Whether it’s RDS-down fill or Fair Trade ingredients, becoming a B-Corp or committing to 1% for the Planet, certifications matter more than ever, as consumers demand transparency and responsibility. But in the race to do business in a more positive way, there are dozens, maybe thousands, of ways companies can claim they’re doing better. Some are worth their salt, while others are buzzwords and greenwashing. This is why certification matters – especially when it comes to climate-relevant measures, where the details make all the difference. So what does it mean when a brand is certified carbon neutral?
WHAT IS CARBON NEUTRAL?
Carbon neutrality refers to a commitment to continual reduction of carbon dioxide emissions along with an investment in methods to offset those that remain. This matters because when carbon dioxide—a primary greenhouse gas aka GHG—enters the atmosphere, it traps heat and alters our climate, resulting in the detrimental effects we see and feel, like wildfires, droughts, and heatwaves.
GHGs, however, are inherent to industry, and it’s almost impossible to produce any product without emitting some carbon dioxide in the process. So, first a business must look to reduce its own emissions, or its “carbon footprint.” This can take place across the supply chain, from packaging materials to the source of electricity powering a factory. But since most modes of transportation still run on fossil fuels, and most factories aren’t powered on wind and sunshine alone, this leaves GHGs that need to be accounted for and canceled out, i.e. “offset.”
Offsets, sometimes referred to as carbon credits, are investments in projects that often aim to remove carbon from the atmosphere and put it back where it belongs, in trees and soil. This is known as sequestration. Other offset initiatives represent future emissions reduction by supporting renewable energy initiatives like solar and wind power or electric transportation, for example. Investment in refrigerant recycling is another other example of a potential offset initiative.
“We have no time to waste ... we need to be meaningful in our actions and invest in transformative projects, now.”
To earn carbon neutral certification companies may work with one of several different firms that measure a company’s complete “carbon footprint” (ironically, a term literally created by Big Oil to blame individuals and not their own greed for climate change). The certification establishes accountability for business efforts which seek to benefit the Earth and its inhabitants, now and in the future.
By working with agencies like SCS Global, Carbon Trust, Climate Neutral (a certifying agency launched by Biolite and Peak Design founders), more brands in all sectors, including the outdoor and beer industries, are putting in the hard work to certify their businesses as carbon neutral.
One such brand to secure the certification is Colorado-based Fat Tire, which in August 2021 became the first Carbon Neutral-certified beer in America.
GIVING AWAY SECRETS
An emerging major player in the outdoor space and a business with more than three decades of equity in progressive business practices—since 1991, New Belgium, which brews Fat Tire, has put more than $30 million toward environmental and social causes—the certification puts pressure on other brewers and outdoor brands to follow suit and take action. But no matter how much good one business does, it can only make a miniscule dent in a massive problem that requires sweeping systemic changes and collaborative corporate action.
That’s why Fat Tire recently released an open-source document, the Fat Tire Carbon Neutral Toolkit, which serves as a comprehensive outline for others to achieve carbon neutrality in their own business practices. In it, the brand literally lays out ways competing breweries can copy their plan. The reason to release the toolkit is the same for becoming Carbon Neutral certified in the first place—we’re all in this together and there is no Planet B.
“We have no time to waste when it comes to climate action,” says Katie Wallace, Fat Tire’s Director of Social and Environmental Impact. “We need to be meaningful in our actions and invest in transformative projects, now.”
And one could argue that the Carbon Neutral Toolkit could be “transformative” for the beer business as a whole. The 26-page guide to carbon neutral certification breaks down what a brewery can do to make real change in a practical way, from how to measure carbon footprint, reduce carbon emissions, and achieve goals, to investing in meaningful carbon offsets—there are plenty of bogus ones—and advocating for climate policy. Fat Tire has even given away its own carbon emissions accounting tool to help breweries understand their biggest impacts, and track changes as they improve.
This might sound counterintuitive in our intensely capitalistic culture, but Wallace notes that environmental integrity and stewardship are a cornerstone of the brand’s DNA. For example, back in the ‘90s the business successfully advocated to bring wind power to their local power grid. Decades later they’ve now pushed their hometown of Fort Collins, Colorado to commit to transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030.
As part of the carbon neutral certification process, a business must show a continual year-over-year reduction in its GHG emissions, ideally at a pace on track with science-based targets, set per industry, with the ultimate intent to prevent global warming of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius by 2030. To claim carbon neutrality, the rest must be offset. But since not all offsets are created equal, and some are, ahem, bullshit, Fat Tire takes a carefully studied approach to determining where to invest in lieu of the GHGs still produced in the production, brewing, transportation, and refrigeration of its beer.
"We are all in this together—there is no Planet B."
It likely goes without saying that offsets should meet nationally recognized standards established by credible organizations, which work to suss out validity, and it seems obvious that offsets should create genuine reductions in GHG emissions, meaning the project would not have happened without the money provided by the sale of the offsets. However, this is unfortunately not always the case. Since some lower quality—read sketchy—offset projects have been known to sell a single “quantity” of offsetting to multiple buyers, Fat Tire, and any brand taking carbon neutrality seriously, invests only in projects where one buyer can claim the emissions reductions.
But it gets complex. Another problem with offsets occurs when there is no means to ensure that the carbon isn’t going to be released back into the air. Think, trees planted but never watered or ensured to grow. It’s also important to consider and fully account for scenarios that sometimes occur when one offset forces another environmental or social problem.
OFFSETS DONE RIGHT
Fat Tire’s approach to offsets prioritizes investment in transformative offset projects that help create a zero carbon economy. One such offset project that checks Fat Tire’s criteria commits resources to protecting more than 20,000 acres of crucial forest in southeast Alaska, owned by the native Haida and Tlingit people. The money generated from this project supports an education fund for the Native landowners and a small hydro project to displace diesel generators, ultimately improving local air quality and providing a cheaper and more reliable source of electricity for the area.
Another project the beer brand has invested in provides a training ground for students at a local technical college in South Dakota to gain hands-on experience in wind turbine operation and maintenance, which means more skilled labor entering the workforce that will support a cleaner future in a region under particular pressure to embrace dirty fossil fuel extraction.
However, achieving Carbon Neutral certification isn’t a magic fix, and carbon offsets are a temporary answer, not a permanent solution, as Wallace is quick to point out. Big business has long looked to place the blame and guilt for our rapidly deteriorating climate on individuals like you and I. And sure, recycling is great. In fact, the largest source of emissions in the entire brewing process come from beer containers, so we can all do our part to ensure cans and bottles get into the proper bin. Drinking what’s on tap out of a reusable glass is another way to reduce waste while kicking back a brew.
But it’s time to shift the focus in regards to the same businesses that have, for decades, sought to place blame on the consumer. We can pressure companies to make decisions that are better for the planet by buying products that reflect the change we want to see, whether through regenerative farming, sustainable packaging, or climate justice initiatives. (Remember, climate justice is social justice)
Climate change is a colossal problem that requires enormous solutions. And with two-thirds of the world’s major industrial greenhouse gas emissions caused by just 90 companies, businesses need their hand forced to decrease emissions they emit, which is where we need our lawmakers to step in. “As much as we can drop our energy use at our breweries, we’ve also realized our impact needs to happen at a systemic level,” Wallace adds. So call and email your elected officials to ensure they’re voting on climate-friendly policies. Pushing for the change we want to see can start in the beer aisle, but we need to carry that sentiment with us to the polls.