Online shoppers are sometimes given the choice to pay a little more to make their purchase “carbon neutral” or use so-called carbon neutral shipping. In theory, for a few extra bucks, you can negate the greenhouse gas emissions caused by your online purchase.
If it sounds too good to be true, that’s because it is.
Those few dollars might cause a temporary warm glow effect, as environmental psychologist Lorraine Whitmarsh put it to me, but it won’t last. And experts say you should be skeptical of those promised climate benefits.
We recommend that you leave the carbon neutral box unchecked next time you shop online. Instead, you can take a few effective steps to actually reduce your climate impact. Bonus: They also save you money.
What does carbon neutral even mean?
If an item’s checkout, shipment, or delivery is described as carbon neutral, it usually means that the company has partnered with a third-party payment service (such as Shopify, Stripe, or EcoCart) that helps fund carbon offset or carbon removal projects. Generally, offsetting projects aim to avoid greenhouse gas emissions or pull greenhouse gasses from the atmosphere, often through carbon sink projects like reforestation or wetland restoration. Carbon removal seeks to lock these climate-change-causing gasses away more or less permanently; carbon capture and storage, for example, are emerging technologies that would trap carbon in substances like carbonate rocks (PDF).
By giving money to support such projects, the company you’re purchasing from promises to indirectly counteract some amount of greenhouse gasses produced by shipping your purchase. But the whole thing is very complicated and opaque.
For starters, these projects may take years to get going—let alone to reach their promised carbon reduction potential. No matter how rigorously vetted a program might be, you’re never literally negating the emissions associated with shopping online—even when companies that support these projects claim to make your purchase carbon neutral today. Carbon neutral shipping is a misnomer.
Instead, going carbon neutral at checkout means you’re donating to what is “essentially a philanthropic effort,” said Danny Cullenward, policy director at the nonprofit CarbonPlan, a research group that has provided pro bono advice to Stripe (a company that helps e-commerce sites process online charges) about its carbon removal program. If you’re weighing if you should pay for carbon neutral add-ons in hopes that you actually offset shopping emissions, one-to-one and more or less in real time, you can walk away, full stop.
Will your money eventually help cut atmospheric carbon?
It’s complicated, and it depends. And it’s really hard as a shopper, mid-checkout, to know whether the extra money you’re spending will go toward effective and lasting climate reduction projects.
The potential benefits and pitfalls of carbon removal and avoidance offsets, in particular, have been well reported elsewhere. But in theory, high-quality removal projects should eventually lower the amount of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere. To be considered high quality, offsetting projects should be additional (meaning they wouldn’t have happened otherwise) and permanent (they can’t go up in flames from, say, wildfire, which is a risk with tree planting). They also shouldn’t cause harm to indigenous and local people or ecologies.
Unfortunately, it’s hard for most of us to tell what’s high quality and what’s not. Some projects are registered with organizations that track and validate carbon offsets. But experts say the registries themselves need outside oversight, if not a total overhaul, so that buyers can actually determine quality. “The rules are Swiss cheese, so compliance with the rules doesn’t really tell you anything,” said Cullenward.
And regardless of quality, all these projects have long timelines and may take years to scale, which make determining their future effects (and dollar value) an act of educated guesswork. Companies may fund offsetting projects or removal technologies that never really take off, but they use them to overreport their emissions reductions or claim that they are carbon neutral today. Worse, they may not do what is actually required—significantly reduce their emissions—and may even increase them. This is dangerous, considering that global greenhouse gas emissions (often discussed in carbon dioxide equivalents) must net out at zero by 2050 if we’re to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.
“If you want to drop some money in a bucket, fine,” said Sadie Frank, a program manager at CarbonPlan. “But it’s not necessarily doing the thing that you think it’s doing.”
There’s also the problem of moral licensing.
“If you think you’ve done something good and that it’s canceled out the negative environmental impacts of your purchase when it hasn’t, there’s evidence to suggest that you may be less likely to do other ‘green’ things,” said Whitmarsh. In fact, it may make you feel better about doing more carbon-intensive things more often, like flying or shopping more.
