How should the term 'climate neutral' be used in advertising? At Swedish outdoor brand Haglöfs, it sounds like, “We're carbon neutral–but we had to cheat to get there.” Are CO2 offsets cheating? In this interview, Elaine Gardiner, sustainability manager at Haglöfs, explains why the company is not–and why she likes to be part of investor talks.

Haglöfs says: “We are climate neutral–but we had to cheat to get there.” Are CO2 offsets cheating?
It is not the offsets in themselves that are cheating–this is part of the standard definition of carbon neutral–we are just highlighting that carbon neutral does not mean we have no emissions, but that offsetting has been used.

Don’t consumers necessarily know these definitions and standards?
Exactly. There are international standards that define what the term carbon neutral means. It is not just a marketing term.  However not every consumer understands the details–what it covers and what it does not, how offsetting can be used in this context, the different quality of offsets available and the best practice requirements of ensuring offsetting is part of a wider plan to reduce your own emissions.

How are you doing in reducing your emissions?
We have committed to halving our emissions along the entire supply chain by 2030 in line with what is needed to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees. To do this we are increasing our use of lower impact materials, working on improving energy efficiency in production and expanding the use of renewable energy in the supply chain.  However, the change will not happen overnight and we will continue to have emissions along the way. For this reason, we have committed to take responsibility for the remaining emissions each year through offsetting. While it may not be the perfect solution, the situation is urgent enough that we should use every lever available to us.

Jacket by Haglöfs
Photo: Haglöfs
Jacket by Haglöfs
Those who compensate more CO2 than they cause can call themselves “climate positive.” Is this a wrong signal?
The term “climate positive” risks giving the impression that the more you buy the better it is for the climate but more consumption will never be the best answer since what is most urgently needed is the reduction in actual emissions in the first place. Just like carbon neutral it has to be clear to consumers what it really means and companies should be transparent about their efforts on emissions-reduction efforts as much as the offsetting.

You obviously work very closely with the marketing department to make your work transparent.
Yes. This includes working with the team to move communication away from terms like “eco-friendly,” “green” or “sustainable,” which are meaningless and often misleading. For example, products we make are unlikely to be “eco-friendly” as there is always some kind of resource used to make it. A new version may however have a lower impact than a previous version so here we aim to call out the specific improvement e.g  “contains recycled materials.”

How much do customers really want to know? Are they interested in your offset projects, for example?
There are customers who want a functional product and are only interested in that. Others buy products from brands they have a good feeling about. That is the largest group from our point of view. And then there is a small group of customers who want to be very specific.

Placing value on sustainability is one thing, but paying for it is something else. How do you close the Attitude Behaviour Gap?
The answer to this question would be the winning formula. You have to take the customers along on the journey. It costs money to pay workers appropriately. It costs money to use more sustainable materials. If we as a brand manage to communicate our values and can be clear what the consumer is paying for, we hope they will join us on the journey.

Should your products actually be more expensive?
Prices have to go up overall. In the textile industry, living wages are not yet paid. They are at best minimum wages. There will be more climate targets, and their implementation also costs money. Someone has to pay for that. As an industry, we expect a lot from our suppliers and then try to push down prices every year. Something has to change at some point.
Haglöfs, mood pic
Photo: Haglöfs
Haglöfs, mood pic
What can this "something someday" look like? Like a second Rana Plaza?
I think it's a combination of things. More government regulation, more consumer demand for such products, and more commitment from the brands themselves. I've been in this business for many years, and I've noticed that the development has accelerated massively in the last few years. There is a momentum.

What do you attribute this to?
There are many factors including a more engaged consumer and more information about the reality of the impacts of the industry, but also an increased focus by the big money in the background.

What do you mean?
Institutions in the finance system such as banks and investors are starting to ask questions to better understand their risks. Many have realized that responsible corporate governance involves a slightly more long-term mindset and a deeper understanding of your own business to manage risks, for example in the supply chain.  The risks of climate change to businesses from a physical point of view (floods, fires etc.) as well as a regulatory point of view mean they want to (and in many cases are required to) know more about how a business is exposed to this risk.  For example, our bank now has discussions with us about our carbon footprint. Five years ago it would have been unimaginable that the sustainability manager would be called in for talks with bank. That is an exciting momentum.

Sustainability has become a huge marketing issue. But isn't there a danger that this movement will lose credibility if one or the other is just greenwashing after all?
The good point is: Why is it so attractive to talk about these topics? Because consumers are becoming more and more interested in them. If done well it should be driving consumers to make better choices but to get to this stage we need better regulation and consistency in marketing claims.

[Note: The original version of this article has been published 24 June 2021 on]