Most consumers don’t understand what ‘carbon-neutral’ means: study

Dive Brief:

  • Nearly 6 in 10 consumers either don’t know what the term “carbon neutral” means or they incorrectly define it, according to new research from Morning Consult. Less than half of consumers who say they have changed their behavior some or a lot because of climate concerns were able to correctly define the term.
  • While 23% of respondents to the Morning Consult survey said environmental claims are a factor when choosing which food or beverage brand to buy, only 20% said they always or sometimes try to buy a product with a carbon-neutral label.
  • As food and beverage CPGs such as Mondelēz and Anheuser Busch increasingly embrace carbon-neutral claims for their products, they will have to better explain the term and the methodology behind it to entice sustainability-minded consumers.

Dive Insight:

“Carbon-neutral” claims have been adopted in recent years by companies and brands who say they have offset the emissions required to create a product by efforts such as purchasing carbon credits or investing in renewable energy projects. These brands typically work with a certification program to calculate their emissions and then document the offsets.

But the research by Morning Consult suggests that education will be key to communicate the work and meaning behind these certifications. The research group surveyed 2,210 consumers about how carbon-neutral claims impact their purchases. Consumers who Morning Consult described as “environmentalists” — those who say they are concerned about the climate — made up over half of the survey sample but were only slightly more familiar with the correct definition of the term.

Some of the confusion may come from the different paths CPGs have taken to address emissions from carbon-neutral products. Mondelēz International takes a 2-prong approach: using ingredients with a lower carbon footprint and purchasing credits to offset the carbon used to produce its carbon-neutral snack brand NoCOé. Early this year, Anheuser-Busch launched its zero-carb Bud Light Next and announced the brew was certified climate neutral — meaning it offset other greenhouse gases like methane from its production. The beer giant said it is supporting forest management efforts to offset the emissions. This summer, Conagra introduced carbon-neutral certification for eight of its Evol frozen meals; the company said it invests in projects like forest preservation as well as renewable wind energy to offset the carbon from their production.

And Neutral Foods, which claims to be the first carbon-neutral food company in the U.S. and debuted its Neutral Milk last year, said it is changing what its cows eat so that they produce less methane. It also said it is converting methane that its cows produce into renewable energy.

Experts are divided on the actual material impact of carbon-neutral claims, with some believing it could amount to greenwashing. A Washington Post analysis from earlier this year argued that consumers should be mindful that carbon is difficult to offset, and companies may be obscuring facts about how they do it.

“Offsets are rather murky,” Doug Stephens, founder of consultancy Retail Prophet, told Morning Consult. “If you say your product is carbon-neutral, does that include your vendors and your vendors’ vendors? Or are you restricting it to your own activities? It needs to be analyzed in an end-to-end way.”

Stephens told Morning Consult that brands should embrace carbon neutrality and sustainability as part of their ethos, not just as a marketing tactic.

“The brands that are indeed purpose-driven, that put social and environmental causes at the heart of their brand, have a greater chance of securing customer loyalty.”