Top 7 Carbon Certification Programs that Don’t Allow Greenwashing

By Jazmin Murphy | Updated on September 16, 2021

Tired of seeing companies ‘pledge’ environmental sustainability (greenwashing) without using carbon certification programs, then claim neutrality and continue to pump heaps of CO2 into the atmosphere?

Well, you’re not alone.

A number of carbon certification programs are designed to prevent that… they verify a company’s actions with the best carbon offset programs that use carbon certificates, which are market-traded intangible items that represent a specific amount of carbon pollution that was either avoided, or mitigated. These carbon certification companies are working to stop ‘greenwashing’ practices and mitigate climate change simultaneously.

Greenwashing graphic depicting a man taking a cellphone picture of a tree on a hill, with polluting factories and logging in the background.

Top 7 Trustworthy Carbon Certification Programs

When considering whether a sustainability plan is actually benefiting the environment or just ‘greenwashing,’ you can know for sure if it’s certified by one of the following organizations:

1. Gold Standard

Gold Standard is among the most well-respected carbon certification programs worldwide.2 World Wildlife Fund established the organization in 2003, along with other international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) contributing to sustainable development.

The organization’s achievements in support of environmental integrity are undeniable, overseeing more than 2,000 projects, spanning 80 countries. This activity has generated $23.5 billion of shared value that can be applied toward further sustainable development. And the value to the planet is manifest in the following ways:

  • Social costs of reduced atmospheric carbon
  • Decreased rates of deforestation
  • Financial savings from lowered fuel use
  • Expansion of the job market
  • Reduced respiratory illnesses and mortality

To date, Gold Standard has issued more than 159 million carbon credits from projects worldwide.

2. Verra

Verra has long been known as the leader in sustainability,3 specifically for carbon markets. Its history began in 2005, and now the organization currently oversees more than 1,700 projects and has issued 668 million Verified Carbon Units (VCU) so far.

Their famed Verified Carbon Standard, or VCS, program is the world’s leading voluntary GHG program.4 Participants can earn tradeable greenhouse gas (GHG) credits known as VCUs. Companies then buy and sell these VCUs to offset their emissions.

Their scope of work consists of spurring and verifying “measurable” outcomes for climate activities and sustainability initiatives by presenting “large-scale” investment opportunities, which can be ideal for large corporate networks.

3. Natural Capital Partners

Natural Capital Partners has over 300 clients across 34 countries,5 reminding the global corporate world that business and eco-friendliness can work together with mutual benefit.

The organization expects its clients to adhere to the CarbonNeutral® Protocol.6 The Protocol includes:

  1. Define the “subject” to be CarbonNeutral® certified. (According to NCP, “subject” refers to “the entity, product, or activity being certified CarbonNeutral® and may be distinct from the client.”)
  2. Measure the subject’s GHG emissions and compile a chronological inventory of those GHGs. This is done with an independent assessor.
  3. Determine a goal for the carbon neutral GHG emissions for the duration of your certification.
  4. Act on it! Start working toward your goal through cost-effective yet sustainable adaptations to business practices and partnering with an organization like 8 Billion Trees.
  5. Be transparent with the public and provide accurate information on how you’re working toward your CarbonNeutral® goal.

It’s that simple! Since 2002, these guidelines have helped make the world’s environments safer and healthier and will continue to do so for years to come.

Greenwashing graphic showing factory smoke and memo pads.

4. Plan Vivo

Plan Vivo is another certification company that’s been around for more than twenty years now,7 demonstrating its persistence and trustworthiness over several decades.

One of the main characteristics that Plan Vivo looks for in their associated projects is support for “climate-sensitive communities.” Also known as “populations of concern,”8 these are areas that are highly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, including 16,000 “smallholders.”9

This aspect sets Plan Vivo apart from other carbon certification companies, because “Smallholders” is a term that generally refers to small farmers, both those who own or control their land and those who don’t. As demonstrated by the Ethical Trading Initiative’s (ETI) guidelines,10 they all share the following traits, among others:

  • Generally have fewer resources
  • Often marginalized from agricultural economics and politics
  • Economically and professionally vulnerable

Plan Vivo is a very people-focused organization. So, if that’s your angle for improving sustainability, this is the choice for you.

5. Clear

Clear began in 2005 and later became the world’s first recipient of an independent certification against,11 what some consider, to be the highest carbon offsetting standard from QAS International, beginning in 2012.

The QAS focuses on ISO (International Organization for Standardization) standards.12 These ISO standards are intended to inspire customers and potential collaborators to signal high employee and client valuation, business integrity, and environmental impact mitigation.

Another cool thing about Clear is that you can work on offsetting your own individual carbon emissions or collective GHGs from your entire business.13,14 Their projects are environmentally and community-focused, so there are plenty of options for giving back to the planet and global society.

6. Verus Carbon Neutral

Verus takes a four-step approach to certify a company’s carbon neutrality or sustainability practices:

  1. An audit will determine the yearly carbon footprint.
  2. Verus Carbon Neutral will retire the carbon offsets that equate to the footprint value.
  3. The company receives a Carbon Neutral certification.
  4. Along with the certification, the company receives public engagement materials to share their Carbon Neutral status, one of which is the official seal.

This seal can benefit businesses quite significantly, because it shows their dedication to the environment and desire for positive cultural change, something that customers are increasingly seeking. For example, the CEO of Service Foods, Keith Kantor, reported that the company experienced a 30% boost in sales following their Carbon Neutral certification.15

However, Verus Carbon Neutral understands that it’s tough for companies to go cold turkey on their energy-consuming technology. Instead, the organization looks for solutions to bridge the gap and encourage the gradual transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.