On EcoCart’s website, for example, it says it can help “keep shoppers coming back for more” with “sustainability content and promotions” and “drive conversion” (e-commerce speak for how many times a customer completes a checkout). The pitch to businesses to ask you to “make your purchase carbon neutral” appears to get you to shop more, an inherently unsustainable act.
Here’s what you should do instead
The most effective, direct steps you can personally take to reduce your carbon emissions are lifestyle changes: fly less, drive less, and eat less meat and dairy. Experts also suggest getting involved at the local, community, and national level to bring about the large-scale, political action and corporate-level change that this global crisis requires. If you can’t do all four, or some don’t apply to you (maybe you don’t own a car), that’s okay: Just move on to the next. Even small shifts in your behavior in these areas will outweigh those related to shopping.
But when it comes to buying things, adopting a slower shopping approach reduces your impact on the environment more directly and effectively than paying for carbon neutral shipping. Buying less stuff and keeping it for longer is a good first step. When you are ready to buy, try to save up money to spend on items that will last longer. And those things don’t always need to be new. You can often get great deals on used furniture, home goods, and clothing that are better quality than what you might afford new, with the benefit of reducing the toll on the supply chain. When online shopping, double check sizes, colors, and styles before purchasing to avoid unnecessary returns, and make delivery more efficient by grouping your purchases and choosing the slower delivery option. Read more about our mindful shopping tips here.
Focus where you have the most agency
Sometimes, doing our part for the climate can seem like a constant slew of small decisions with dubious impact: Do you take the plastic straw or not? Unplug all your devices before you leave the house? Buy almond milk or oat milk or local cow milk? Choose carbon neutral shipping or not? All of it seems to matter, and then nothing does. Luckily, those choices, which can get exhausting and overwhelming, pale in comparison to the biggest actions you can take and where you have the most agency. Focus on what makes the biggest difference—and remember that you’re not alone. And if a company says that buying a thing can save the planet? Don’t believe it.
This article was edited by Christine Cyr Clisset and Ben Frumin.
1. Lorraine Whitmarsh, environmental psychologist and professor at the University of Bath, Zoom interview, September 19, 2022
2. Danny Cullenward, CarbonPlan policy director, and Sadie Frank, CarbonPlan program manager, Zoom interview, September 22, 2022
3. Andrew Bergman, PhD candidate in Applied Physics at Harvard University and co-author of “The Case For Climate Dioxide Removal: From Science to Justice,” CDR Primer, Zoom interview, September 21, 2022
4. Kimberly Nicholas, associate professor of sustainability science at Lund University, and author of Under the Sky We Make: How to Be Human in a Warming World and Substack newsletter We Can Fix It, Zoom interview, October 4, 2022
5. The Oxford Principles for Net Zero Aligned Carbon Offsetting (PDF), Oxford University, September 1, 2020
6. Lisa Song, James Temple, “The Climate Solution Actually Adding Millions of Tons of CO2 Into the Atmosphere,” ProPublica and MIT Technology Review, April 29, 2021
7. Ben Elgin, Sinduja Rangarajan, “What Really Happens When Emissions Vanish,” Bloomberg, October 31, 2022
8. Seth Wynes, Kimberly A Nicholas, “The climate mitigation gap: education and government recommendations miss the most effective individual actions,” Environmental Research Letters, July 12, 2017
9. Kristian S. Nielsen, Kimberly A. Nicholas, Felix Creutzig, et al., “The role of high-socioeconomic-status people in locking in or rapidly reducing energy-driven greenhouse gas emissions,” Nature Energy, September 30, 2021
10. Diana Ivanova, John Barrett, Dominik Wiedenhofer, et al., “Quantifying the potential for climate change mitigation of consumption options,” Environmental Research Letters, August 20, 2020
11. Zhongxiao Sun, Laura Scherer, Arnold Tukker, et al., “Dietary change in high-income nations alone can lead to substantial double climate dividend,” (PDF) Nature Food, January 1, 2022