The founder of Peak Design, Peter Dering, was in Vietnam in 2018 at a factory his company uses for manufacturing when he had a kind of revelation. “It was the first time I’d been to the factory when it was cranking in full production and they had all the materials on-site, and I thought, holy shit, this is…this is a lot of material,” Dering told AJ. “I had an immediate, visceral understanding of just how many raw materials we are assembling and then shipping over all over the world.”
Peak Design, which makes bags, photography equipment, and travel gear, was founded with the idea that they’d be mindful of their environmental impact, according to Dering. It’s part of their mission statement. So when Dering was confronted with the amount of stuff his company used and began thinking of the effort it takes to keep that supply chain humming along, he immediately began wondering what Peak Design’s carbon footprint was.
As it turns out, that’s not an easy calculation to make. Dering turned to outside consultants who specialize in this sort of thing and was shocked to discover that to figure out his brand’s footprint would cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $40,000. The first step of the process would give Dering a rough estimation of how big Peak Design’s carbon footprint was, so he figured he could just assume his brand was at the high end of that estimation, and work to buy offsets against it. He began to wonder why more outdoor brands didn’t do the same thing.
“In the outdoor industry, there’s been so much talk about using less packaging or plastic and using more recycled materials,” Dering said. “And of course, those are the low hanging fruits that we should all be grabbing. But I view those steps as not even something to really even get a pat on the back for doing. Those reductions amount to a mouse fart compared to the things that aren’t being reduced. I don’t care if you’re Patagonia or your Peak Design or you’re the manufacturer of cheapest goods out there. The fact is that all of these raw materials are coming together through a carbon-based economy right now.”
Not only did Dering decide he could reduce the impact of Peak Design’s manufacturing, but he realized he could affordably offset his brand’s carbon footprint. That realization led him to another: He could help other companies do the same.
The Climate Neutral Program Helps a Brand’s Carbon Offset Efforts
Thus the launch of Climate Neutral. The program is a nonprofit that will function as a certification system assuring a customer that a brand offsets as much carbon as it is responsible for producing, complete with a logo and hangtag. Dering teamed with BioLite founder Jonathan Cedar on the project, which helps brands estimate their footprint, reduce it, and buy high-quality carbon offsets to cover what they can’t reduce. The idea is that once a brand has accomplished this, verified by Climate Neutral, they can add the Climate Neutral label to their product, letting the customer know they’re purchasing something that hasn’t contributed to carbon pollution.
“The whole thing is basically a marketing exercise, in the best possible way,” Alex Honnold told Men’s Journal about Climate Neutral.
Climate Neutral is right now working on estimation tools to make it easier for brands to tackle the first, crucial step of measuring their impact. “Climate Neutral is managed to be ridiculously pragmatic so that we actually get this whole thing off the ground,” Dering said. “Because when it becomes an intensive process that no one knows how to follow, and you’d have to either hire an extra employee or hire an outside consultancy, no one’s going to do it.”
Their website has detailed examples of the footprint, mitigation strategies, and offsets of sample brands that show how their program works.
Sure, there’s nothing stopping a brand from just buying bushels of carbon offsets against what they assume they produce. But the point of Climate Neutral is to make the process simple, cheaper, and more accurate for the brand, and give customers a form of assurance that they’re buying something that meets their own ethical standards, similar to products and food being Fair Trade Certified or USDA Organic.
Brands that meet the standard can choose the offsets they want to purchase, though Climate Neutral provides a list of approved programs they’ve vetted. Dering said the nonprofit is still debating the level of transparency to include for each brand that takes part. A savvy customer can see the amount of offsets a brand has purchased and use that information to calculate a brand’s revenue, which some companies balk at.
The certification process will be an annual check-in. A brand will submit their carbon measurements, plan to reduce it, and the offsets they’ll purchase and Climate Neutral will ensure it’s done before allowing the brand to use the label. Though outdoor brands are natural fits for this model, especially so considering Peak Designs and BioLite are already in that space, Dering hopes the program will expand to all sorts of brands and products.
So far, three companies are on board and have completed the certification process: Peak Designs, BioLite, and Avocado, a green mattress company. Another few dozen brands, including LifeStraw, MiiR, Klean Kanteen, Kammock, and other outdoor manufacturers, have signed on to measure their 2019 footprint, to begin the offset process in 2020. Climate Neutral is raising money right now to help ensure the projects gets off the ground.
Dering knows there are plenty of people critical of offsets as any kind of a solution to massive carbon footprints. But he also points out that until the world moves to supply chain and manufacturing systems based on renewables, there will always be a carbon footprint associated with manufacturing and shipping. So businesses need to reduce what they can and pay to offset the rest. Otherwise, as the Climate Neutral website states, companies get to pollute for free.
“Everyone has a carbon footprint,” Dering said. “Everyone can offset it.”