Within the past six months, I’ve received a slew of pitches for products and services that all sound eerily similar: a “climate positive” parka and burger, a “carbon negative” vodka, a “carbon neutral” shipping service, a “carbon zero” commuting app, and “zero carbon” coffee.

For scientists and environmentalists, these phrases have been around for a while, but it’s only recently that companies, from small startups to established corporations, have adopted them for mainstream marketing use. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos pledged to have the company be carbon neutral by 2040; Microsoft has committed to be carbon negative by 2030; Starbucks aims to be “resource positive” within a decade by reducing carbon emissions, water withdrawal, and landfill waste by 50 percent; JetBlue intends to make all of its domestic flights carbon neutral starting in July; and Heathrow Airport in London pledged to be carbon neutral in its operations by 2030, excluding the emissions from flights.

These terms can admittedly be confusing for the average consumer. But the move toward specific terminology isn’t just semantics. Eco-friendly language can help yield actual change by encouraging businesses to be more proactive and transparent.

First, let’s define what these phrases mean:

  • Carbon neutral: A product or company that’s carbon neutral (or carbon-free) is removing the same amount of carbon dioxide it’s emitting into the atmosphere to achieve net-zero carbon emissions, usually by purchasing carbon offsets or credits to make up the difference. For example, the Australian shipping service Sendle buys credits through the South Pole Group to “cancel out” the carbon its deliveries emit by supporting sustainability projects.
  • Zero carbon: Zero carbon is a term commonly applied to buildings and modes of transportation that are carbon-neutral. For a building that’s zero carbon-certified by the International Living Future Institute, it must offset its energy use through renewable sources, in addition to any carbon emissions resulting from its construction.
  • Carbon negative: A carbon-negative company removes more carbon from the atmosphere than it releases (the phrase “climate positive” has been used interchangeably with carbon negative). This requires going beyond achieving carbon neutrality. Air Co, a vodka company based in Brooklyn, sources waste gases and carbon dioxide from beverage manufacturing plants or ethanol factories. The gas is then liquefied and shipped to the company’s facility, where it’s converted to alcohol.

Consumers, for their part, have long been wary of buzzy marketing terms. Corporate greenwashing, which started in the 1960s, is a marketing practice that leads customers to believe that a company’s products are more eco-friendly than they actually are, when companies display words like “conscious,” “sustainable,” and “ethical” on their ads.

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