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Climate goals or 'greenwashing?' Truth-in-advertising group doubts JBS Net-Zero claims

This is a photo two Belted Galloway cows that are black and white and have fluffy fur. They are standing in a 'V' shaped formation and are in a field near a gate and water tank.
Rae Solomon
Cattle, like these cows grazing on a farm in Longmont, CO, emit methane as part of their biological processes. Research is still out on how to reduce these biological emissions, making JBS Food's net-zero emissions goals highly dubious.

Greeley-based meatpacking giantJBS Foods is being challenged by National Advertising Division (NAD), a non-partisan arm of BBB National Programs, over its greenhouse gas emissions reduction statements. JBS Foods is being accused of “greenwashing” its operations by touting an ambitious climate goal that it has no viable plan to achieve. The company now finds itself facing off with NAD, a national truth-in-advertising group that considers itself a watchdog for consumers.

JBS went public with big climate goals in 2021, including a commitment to hit net zero greenhouse gas emissions throughout global operations by 2040. The problem with that commitment, experts say, is that it is almost certainly unachievable for a company like JBS that traffics mainly in livestock and their products.

NAD was recently thrust into the role of arbiter on the question of JBS Food’s climate promises when questions were raised by the Institute for Agriculture Trade Policy, a non-profit group supporting fair and sustainable food and farm systems.The Institute for Agriculture Trade Policy is challenging JBS Food’s climate claims and recommended the company for further investigation.

NAD Vice President Laura Brett said her group studied the advertising claims that JBS was making around its climate goals, as well as evidence JBS submitted to back up those claims. They concluded “that the evidence was not a good fit for the claim,” Brett said.

Consumers were going to take away a message that these net zero claims were supported by a plan to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2040. And the evidence we reviewed fell short of a plan to achieve that target.
National Advertising Division Vice President Laura Brett

The National Advertising Division ultimately recommended that JBS “discontinue claims relating to its goal of achieving ‘net zero’ emission by 2040."

“What we saw were steps that it was taking to reduce its environmental emissions. However, not a plan that demonstrates it could achieve that goal by 2040,” Brett said.

JBS is appealing the decision. In an email to KUNC, a company spokesperson said they “take their environmental sustainability initiatives seriously and are working to achieve their 2040 net zero goals.”

Climate Goals and the Food System

Experts like Ben Lilliston, the director of Rural Strategies and Climate Change with the Institute for Agriculture Trade Policy,say the challenges JBS is facing when it comes to emissions reductions goals are common throughout the food manufacturing industry.

“It's challenging for food and agriculture companies, particularly if you are a meat company that is sourcing a lot of beef or dairy,” Lilliston said. “Because if you look at greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture, a lot of it's coming from cattle. And JBS is the biggest meat company in the world.”

According to Dr. Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, Director of Colorado State University’s Ag Next program, animal agriculture inevitably has a very heavy greenhouse gas footprint that makes net-zero commitments more challenging than in other parts of the economy.

It is not something we can fix with engineering. Those animals emit these gases as part of their biological process.
Dr. Kim Stackhouse-Lawson, Director of Colorado State University’s Ag Next program

Adding to that challenge is the fact that there’s still a lot we don’t know about livestock-related emissions, which overwhelmingly come in the form of methane and the extremely potent greenhouse gas nitrous oxide. “There's a lack of experimental data,” Dr. Stackhouse-Lawson said. “True methane and nitrous oxide baselines from livestock systems don't exist today.”

Counting greenhouse gases emissions

Even if we had that data, accounting for corporate emissions is a tricky business. Emissions are usually placed into three general categories.

  • Scope one emissions are associated with internal operations, which the company can generally control. “In a company like JBS it would include their manufacturing processes, or their transportation business,” Dr. Stackhouse-Lawson explained.
  • Scope two emissions comefrom the company’s energy use. Corporations have some control over these emissions - they can increase efficiency – but a greater factor is the energy mix of the regional power company wherever the corporation is located.
  • Scope three emissions come fromgreenhouse gasses associated with the company’s entire supply chain. “Those emissions include everything that it takes for the product to come into the company,” Stackhouse-Lawson said.

Scope three emissions make up by far the biggest and most nebulous category. According to Stackhouse-Lawson, they account for about 90% of emissions from most food-related companies. These emissions are also the most difficult to track, and they can be a lot more difficult for corporations to control. There is not yet a standard universally-accepted way to account for them.

Lilliston says that the JBS Net-Zero question is part of an international debate about how companies should set and account for emissions targets.

In the company's defense, there are no clear rules - like we're building the rules right now.
Ben Lilliston, Director of Rural Strategies and Climate Change with the Institute for Agriculture Trade Policy

Because Scope 3 emissions are so large, lack a standard accounting method and are so difficult to track, Lilliston says corporations like JBS can get away with fudging those numbers when they make grandiose climate promises. “It gives a sort of distorted view,” Lilliston said. The lack of transparent Scope 3 emissions reporting means there just isn’t a lot of substance behind these net zero claims. “It makes a lot of these net zero pledges more marketing than actual real reductions in emissions,” Lilliston said.

Accountability in Advertising

There is no one group tasked with oversight in the climate claims space, leaving companies to hold themselves accountable for living up to their widely publicized aspirations.

“There's not a lot of explicit accountability other than companies reporting,” Dr. Stackhouse-Lawson said. “It's a real challenge for us in science, because everybody's reporting differently and it's sometimes a bit apples compared to pears. It's certainly hard to compare company to company, and it can even be difficult to determine progress over time.”

That’s likely why the JBS case ended up on the desk of the National Advertising Division. There’s no governing body for accountability in climate pledges, but there is a watchdog for truth in advertising.

Corrected: March 1, 2023 at 9:23 AM MST
A previous version of this story stated that the National Advertising Division was a " a non partisan arm of the Better Business Bureau." It has been corrected to "... arm of the BBB National Programs," which is the actual name of the organization.
I am the Rural and Small Communities Reporter at KUNC. That means my focus is building relationships and telling stories from under-covered pockets of Colorado.
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