When I started WeSpire, one of the first big decisions I made was to not put a carbon calculator into the product. At the time my reasoning was based on several user experience factors. First, most calculators were incredibly long and complicated – you had to find your utility and credit card bills to answer dozens of detailed questions. Second, I knew people cared about environmental topics in addition to carbon, like water and environmental health. But after lots of testing, I realized that even if I made an extraordinary number of major changes – went vegan, stopped flying altogether, and gave up my car – my resulting carbon footprint was still devastatingly high. It was completely demoralizing and the entire point of WeSpire was to inspire positive action.

It’s been eleven years, but we are now adding a carbon calculator into WeSpire. We are very aware that calculators originated as a marketing tool for British Petroleum, who has not done much to go “beyond petroleum”. We’ve licensed data, but built our own, to make the user experience simple and the results clearer, including individual and collective impact. Most importantly, we are doing it because it’s part of helping our most forward-thinking customers, mostly large corporations, achieve very ambitious climate targets for Net Zero, including Scope 3 emissions.

Understanding Corporate Carbon Emissions

For those of you not steeped in sustainability lingo, companies categorize their emissions into three categories. The first are direct emissions from operations (Scope 1). The second are emissions from energy used in operations (Scope 2). Scope 3 covers emissions tied to your supply chain and the use of your product or service. One component of Scope 3 are employee emissions tied to business travel, commuting, and telecommuting. For many companies, Scope 3 dwarfs the others. And while it’s currently optional to measure and report on it, there can be great business opportunity when you understand your Scope 3 emissions. For example, when Levi’s measured Scope 3 emissions, they realized that their sustainability focus needed to shift to how cotton is grown and how frequently consumers washed their jeans. Their CEO famously went on stage wearing jeans he hadn’t washed in a year.

Understanding Employee Carbon Emissions

Employee related Scope 3 emissions are notoriously hard to measure and for some companies, not wildly material. Then the pandemic hit. Many workers shifted en masse to working from home. So did the energy use associated with computers, bathrooms, cafeterias. Companies saved $9B in energy costs and employees picked up the burden. For companies with Net Zero and 100% renewable energy targets, questions emerged. How do we account for that shift? Does the drop in commuting get offset by the rise in home energy? Can we help our employees move to renewable energy? Office emissions are scope 2. If the entire office is at home now, is it really telework under Scope 3 or should it move to Scope 2? One of WeSpire’s clients published a detailed analysis of their findings.

What became crystal clear is that the tools to measure and reduce employee related Scope 3 emissions aren’t great. Most companies use a spreadsheet or a form. Once measured, encouraging action to reduce emissions is the natural next step, something WeSpire already did. Then one of our customers asked what it would take if they wanted to offset their entire employee footprint. We gave them an estimate, but suggested it would be way more inspirational, educational and engaging if employees were able to pick the project to balance their emissions.

Why Personal Actions Actually Matter

I get asked now and then whether a focus on personal action deflects energy from what “really matters”, like getting large, fossil fuel intensive organizations to decarbonize or advocating for global climate regulation. My response is that it’s all connected. Companies must take ownership for reducing their emissions dramatically. But companies are made up of people. People who make decisions every day. People who use the products companies make. People who vote. By helping people understand climate and take action personally, it’s like giving them a new set of glasses to see their world through. They will send demand signals that catalyze companies to change. They will create sustainable innovations internally. They will vote or invest with climate in mind. Personal climate action should never be the only initiative, but your sustainability journey will be significantly more transformative when you bring your people with you.

Quote of the Week: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead