But consumers are increasingly expecting more from their brands – to move beyond the net zero goal and use their power to affect real change.

The language of doing good

Terms like ‘carbon neutral’, ‘net zero’, ‘carbon negative’ or ‘climate positive’ have been employed by scientists, politicians, and environmentalists for years. Back in 1976, Al Gore held a congressional hearing on climate change, then launched Earth Day in 1994 and increased awareness of global warming with his eye-opening documentary film An Inconvenient Truth in 2006. Incidentally, the New Oxford American Dictionary made ‘carbon neutral’ its Word of the Year that same year.

But it’s only in the last few years that the world of marketing has adopted these terms for mainstream use – the notion of corporate responsibility and the growing popularity of certifications like B-Corp are placing the onus on major brands and businesses to do their part in combating climate change. The result? A flurry of buzzwords used interchangeably by advertisers and PR companies across the globe.

So, what do they actually mean?

Carbon neutral

‘Carbon neutral’ means that any greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere from a company’s activities are balanced by an equivalent amount being removed. This is often achieved through offsetting programs, like funding a tree planting project.

Sky became the world’s first media company to go carbon neutral in 2006 by reducing energy consumption, travel, waste and water use and offsetting emissions. Google followed suit by becoming carbon neutral in 2007 and has since committed to running on 24/7 ‘carbon-free’ energy by 2030.

The term is widely employed by businesses sharing their eco-friendly ambitions, such as Apple, Siemens and LG, who all claim they will be ‘carbon neutral’ in the near future.

Climate neutral

Like carbon neutrality, ‘climate neutrality’ means bringing a company’s emissions down to zero – through strategic in-house reductions and offsets.

In April 2000, Shaklee became the first company in the world to obtain a Climate Neutral certification and offset all of its greenhouse gas emissions. Since then, the term has been adopted by others – community marketplace Depop just became certified as a Climate Neutral company while Adidas has pledged to be ‘climate neutral’ by 2050.

Net Zero

The popular term ‘net zero’ means the point in time where a company stops adding to the burden of climate-heating gases in the atmosphere. ‘Net’ implies that CO2 emissions can still occur – as long as they are offset or removed from the atmosphere by the same amount in other places. ‘Net zero’ businesses often aim to reduce as much as they can before resorting to offsetting, but many use the term interchangeably with ‘carbon neutral’.

Businesses have adopted the term ‘net zero’ with vigour, sharing their climate pledges to achieve this milestone in the foreseeable future, echoing the language used by governments and countries around the globe. Major players like Heineken, Netflix, Unilever and Amazon, the latter of which co-founded The Climate Pledge in 2019, have committed to achieving ‘net zero’ across their businesses.

Carbon Negative

A relatively new term, ‘carbon negativity’ takes ‘carbon neutrality’ one step further. Instead of just matching emissions through offsets, companies that are carbon negative ensure that they are removing more carbon emissions from the atmosphere than they are adding.

It has predominantly been adopted by businesses that have made sustainability a part of their core branding. Brewdog is one of them, claiming to already be carbon negative by removing twice as much carbon from the air as they emit through their eco brewery, the use of renewable energy, and offsetting. But big players are catching on – in January 2020 both tech giant Microsoft and pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca announced they would be ‘carbon negative’ by 2030 through carbon reduction and removal.

Climate Positive

Equivalent to carbon negativity, climate positivity means that a company’s activity goes beyond achieving carbon neutrality to create an environmental benefit by removing additional carbon emissions from the atmosphere.

The term is becoming increasingly popular as an antidote to ‘carbon negative’ as it gives businesses an opportunity to shout about their sustainability plans beyond carbon reduction – whether they’re promoting biodiversity and animal welfare, offering transparency across their supply chains or supporting marginalised communities.

In a study conducted by HiPP Organic, a baby feeding company making great strides towards becoming climate positive, 73% of customers claimed that if a brand was ‘climate positive’ it would increase their buying consideration – despite only 8% knowing what climate positive actually meant. Compared to the terms ‘carbon neutral’ and ‘carbon negative’ 47% also believed that ‘climate positive’ was best for the environment.

That may be why major brands including Henkel, IKEA, Burberry and Williams Racing are increasingly using the term ‘climate positive’ to express their mission as they pledge to offset or remove more carbon from the atmosphere than they produce.

Interestingly, New Zealand-based skincare brand Emma Lewisham branded itself as the world’s first ‘carbon positive’ beauty brand. Carbon positivity is, somewhat confusingly, the exact same as carbon negativity. To many, however, the combination of the words ‘carbon’ and ‘positive’ actually implies an increase in carbon and therefore paints the business as ultimately contributing more carbon to the atmosphere.

In fact, according to Net Zero Tracker, of the 770 major companies that have shared their eco-friendly ambitions, not one of them has used the term ‘carbon positive’. 45% used the term ‘net zero’, 20% used ‘carbon neutral’, 14% had an ‘emissions reduction target’, 5% used ‘climate neutral’, 2% used ‘zero emissions’ and 1% used ‘climate positive’ or ‘carbon negative’.

The buzzword bingo game doesn’t stop there. Brands are increasingly looking to find their niche in the race to zero, selecting specific areas to focus on and highlight through their marketing. Facebook – now Meta – recently announced a new goal to be ‘water positive’ by 2030. That means returning more water to the environment than is consumed by their global operations through water restoration efforts and technologies to increase water efficiency. Similarly, Starbucks hopes to be a ‘resource positive’ company by 2030, aspiring to “give more than it takes from the planet”.

Now that the 26th Climate Change conference has come to an end and new objectives are put in place, it is only a matter of time before brands adapt their language to the growing pressures put upon them. We’ve been working closely with HiPP Organic to determine how their messaging will evolve over the coming months, and it’s been a fascinating journey so far. If you want to talk all things green, drop us a line.