business climate change corporate responsibility

What is carbon insetting?

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about ‘carbon onsetting’ as a creative alternative to carbon offsetting. And then no sooner was the metaphorical print dry on that blog post, I came across ‘carbon insetting’. So what’s that when it’s at home? And does it matter?

Unlike ‘onsetting’, which is more of an eye-catching name for an experimental project, insetting is an established business practice. The idea of insetting is to introduce carbon-reducing practices within your own supply chain.

One of the big problems of offsetting is that you are paying someone else to reduce emissions for you, and that is likely to be far away and thoroughly disconnected from your own activities. That makes it unaccountable, with little supervision of the offsetting activities, and no benefits back to the purchaser of the offsets either.

Insetting brings the carbon reductions into a company’s existing areas of interest, making it much more likely to succeed. A 2009 study defines it as “a partnership/investment in an emission reducing activity within the sphere of influence or interest of a company, whereby the GHG reductions are acknowledged to be created through partnership and where mutual benefit is derived.”

It’s best illustrated with a couple of examples:

The French corporation Accor owns a couple of dozen hotel brands, including Ibis, Novotel and Mercure. It’s water and energy footprint is enormous, equivalent to a city of a million people, and it has a huge network of suppliers. Among them, there would no doubt be groups or companies that could incorporate new activities that lower emissions. One such group is a Moroccan community initiative that helps women to plant and tend olive groves. So Accor supports the project and gains the offsets from the tree-planting, but also gets olive oil for its restaurants.

Ben and Jerry’s carbon neutrality ambitions are fairly well known, and they use an insetting approach. They already work closely with dairy farmers and pay a premium for high welfare milk and cream, so this network was a natural place to find carbon savings too. Farmers can join a ‘manure separator project’ that treats animal waste differently – rather than rotting down on the farm and emitting methane, it is dried and composted. This creates compost and a safe bedding material, monetizing the waste stream from dairies and reducing emissions at the same time.

Vittel water, Nespresso, Louis Vuitton, and Chanel also use insetting. As that list of brands suggests, this is an approach pioneered in France. (Where it is called l’insetting, in case you were wondering, to distinguish it from l’offsetting.)

For companies that are serious about their carbon, insetting is a natural progression from offsetting – a more hands-on, intelligent way of taking responsibility for unavoidable emissions. It’s also good business, because it is investing in the supply chain and building good relationships. In some cases it can build resilience too, and it could be incorporated into a circular economy strategy. It can also apply to other things besides carbon – such as water.

The examples above use the supply chain, but a business has other areas of influence that could be theoretically used for insetting. Staff, for example. A company can’t dictate the lifestyle of their staff members, but they can encourage and support greener ways of commuting, and thus lower emissions in their broader sphere of influence. Customers are another possibility, or companies with neighbouring premises that could work together on reducing emissions or waste.

In summary, insetting is a kind of middle ground between the carbon reductions that a company or organisation can pursue itself, and traditional offsetting, where a third party is paid to do something carbon positive.

There are probably plenty of people who are doing insetting and aren’t calling it that. Like onsetting, the name deliberately echoes offsetting in order to point out weaknesses and suggest something better.

And I think that’s enough of those now. If you were working on ‘carbon outsetting’, ‘downsetting’ or ‘upsetting’, I don’t want to know.

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