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Carbon Offsetting is greenwash: why it is essential for the printing industry to work to zero carbon

There’s a growing amount of cynicism around sustainability

There’s a word which has entered common usage relatively recently: greenwash. Sadly, it has come about because people need to express how they feel about companies’ reactions to climate change. This cynicism isn’t just being driven by consumers. The Competition and Markets Authority has recently opened an investigation into FMCG goods to scrutinise their ‘green’ claims.

There is a growing frustration at how so many organisations are only paying lip service to their commitment to Net-Zero goals. According to the Financial Times, one third of so-called low carbon funds are investing in oil and gas. Only recently, The Guardian published an investigation claiming that more than 90% of rainforest carbon offsets by the biggest certifier are worthless. Consumers are seeing through a lot of the messaging.

Everyone agrees we need to move towards a Net-Zero carbon economy

However, there are differing views on how we might achieve this transition. Some would claim that this can be achieved by carbon balancing or carbon offsetting (it is important to realise that these are not the same thing). In other words, we undertake to sponsor actions that, in theory, neutralise our emissions. However, these strategies do not reduce carbon footprint. Without significant carbon footprint reduction we will not achieve Net-Zero. The only way we are going to achieve this is by drastically and rapidly reducing our emissions.

A number of printing companies are beginning to set carbon reduction goals. They are stating on their websites how much they have reduced their carbon emissions by. And they are publishing targets for further reductions, backed up by how they plan to achieve this.

Printing companies that follow this course of action will have a believable strategy for their customers. They will be able to share science-based proof on the actual carbon lifecycle of what they produce and how they are reducing it. This is what more and more organisations are demanding as they start more rigorous measurements of their supply chain, otherwise known as so-called Scope 3 emissions.

Printing companies that rely on offsetting risk losing the trust of customers and ultimately losing work. They will struggle to create relationships with the growing number of customers that demand accurate carbon measurement of their products. This is because they do not have a science-based way of proving the carbon lifecycle of their products. They will not be able to demonstrate if they really have reduced the carbon footprint of their products or even if they have sustainable development goals. Let’s dig into this in a little more detail.

A carbon balanced company is not necessarily a sustainable company

Printing companies that say they are carbon balanced may be in for a shock. This strategy is already being scrutinised. Carbon balancing is not necessarily a move towards Net-Zero and does not necessarily achieve carbon reduction. Carbon balancing is all about forestry preservation. Forestry preservation is undoubtedly something to be supported: it is vital that we help organisations that are working towards preventing further deforestation and increase biodiversity. However, it does not create any new forests. Preserving forestry does not actively reduce the carbon of a piece of print manufactured on the other side of the planet: it simply prevents further deforestation. Even the new tree planting schemes will make no difference to the climate emergency until the trees start to absorb carbon in 30 years’ time. So does that mean that organisations should focus on carbon offsetting instead?

Carbon offsetting also fails to deliver

There are plenty of examples of carbon offsetting schemes which create no benefit for the environment, and may even cause further harm to the environment. For instance, it is possible to purchase carbon offset credits for the safe disposal of HFC-23, a waste by-product created in the manufacture of fridge gasses. This should legally be safely disposed anyway. The credits are from an activity that took place over a decade ago and it is claimed that some companies stepped up the production of HFC-23 so that they could sell more credits.

Trading in carbon offsets has also become an opaque market. Investors are now purchasing carbon credits purely to sell them at a profit later. This is leading to lowered standards for carbon offset schemes as demand for them increases.

There are high quality offset and carbon capture schemes available. Work by organisations such as ICROA is making the industry more transparent. However, carbon offsetting should only be undertaken once a carbon reduction plan has been put into action. Carbon reduction requires sufficient budget as well as specialist knowledge to make sure it is being carried out correctly.

In order to truly reduce carbon, it is essential to invest. Companies should be moving towards zero carbon solutions, not investing in schemes that offer no real reduction in carbon emissions or greenhouse gasses.

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What is zero carbon?

Zero carbon means not putting any carbon into the atmosphere. This involves:

  • Reducing energy usage
  • Using 100% renewable energy, including generating your own
  • Eliminating fossil fuels
  • Creating a circular economy

It is a lot easier to start reducing energy usage than it might seem. For instance LED, motion-triggered, lighting can create substantial savings in energy costs for lighting

Printers running litho presses can also reduce energy consumption by using voltage optimisers. Some areas are going to be easier than others. Unless you are carrying out local deliveries with an electric vehicle, transport is going to be a challenge. However, changes can be made through consolidating deliveries and considering solutions such as output directly at clients’ sites.
Clean energy should also be on the agenda of every printing company. These options are now readily available to all printers. A clean energy tariff may be more expensive than other tariffs, but it is more effective than paying for offsetting. Cheaper long-term solutions can be created through investing in your own clean energy source, for example solar panels. The circular economy can also make a big difference to the carbon lifecycle of the products that printing companies produce. Re-usable packaging and re-usable structures for exhibition stands are just a couple of ways that printers can begin to make a difference.

Why should the printing industry care?

Offsetting is already being challenged. As The Guardian investigation has shown, some offsetting schemes cannot be counted upon to produce the results they claim to achieve. They are greenwash.

The claims that print is sustainable because it largely involves biodegradable substrates will also come under fire. Biodegradable products do have a negative impact on the environment. The European Environment Agency is among those that recommend that recycling is a preferable option to biodegrading with reusable products being the ultimate goal. In the future, single use paper may well suffer the same bad press as single use plastics.

As public awareness grows of industry’s environmental footprint, any manufacturer that is not making a significant carbon reduction will come under scrutiny. The printing industry has to start taking swift positive action on climate change now to remain ahead of the demands that will be placed on it.

Many sustainability claims from printing companies promise nothing

Phrases such as “we are committed to seeking out solutions” and a “journey towards becoming a carbon net zero business” are meaningless without specific targets and timelines. Many procurement sustainability awards focus on a “best in class” approach. In other words, you can still score highly if you are an organisation with a high impact on the environment. You just have to be a little bit better than your competitors. Equally, claiming ISO14001 accreditation can be mis-leading. The certification lets you set your own carbon reduction goals: they do not have to be taxing. Nor do they have to show that you have set a goal towards being zero carbon.

So what can printing companies do to work towards zero carbon?

Firstly, do carry on supporting organisations that are active in forest preservation and tree planting. This is positive environmental work that should be applauded. However, do not claim that this support counts as carbon reduction.
  • Commit to and invest in carbon reduction rather than carbon balancing or offsetting.
  • Do start a proper carbon reduction plan, with goals and timelines and financial plans to support.
  • Do commit to your targets in a public statement on your website and publish regular updates.
  • Do make sure your carbon reduction is measured in a science-based process such as CarbonQuota’s. LINK
  • Read our article on How the printing industry can move towards zero carbon in three stages. LINK to third article

There’s no need to be cynical about sustainability in the printing industry

If printing companies commit to science based, provable carbon emissions reduction, they have a plan that their customers can understand and believe in. This is good for their clients and for the industry as a whole. A lot of printers could make a big difference if they started investing in carbon reduction rather than carbon offsetting or carbon balancing. It is time to start making a positive difference rather than risking accusations of greenwash.

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