You hear about a lot of beauty companies touting climate neutrality as a way to be more sustainable. While it’s wonderful to see companies and brands step up and adopt more sustainable business practices, consumers need to understand what climate neutrality means and what it doesn’t.
What does climate neutrality mean?
Climate neutrality, as it relates to the beauty industry, means that all greenhouse gas emissions generated by the making of beauty products have been reported and compensated through recognized carbon offset projects. You’ll often hear the term “carbon neutral” instead of climate-neutral – but strictly speaking, the term climate neutral is the more accurate term given that carbon and other greenhouse gases are considered in the analysis and offset if you work with reputable offset certifications.
At Superzero, we work with Climate Partners for our climate-neutral certification. They consider all relevant greenhouse gases defined in the Kyoto Protocol but convert them into what’s considered CO2 (carbon dioxide) equivalents for easier comparison. Climate Partners uses a “cradle-to-customer plus waste” approach to assess the entire life cycle of our superzero shampoo bars, from the extraction of raw materials to its packaging, logistics, manufacturing, and delivery to our customers all the way to the disposal of the products and their packaging. In addition, general emissions are added to cover the “footprint” of our team members.
Why are greenhouse gases bad?
Carbon dioxide (and other gases like Methane, Nitrous Oxide, and fluorinated gases) are powerful greenhouse gases that trap heat in our atmosphere and warm our planet, resulting in climate change. Massive amounts of carbon dioxide dissolve into seawater, forming carbonic acid that dissociates into hydrogen ions and bicarbonate ions. With human-driven increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, more CO2 dissolves into the oceans, making the oceans more acidic.
A warming atmosphere results in melting of the glacial ice caps, rising water levels, more extreme weather events like severe droughts or flooding, destruction of marine life, which in turn affects our weather and food sources, with areas of the planet becoming successively inhabitable, causing extreme poverty and mass migration.
The beauty industry is contributing to the rise in global temperatures through:
- Direct emissions
- Depletion of fossil fuels
- Choice of manufacturing ingredients
- Massive amounts of packaging
- International transportation of oversized goods
The beauty industry also has a major plastic problem that contributes to climate change both directly through the extensive energy and fossil fuel use in the production of plastic and indirectly through pollution.
One hundred twenty billion plastic packaging waste is created every year. In addition, ingredients considered microplastic by The Plastic Soup Foundation are added to some beauty products as emulsifying agents, texture enhancers, silicones, or cheap fillers. These microplastics often can’t be seen with the naked eye and flow straight from your bathroom drain into the sewer system and through wastewater treatments that aren’t always designed to filter them out.
Both plastic packaging and ingredients contribute to the “Plastic Soup” that swirls around in our oceans as they’re not biodegradable. Plastic is harming our oceans which plays a crucial role in the world’s carbon cycle as it absorbs as much carbon as all plants and trees on land combined. Microplastics are found in the air we breathe, the food we eat, and even human tissue.
Superzero avoids all that by being 100% plastic-free and certified microplastic-free by the Plastic Soup Foundation.
How do you offset your carbon or climate footprint?
Offsetting is key in becoming carbon neutral! In our case, we’re offsetting our remaining carbon footprint through something called carbon offset projects. Such offset projects make decisive contributions to combating global warming by demonstrably removing greenhouse gases.
In addition, they often promote sustainable development in project countries by expanding local infrastructure, creating jobs, or preserving biodiversity. To become climate neutral, the greenhouse gas removal impact achieved through the contributions made to offset projects have to at least equal the cradle-to-grave greenhouse gas emissions caused by a product.
Does climate (or carbon) neutrality guarantee that a product is sustainable?
Sadly, climate (or carbon) neutrality is being used by some beauty companies to make a product sound more sustainable than it actually is. It’s very important to note that while climate neutrality is great, you shouldn’t mistake a climate-neutral product in itself for a fully sustainable one.
For example, carbon neutrality doesn’t mean that fossil fuels aren’t depleted to produce plastic bottles. It also doesn’t measure “end of life” pollution, which is critical for assessing the true sustainability of a product. Another example is that most beauty products are packaged in plastic that often cannot be recycled (due to the types of plastic and the need for multi-layer constructions).
Still, even if it theoretically can be recycled, less than 10% of plastic actually is.
That amount includes sending the plastic to developing countries where the waste management is much less regulated and can be both unclean and harmful to human health. Also, all plastic – recycled or not – breaks down into microplastic over time which is detrimental to marine life and enters our bodies through the air we breathe and the food we eat. Thus, a truly sustainable product needs to be sustainable by design, eliminating unnecessary packaging, rightsizing the product to avoid excess carbon emissions in shipping, avoiding microplastics like silicones in its ingredients, etc. That leads to a dramatically reduced carbon (and pollution) footprint, which then, in the end, can be offset via carbon offset projects.
That’s how we do it at Superzero:
- We avoid all plastic and microplastics.
- Our products feature an 80 to 90% lower carbon footprint “by design.”
- In the end, we offset what’s left to get to zero for our shampoo bars.
As members of 1% for the Planet, we support the fight against microplastic and for marine protection, which has an additional positive effect. Here at Superzero, we carefully choose our carbon offset project to help clean up after our plastic-loving competitors and other plastic polluters.
To do that, we are supporting the Plastic Bank in Haiti, which aims to stop ocean plastic while improving the lives of those who are most affected by it.
Our oceans store a quarter of the CO2 from the atmosphere and 93% of the heat caused by the greenhouse effect. Thus, they are a major “break” on climate change. Warming, overfishing, pollutants, and waste endanger this balancing function. Preventing plastic waste from entering the sea – in our case, both by avoiding it at the source and by supporting ocean cleanup – thus indirectly protects the climate.
With the help of the Plastic Bank, people in Haiti collect plastic waste and exchange it for money, food, drinking water, or even school fees at local collection points. The plastic is then turned into “Social Plastic,” which serves as raw material for new products. In addition to supporting the Plastic Bank, we’re backing global wind power projects for a complete climate neutrality offset.
Unfortunately, greenwashing is quite prevalent in business, and it’s very saddening. While carbon neutrality is in itself very positive, some brands use it to try to greenwash their way out of ongoing wasteful production and packaging processes and to “pay off” our environmental debt without truly using the original impact.
That causes an untruthful representation of the actual environmental footprint of a product. Other examples include undisclosed plastic laminations on cardboard boxes or masking that bioplastic mostly still contains part of fossil fuel-based plastics and shares the same end-of-life issue of microplastic formation in the end-of-life stage and can often not be recycled.
My advice to customers looking to avoid greenwashing is to ask the hard questions, do their research, and look for the transparency behind claims you see some brands flaunting. You should also ensure that a brand puts efforts behind all steps of a product’s sustainability journey, from reducing, reusing, and recycling to end-of-life considerations for offsetting carbon footprint.