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The Business Guide to Talking About Carbon

Originally published on TriplePundit as part of a TerraPass sponsored series on Carbon Offseting.

Carbon offsetting gained international awareness back in 1997 with the signing of the Kyoto Protocol, which sanctioned offsets as a way for governments and companies to meet their greenhouse gas emission targets.

After a few years, offsets gained something of a stigmain the environmental community. Thoughts drifted to wealthy celebrities using offsets to justify weekly use of private jets or Coldplay’s infamous mango tree debacle, and critics were quick to bemoan offsets as an easy pathway to greenwashing or a half-hearted attempt to quell eco-guilt. But the market has changed drastically in the past 17 years.

“I know you mentioned in an article about the Coldplay thing, and that’s the ugly elephant in the room that nobody likes to talk about who’s in this industry,” Nancy Bsales, manager of carbon solutions for TerraPass, said with a laugh in a recent interview. “But over the years the transparency and the quality of offsets has improved tremendously. There are so many strong standards out there that a company or an industry can be very confident that what they’re doing is real.”

Rather than a bandage tasked with covering up environmental indiscretions in one fell swoop, today’s carbon market actually offers a deeper fix. “On a corporate level, when companies look at [offsets], they look at them as a way to bridge the gap,” Bsales continued. Even for companies that are on top of their game as far as efficiency and utilizing new technologies, emissions are still created, she noted, and that’s where offsets come in.

“So what do you do with what’s left? And that’s when you take into account the market-based tools of renewable energy credits or carbon offsets,” Bsales said. “And then the real approach is supposed to be: On a yearly basis [companies] are supposed to become so much better at efficiencies and technologies that [they] need less and less offsets. That is the true goal that we want everyone to look at.”

Despite these changes in the marketplace, some companies may hesitate to incorporate offset decisions into their sustainability communications — whether it’s because they’re new to sustainability or simply worried of being nailed for greenwashing. We sat down with Bsales to get her top tips for sharing your offset decisions effectively — and making them a highlight rather than an afterthought in your sustainability communications.

1. Make your offsets tangible

As we’ve touched on earlier in this series, choosing a quality carbon offset can take time. It can take even more time to select an offset or renewable energy credit that has a genuine connection to your company — but it’s time well spent.

Choose offsets that make sense for your company: Invest in a project in your own community, or select projects based on sustainability goals that align with your company’s culture.

“You have to communicate in a way that [the projects] are not intangible to any of the stakeholders,” Bsales said. “If your biggest goal as a company is waste reduction and you’re picking the technology, you can say: ‘Waste reduction is one of our biggest goals, and we’ve gotten so far. We’ve reduced our waste by X amount of tons, but we know we still produce some waste. So we’re funding landfill gas capture so the waste we’re producing … is not spewing gases into the atmosphere.”

Be ready to explain why you chose the project, which communities will benefit from it and how it will help you meet internal sustainability goals. When a company’s offset decisions align with its core values, communications professionals will have a much easier time sharing these decisions in a way that makes sense across the board.

2. Tailor your message for the listener

“Somebody who can communicate sustainability really well is very talented,” Bsales said with a laugh. “Because you ned to keep your customers happy; you need to keep your employees happy; you need to keep your stakeholders, your board members happy. You’re addressing a lot of different groups, and each of those groups may have a different need from you.”

This is the constant balancing act for anyone working on sustainability within a company, and it all starts with communications. A board of trustees, for example, will be far more interested in how a given decision saves money or improves efficiency, while customers and employees may want to learn more about how the decision benefits communities and the environment. Tailor your messaging to each important stakeholder group within your company, and be sure to include details that are relevant to them.

“Say you’re addressing offsetting: How you communicate that to your employees, your customers and your board of trustees may be very different,” Bsales continued. “That’s an important thing to learn: how to bring it all together. And that’s where the importance of making it a connection for each of those groups comes into play.”

3. Give your communications the greenwash test

After you decide on a strategy, it’s important to have your communications reviewed by a third party for accuracy, Bsales advises. A provider like TerraPass is a great candidate for this, as are sustainability consultants.

“I call it ‘carbon accuracy,’” Bsales said simply. “Have someone look at your communications for carbon accuracy … In a company’s communications, greenwashing is very, very dangerous. It can backfire.”

4. Don’t forget your employees

Employee engagement has become a hot topic in the sustainability space, and communicating your offset decisions is no different.

“In the culture of a company, when you’re communicating your sustainability, include your employees. Let them be part of the decision making,” Bsales advised. “When it comes to employees, it’s an important job as a company to communicate their offset purchases clearly and in an understandable manner so that they receive more buy-in across the board.”

This applies not only to carbon offsets, but also to a company’s broader sustainability goals, such as energy, waste and water reduction targets, she added. “By engaging your employees, you’ll begin to see more actions on the efficiency level,” she said. “The actions that you need to meet on a corporate level almost need to be grassroots actions.”

5. Make a decision and own it

Once you’ve selected a quality offset, don’t be afraid to be confident in your sustainability communications.

“Embrace it. Walk the walk,” Bsales said. “If you know that you chose a phenomenal project — high quality, real, transparent, and is going to be retired and not double-counted — go out and bang on your chest a little bit. Feel confident … because you’re taking the steps to move us globally to a better future and business to a new climate.”

6. Recognize it’s a journey, not just a destination

“Be proud of whatever part of the journey you’re on, and feel comfortable communicating that,” Bsales advised. “Whether you’re someone that’s looking at your carbon footprint for the first time … or you’re ranked in the top 10 on the EPA Green Power Partner list, wherever you are, you are a leader for that area.”

Smaller companies that are unfamiliar with sustainability may feel uncomfortable tooting their own horns, Bsales noted, but even small steps — such as setting an energy reduction target and choosing to offset the difference until the goal is met — are vital in bringing companies in the right direction.

“No matter where you are on the journey, you’re an important part of the change,” she concluded. “And you should feel confident in the steps you’re taking.”

Image credit: Mike Steinhoff via Flickr

Based in Philadelphia, Mary Mazzoni is a senior editor at TriplePundit. She is also a freelance journalist who frequently writes about sustainability, corporate social responsibility and clean tech. Her work has appeared in the Philadelphia Daily News, the Huffington Post, Sustainable Brands, Earth911 and the Daily Meal. You can follow her on Twitter @mary_mazzoni.

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