely honest, ethical, and authentic corporate communications, it can sometimes seem like no green deed goes unpunished. The NFL catching flak for its not-quite carbon neutral Super Bowl 2008 is a case in point.

For the second year in a row, the National Football League plans to offset "100%" of estimated emissions associated with the Super Bowl. Sounds pretty good, right? The NFL is taking positive climate action, from buying renewable energy certificates to replanting acreage lost to wildfires. Unlike last year, however, organizers will not tout the event as "carbon neutral," as green groups question the league's emissions calculations. Stepping back from the carbon neutral label is a smart move for the NFL, for two reasons:

   1. Uncertain metrics. Determining true carbon footprint is one of the toughest challenges of lifecycle assessment. Where to draw the limits? In the Super Bowl's case, are event organizers responsible to offset emissions created by transporting the attendees or just the team and staff? There's no universal agreement here. With critics playing a constant "gotcha" game, this is no time to make claims based on metrics that lack universal support.

   2. Uncertain benefits. Critics of carbon offsets contend that the environmental benefits are often overstated. Yet even if we assume that offset programs are legit, how can we be sure that consumers will understand their intended impact? Research by the U.K. retailer Boots finds that fewer than a third of shoppers know that a carbon footprint is linked to climate change. Labels like "carbon neutral" offer little marketing payoff if your terms are unfamiliar to consumers (they're likely to think you're stretching the truth anyway), and may make you a bigger target in the "gotcha" game (see #1).

To keep your company's latest ad off the Greenwashing Index, I recommend sustainable brand builders pursue the following strategies for successful green marketing:

  • Work positively with multi-stakeholder groups to develop standards for carbon labeling. Aim for a scheme that consumers can understand. Nutritional labels provide a good model.
  • Use trusted labels linked to carbon management, e.g. EPA's Energy Star and The Center for Resource Solution's "green-e" label for renewable energy.
  • Focus on such internal and supply chain related carbon improvements as energy efficiency and use of renewable power and communicate progress to consumers and employees.

It's hardly surprising that carbon offsets are item number one on the FTC's agenda as it revamps its guidelines on green marketing. The NFL's experience raises some thorny questions that won't be answered anytime soon.

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