Meaningful And Simple: Climate Neutral’s Approach To Impacting Consumer Behavior

Climate Neutral works to decrease global carbon emissions by getting brands to measure, offset, and reduce the carbon they emit. They are now working with over 350 brands across 13 business industries, representing a carbon footprint of over 1M tons of CO2.

I spoke with Austin Whitman, founding CEO, about how consumers and brands must work together to drive the world toward the zero net emissions future that science tells us we urgently need.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Karen Walker: What led specifically to founding this organization?

Austin Whitman: The initial spark came from one of our funders who had gone through a process of trying to understand the climate impacts of his company’s operations. He was exploring taking part of their 1% for the planet annual contribution and creating a nonprofit organization to do something around carbon. And that’s precisely the moment when a colleague introduced us. I left my job in clean tech to help get this organization off the ground.  We launched in late 2019, and then, of course, six months later, the pandemic hit.

Walker: Why would consumers pay attention to this idea?

Whitman: One of the biggest questions that consumers have now is, “How do I do something about climate change?” Many people are very concerned about the future, but at the same time, people are busy, with multiple significant concerns. Life is not easy for most people.

Anything that takes lots of time and money is unlikely to be done by a massive number of consumers unless and until there’s enough system change that it becomes effortless.

One of the real missed opportunities of the climate movement is to give consumers something that’s both meaningful and simple. My favorite example is, “Go switch your plastic straw out for a paper straw. Then, that will be your contribution to avoiding ocean plastic.”

When the number of straws in the ocean is 0.000 % of the contribution to total ocean plastic, it’s not a meaningful gesture.

Our goal at Climate Neutral was to address consumer impact on the environment in a way that wouldn’t require consumers to get graduate degrees or spend hours studying carbon labels.

We would rather give them a straightforward symbol that says, “If a company is taking responsibility for its carbon emissions, it has this label on a package or a product. And if it hasn’t, it doesn’t.”

Walker: What sort of traction have you had over the last two years?

Whitman: We planned to recruit 36 companies in that first year. We ended the year with about 100 certified companies, so we grew faster than we had expected. We had 150 in 2020.

Here we are, almost two years into the pandemic. If anything, I think that the momentum around climate has gotten stronger. We will have about 330 certified companies this year, and next year, we’ll probably be close to 500. That’s one measure of traction – just how many companies we’ve been able to access.

We’ve also been able to access firms across many different industries. I don’t want the climate to be just seen simply as the outdoor consumer’s niche concern.

We’ve also been able to mobilize companies in the $20 million to $500 million revenue range, which still have significant impacts from a climate perspective. Most companies of this size don’t have a lot of capacity on their teams, and just because you’re not Unilever doesn’t mean you don’t care about climate change.

Walker: Can you share an example?

Whitman: We’re trying to establish a minimum baseline and a norm shift. One of my favorite examples is the mattress category, which Avocado has led. Avocado has, since the beginning, made mattresses out of more sustainable materials, and they’ve made a commitment to getting pretty much every certification and label they can get in their supply chain.

We had at least three or four inbound inquiries from other mattress companies once Avocado became certified. That’s when I realized the peer pressure element of categories would be significant in driving adoption.

Walker: What do you see that you either need to bust through or would be concerning to you in terms of adopting the certification?

Whitman: There’s still a genuine challenge of how much people truly believe – not just what they say but honestly believe – that climate change is a problem. I say that in a deliberate, suggestive way. I think even the most prominent companies out there who are talking in global climate forums, if you really peel back the layers and look at the numbers, they’re not investing all that much. They are investing maybe a few tenths of a percentage point of revenues to deal with the problem.

The typical consumer packaged goods company, for example, spends probably 10% to 25% of their revenues just on marketing. We need to get to a point where companies are as interested in protecting the planet that we live on as they are in promoting the sale of the products.  I’ll take 2.5% percent of revenues for the environment and 10% for marketing – anything like that.

There also needs to be more collaboration within both the NGO and the for-profit consulting community.

Walker: Remembering the common goal is key. Ralph Izzo, CEO of PSEG, said to me, “I don’t care if we start with the market and end up with a science or start with a science end up with the market, as long as we end up at the goal.”  

Other than the success that you’ve seen with these 330 companies, is there anything else that gives you hope?

Whitman: I look for the things that represent structural change, like fundamental irreversible decisions that are happening.

For example, look at the divestment movement. Harvard finally announced that it was going to divest its fossil fuel assets from its endowment portfolio. This development was 15 to 20 years in the making. That’s a decision that doesn’t get reversed, so that feels structural.

Regardless of what you’re doing, you should be doing something to build a future that we can all live with and on a planet that is livable.

I wish it had started 15 years ago, but we’re at the beginning of the process for many companies and they recognize this is a new reality of doing business.

Walker: How should companies think of decarbonizing?

Whitman: Every company needs to be thinking about decarbonizing immediately. That has two pieces. One is investing directly into projects that other people are running through carbon credits or carbon offsets.

Then invest immediately in your operations – start decarbonizing your products in your supply chain and products.  That can take a long time, but rather than saying, “I’m going to do this by 2040 or 2050,” say, “Here are my immediate plans. I’ve got midterm plans that will happen after that. And I’m also putting money into projects that other people are doing as well.”

For every company that has a carbon footprint, you need to assign, in essence, a price to that carbon footprint, take a percentage of that price and put it toward policy advocacy and a part of it toward product design, and a portion toward immediate decarbonization. The answer is not one or the other, to be successful it must be a multi-pronged approach.

Article originally published in Forbes.

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