Let me say right of the bat: while carbon offsetting is receiving a lot of flak right now for its ability to deliver impact, it’s still a better option than the option most prevalent in our economy. Doing nothing.
The recent shortcomings that have come to light in the offsetting industry simply show us that we should do better. How though? Instead of starting a discussion on how we can achieve accountability, traceability & verifiability in the carbon offsetting markets, I’d like you to stop for a second and realize that only very little things in the world are made of CO2.
While CO2 is definitely a huge threat to us as a greenhouse gas, it’s sometimes seen as the only boogieman on the stage. But let’s look at some other effects a product (e.g., a cellphone) brings with its production:
Ecosystem disruption & pollution from mining raw materials.
Toxic chemicals used in refining raw materials to metal.
Material extracted for plastics & packaging.
Sure, some of these can be expressed as a factor of CO2. But capturing CO2 would not put that material back in circulation. The reality is, not many things are made of CO2.
At this point, I would like to acknowledge that carbon offsetting is just a small part of the total circular economy. CO2 offsetting was never intended to keep material in circulation, so I won’t blame it for failing to do that.
Enough about carbon. An alternative exists:
Some things are made of plastic.
Plastic credits are a newer concept than carbon credits, but they are gaining traction as a potential solution to the growing problem of plastic pollution.
One key advantage of plastic credits is that they can help to drive investment in new technologies and infrastructure for plastic waste management. This can include investments in recycling and waste collection systems, as well as innovations in packaging design and material science that can help reduce plastic usage.
By creating a financial incentive for companies to invest in these solutions, plastic credits can help to accelerate the transition to a circular economy, where waste is minimised and resources are kept in use for as long as possible.
Another benefit of plastic credits is that they can help to raise awareness of the issue of plastic pollution and engage consumers in the solution. By creating a visible market for plastic credits, we create a much more tangible connection between plastic use & the environmental footprint of plastic.
However, there are also some challenges. One is that the concept is still relatively new and there is not yet a standardised definition or framework for plastic credits. This can create confusion and uncertainty in the market, and can make it difficult to compare the effectiveness of different plastic credit programs.
They don’t have the maturity and traction of something created with the adoption of the Kyoto protocol in 1997.
What we should consider: in 2010 everyone spoke of Instagram reaching 1 million users in 2.5 months. In 2023, ChatGPT achieved the same in 5 days. The speeds at which something reaches maturity and traction have “changed” over the years.
Another challenge is that the impact of plastic credits on reducing plastic pollution is not yet well understood. There are concerns that plastic credits could be seen as a "quick fix" solution that allows companies to continue using large amounts of plastic, rather than truly reducing their plastic footprint.
Additionally, there is a risk of unintended consequences, such as companies shifting their plastic usage to other types of plastic that are not covered by the plastic credit program, or investing in plastic waste management solutions that are not actually effective at reducing plastic pollution.
Luckily, we don’t have to choose one over the other, and solutions can co-exist. There is one thing however that drives the success of all these solutions combined. You.
You are made of you.
Between carbon offsetting, plastic offsetting and yet to be developed forms of offsetting. You are the one that has to decide if a solution is worth it to you.
Carbon credits have been in use for several decades and you might prefer that element of maturity & trust. If that trust has been damaged due to recent developments, you are the one that decides what alternatives you want to contribute to.
Even more important, now you are reading this article which could indicate you have a basic level of interest in the concept. However, there are also a lot of “you-s” out there that have never heard of offsetting at all.
Our real challenge is designing positive impact products & services that make it into your field of view and give you a feeling of value. Whether as a business or as a consumer, this creates a trigger to participate.
What is the “average you” made of?
As venture builders in the circular economy space, we asked ourselves this question, and then asked it to 500 of you. The shortcomings of current offsetting schemes are immediately clear:
As a reason for choosing to offset their purchase, 55% of respondents said they wanted to contribute to positive impact. Now comes the kicker… More than 45% of them wasn’t sure if their contribution really achieved something positive.
Let me rephrase that.
Almost half of the people that want to contribute to a better world, have no idea if that actually happened. We’re just leaving them hanging. Worse is, we might be reducing our chance that they will contribute again.
From the 34% of respondents that have never heard of offsetting, an astonishing 84% said they think the concept sounds positive! These people represent potential contributions, but by poor design have not even had the chance.
That’s why we should be offering offsetting solutions that engage the buyer. We could be showing them the impact of their individual contribution or keep them in the loop on future progress and activities. Keeping people personally engaged is the key to successful offsetting. That, and offering it to as many people as possible.
This article is made out of discussions.
There has been a lot of noise surrounding offsetting, and those discussions were the motivator for this article.
The truth is, we can’t consume our way out of this environmental crisis. A second pair of vegan leather sneakers won’t suddenly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, but it might have replaced a second pair of leather shoes.
We therefore also shouldn’t criticise one particular solution because it doesn’t deliver on a challenge it wasn’t designed for.
The mantra remains to:
Rethink (what is the real impact of my consumption)
Refuse (useless gifts, greenwashing and fake ecolabels)
Reduce (your consumption of new items)
Reuse (products with a second life opportunity)
Rechoose (products that are made to last and repair)
Repair (what can be repaired)
Remarket (what still has value to someone else)
Recycle (at the correct recycling point)
Offsetting has its place in that mantra. Consumption is an inherent part of our life. Without it we wouldn’t exist. For that reason, it makes sense to allow companies and consumers the choice to make an impact through offsetting whatever they can and use those contributions to advance the circular economy.
While we’re closing the “circularity gap”, let’s create as many opportunities as possible for people to contribute. Preferably at every point of purchase.
I would love to discuss that with you.