Comparing Carbon Neutral or Zero Waste certifications for a company is like comparing apples with oranges. Although both certifications aim to be a response to the need for consistency and reliability in terms of sustainability of a business, their scope of work and implications are very different.
1. The philosophy
- Carbon Neutral
Carbon is an atom which composes the molecule of carbon dioxide, CO2. Carbon dioxide is a natural gas which contributes to the greenhouse effect on the planet. CO2 is also used as a reference to measure the greenhouse effect of a gas: it’s called the Global Warming Potential (GWP). For instance, the GWP of CO2 is 1 whereas the GWP of methane CH4 is 21 over 100-years. It means that 1 kg of methane will have the same greenhouse effect than 21 kg of CO2. Global Warming refers to a phenomenon describing the global rise of temperature which is associated with an excessive accumulation of greenhouse gases.
When a company goes Carbon Neutral it means that they do not contribute to Global Warming.
- Zero Waste
Around the world, natural resources are becoming more and more scarce. When resources are destroyed (meaning incinerated, landfilled, or discharged into the environment) virgin resources must be extracted to make new products. Zero Waste is a strategy which ensures that materials which are discarded are a resource for someone else to use and where nothing is burned, buried, or discharged into the environment.
When a company goes Zero Waste it means that they ensure the continuous use of resources. This is directly related to the Circular Economy Principles.
2. When a company want to be Carbon Neutral or Zero Waste, what does it mean in practical terms?
In both cases, Carbon Neutral and Zero Waste refer to a framework including a commitment from the management team, policies, practical actions to measure and reduce carbon emissions and waste… Both targets have an underlying result which is the improvement in efficiency of the business and the reduction in costs.
- Carbon Neutral
To be Carbon Neutral, a company must first measure the carbon emission associated with its activities which might include the complete supply chain, from manufacturing to disposing. This implies collecting information about energy consumption (electricity, gas, diesel, fuel…) throughout the supply chain and material consumption (product, packaging…). Depending on their origin, the carbon emissions associated with different forms of energy and materials can vary. This assessment must be conducted in accordance with international standards.
Once the carbon emissions have been measured, the company must set targets to reduce their carbon emissions and offset the existing emissions. Among others, reducing carbon emissions might involve improving the efficiency of the operations of the business (such as the replacement of inefficient equipment) and seek alternative suppliers with more sustainable products (such as products made from recycled content only).
Offsetting carbon emissions refers to financing activities which reduce carbon emissions outside of the business. For instance, reforestation programs are a type of activities which might generate carbon credits. By purchasing carbon credits covering the measured emissions of the business, the company can then become Carbon Neutral.
- Zero Waste
To be Zero Waste, a company must first measure and assess the waste they generate within the facility and assess how their products are disposed of by consumers. This measurement of waste generation within the facility is used as a baseline. They might extend the scope of work to clients and suppliers. Then, the company must ensure that at least 90% of the discarded materials are diverted from the incinerator or landfill by reducing the amount of waste, reusing as much as possible, and recycling or composting the remaining.
As for the waste generated by consumers, the company must ensure that the products being sold are designed to be entirely reusable, recyclable, or compostable.
Finally, to close the loop on waste, the company must, wherever possible, purchase recycled or repurposed materials made from its own discards. For instance, the organic waste generated within the company are sent to a composting facility for processing, and then, the company purchases the compost for their own green spaces.
In both cases, around the world organisations have developed certification programs which are internationally accepted. For instance,
- Carbon Neutral Certification is managed by Natural Capital Partners and is based in United-States.
- TRUE Zero Waste Certification is managed by the U.S. Green Building Council Inc.
Both certifications require an audit from a third-party body.
Depending on the local context and the available alternatives, both Carbon Neutral and Zero Waste targets can be difficult to achieve. Because their scope of work is different, a business can be Carbon Neutral but not Zero Waste and inversely. A business which is both Carbon Neutral and Zero Waste is proving a strong commitment for the protection of natural resources and for the mitigation of global warming.
5. Comment from an Auditor
When a company wants to achieve sustainability targets, you must always consider Process, Technology, and People. If one of them is not addressed properly, the project is likely to fail. The actual driver for change is People. On-going support and education are necessary to make the best use of technologies and adapt processes to achieve best efficiency and competitivity. In both cases, Carbon Neutral and Zero Waste require a strong commitment from the management team to lead the change among the staff.