7. International Living Future Institute

The International Living Future Institute (ILFI) offers the Zero Carbon Certification.16 This is the world’s first-ever Zero Carbon certified standard by a third party. It highlights the growing need for energy-efficient building construction and design, and further, tools for monitoring the impacts of those buildings’ carbon emissions.

The standard is quite ambitious, requiring that 100% of the project’s operational energy use be offset by renewable energy on- and off-site. The specific carbon emissions impacts must be disclosed and offset, too.

Certified companies must accomplish all of this within one year, along with the energy-efficient building achieving its target sustainability level and the procurement of renewables equivalent to 15 years of “project power.”

It’s tough love, but this regulatory strictness is precisely what makes them one of the world’s most well-respected, effective certification companies.

What Is Greenwashing? (How Can You Avoid It?)

Remember when corporations found out about gluten sensitivities and began slapping a “gluten-free” label on all their products to draw in more health-conscious consumers? That sort of profit-driven, insincere act is similar to greenwashing.

Greenwashing is the term that describes when a company spends copious amounts of time and marketing funds on making themselves appear environmentally-friendly,1 without doing much to back it up. In other words, more money and effort go into telling customers they’re “green” than actually establishing sustainable business practices.

To ensure that consumers aren’t deceived by a greenwashing scheme, certification companies authenticate real environmental solutions, and many offer guidance for calculating your emissions with an ecological footprint calculator. Some of these organizations are focused on improving infrastructure, or protecting and improving vulnerable communities.

But, regardless of their specific mission, they have one thing in common: identifying real environmental solutions, and exposing the frauds.

Some signs include:

  • Vagueness
  • No Proof
  • Irrelevance
  • Hidden Trade-offs

Graphic showing fibbing, irrelevance, no proof, and hidden trade offs are some ways to detect greenwashing schemes.

Business Sustainability Challenges

The challenges to making a business sustainable can sometimes seem overwhelming, so carbon certification companies also help make it easier to attain carbon neutrality for all sorts of operations and business models. Plus, they help ensure that the environmental projects you fund, like tree planting offset programs and reforestation and offset removal programs, are compliant with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, and other verification standards (depending on the verification body).

This guarantees that a business’s sustainability investment is being used to improve the environment and heal the planet (by removing carbon emissions), which provides consumers with an accurate look at ‘green businesses.’

To fight the impact of climate change, everyone has a part to play. In order to save the planet’s future, real verified actions must be taken, not just claimed with ‘greenwashing.’ That’s why using (and checking that businesses) have these carbon certification companies’ approval is so important.


References

1de Freitas Netto, S., Falcão Sobral, M., & al., e. (2020, February 11). Concepts and forms of greenwashing: a systematic review. Retrieved May 27, 2021, from Springer Nature: https://enveurope.springeropen.com/articles/10.1186/s12302-020-0300-3

2Gold Standard. (2021). CERTIFY A PROJECT. Retrieved May 27, 2021, from Goldstandard.org: https://www.goldstandard.org/take-action/certify-project

3Verra. (2021). Verra. Retrieved May 27, 2021, from Verra.com: https://verra.org/

4Verra. (2021). The VCS Program. Retrieved May 27, 2021, from Verra.org: https://verra.org/project/vcs-program/

5Natural Capital Partners. (2021). What does it mean to be CarbonNeutral® certified? Retrieved May 27, 2021, from hub.naturalcapitalpartners.com: https://hub.naturalcapitalpartners.com/certify/carbonneutral-certification

6Carbonneutral. (2021, January). The Carbonneutral Protocol. Retrieved May 27, 2021, from https://carbonneutral.com/pdfs/The_CarbonNeutral_Protocol_Jan_2021.pdf

7Plan Vivo. (n.d.). 7Plan Vivo. Retrieved May 27, 2021, from Planvivo.org: https://www.planvivo.org/

8U.S. Global Change Research Program. (n.d.). Populations of Concern. Retrieved May 27, 2021, from health2016.globalchange.gov: https://health2016.globalchange.gov/populations-concern

9Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing. (2021). Smallholder Farmers. Retrieved May 27, 2021, from wiego.org: https://www.wiego.org/informal-economy/occupational-groups/smallholder-farmers

10Ethical Trading Initiative. (2005). ETI Smallholder Guidelines. Retrieved May 27, 2021, from ethicaltrade.org: https://www.ethicaltrade.org/sites/default/files/shared_resources/eti_smallholder_guidelines_english.pdf

11Clear. (2021). Clear. Retrieved May 27, 2021, from Clear.eco: https://clear.eco/

12ISO QUALITY SERVICES LTD. (2021). Frequently Asked Questions. Retrieved May 27, 2021, from isoqsltd.com: https://www.isoqsltd.com/faq/

13Clear. (2021). Offset my Flight. Retrieved May 27, 2021, from Clear.eco: https://clear.eco/carbon-offset-my-flight/

14Clear. (2021). Carbon Offsets for Business. Retrieved May 27, 2021, from Clear.eco: https://clear.eco/carbon-offsets-for-business/

15Versus Carbon Neutral. (n.d.). Carbon Neutral Certification. Retrieved May 27, 2021, from Verus-co2.com: http://www.verus-co2.com/certification.html

16INTERNATIONAL LIVING FUTURE INSTITUTE. (2021). Zero Carbon Certification. Retrieved May 27, 2021, from living-future.org: https://living-future.org/zero-carbon-certification/