If tracking carbon emissions as a Fortune 500 company is hard, what hope do small businesses or individuals have? More than you might think.
Commons, a carbon footprinting mobile app, is proving that carbon accounting is within reach for the masses. By looking at users’ spend data, the app can help consumers track their carbon footprints and make better choices for the environment.
Meanwhile, other businesses can learn from Commons how acting with the environment in mind can win over more customers and how taking steps in the right direction, regardless of your size, can make a difference.
Starting From Excel
Before launching Commons (previously known as Joro) in 2020, founder and CEO Sanchali Pal was tracking her personal carbon footprint for six years in Excel, “which was very tedious, but enlightening,” she says.
By looking at her spending and using public datasets to estimate her emissions around areas like food and flying, Pal was able to calculate her own carbon footprint. From there, she started finding ways to reduce her emissions by around 30% while saving around $2,000 per year.
For example, she realized that cutting down on meat consumption to one or two meals per week would have the environmental impact of “taking half of a car off the road every year,” while saving around $700 annually, she says. Other small changes, like shopping secondhand and using more efficient appliances also saved money while reducing her environmental impact.
“I made decisions that made me happier, healthier, and more fulfilled overall, which was really eye opening for me, because the way that we often talk about sustainability and carbon footprinting is that you have to sacrifice stuff,” she says.
Now, the app follows a similar process to calculate consumers’ carbon footprints, based on spend data and asking users questions about their lifestyles, but with more automation than when Pal was tracking everything in Excel. Users can link their financial accounts, like credit cards, to automatically see the carbon impact of their purchases, similar to how budgeting apps track purchases.
“It's basically like a carbon FinTech app,” says Pal.
And in addition to calculating emissions, the app has features that help users find ways to reduce their environmental impact. For one, Commons has a series of guides around practices that consumers can take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such as switching their utilities to renewable energy sources, choosing a bank that does not top the list of fossil fuel funders, and eating locally and seasonally.
The app also has a directory of sustainable brands, and Commons is piloting a program that lets users earn cash or other rewards by shopping from these companies that meet criteria such as being certified Climate Neutral or having a low-carbon business model. Taking Amtrak over a flight, for example, still involves energy use, but it can be a better alternative.
While it’s still early to tell what impact these recommendations are having, “we're definitely seeing much higher engagement with purchases from sustainable brands than purchases that are not from sustainable brands,” says Pal.“What we're hoping to prove is we can help companies who are really putting in the work [to improve sustainability] get in front of consumers and actually shift behavior towards them,” she adds.
In addition to starting to show that sustainable brands can win over consumers — especially when there’s a clear comparison that shopping with Option A has a more positive impact than Option B — Commons is also proving that many consumers are willing to take accountability for their environmental footprint.
That's important to solving the climate crisis, considering household consumption accounts for 72% of global emissions, according to a report in Energy Research & Social Science.
The app is free to use and users can purchase carbon offset subscriptions based on their calculated footprints. Commons takes a 19-20% fee from that subscription, which provides a curated portfolio of carbon credits so consumers can get access to what Commons considers to be high-quality projects.
“We have people who pay as little as $10 a month, the average person pays about $30 a month to offset their footprint, and we have people who pay thousands of dollars a month who have really high footprints and therefore have, basically, a higher carbon tax,” explains Pal.
That’s not to say that brands should pass the climate action buck entirely to consumers, but it shows that many individuals are willing to take some accountability for purchases they can’t or aren’t willing to reduce. Thus, brands that charge higher prices to account for things like more expensive yet sustainable materials or supply chain practices could still find a viable customer base.
Meanwhile, companies that do not adopt more sustainable practices could start to lose customers.
“It really isn't an individual's fault that the climate crisis is happening, and no one of us alone through our choices can change our global climate trajectory. But collectively, when we shift our spending choices, we're sending a signal to companies that we want better, and we want to support companies that are doing better,” says Pal.
While Commons has a sustainability-aligned business model, it’s not resting on its laurels. The company is also doing work internally to improve its environmental impact, showing that even relatively low-emissions businesses, like many software companies, can still find ways to reduce their footprints.
Using many of the same algorithms that it uses for the app, Commons is tracking its emissions via its spending data and is in the process of becoming Climate Neutral certified. Commons is also a 1% for the Planet member.
In tracking its emissions, Commons found that a major source was business travel. So, one step the company took was to switch from bringing its remote team together in Oakland four times a year to twice a year.
While remote companies might still want to get together to build engagement, Pal notes that by having a team that’s primarily been together for at least a year, Commons employees have already been able to build trust, which “makes it a little bit easier to space out in-person meetings.”
In other words, building an engaged team with high levels of retention can coincide with reducing emissions. Commons is also taking steps like maintaining a clean code base to reduce energy needs, which is something that other tech companies can similarly adopt.
Ultimately, Commons is proving that the path toward a more sustainable world isn’t just about the largest puzzle pieces. Smaller building blocks, ranging from individual purchases to lines of code, can add up to big changes.
Disclosure: Carbon Neutral Copy's parent company, JournoContent LLC, has clients involved in sustainability-related areas, among others. The owner of Carbon Neutral Copy, Jacob (Jake) Safane, has investments in sustainability-related companies, among others.
As such, conflicts of interest related to these and other investments/business relationships, even if unintended, may exist at times. Please email email@example.com if you'd like further clarification on any issues.