We are the first generation to feel the effect of climate change and the last generation who can do something about it. Barack Obama, Former US President
My boss gave me a mission: calculate our total emissions since starting ZOZO New Zealand, and find a way to offset them, to try to make our business carbon neutral. It sounded easy enough, but turned out to be a bit more complex than I originally expected. There are a lot of different ways to calculate emissions and offsets! And I learned some surprising stuff about climate change along the way. I’m hoping that by sharing my notes and workings I can help other small businesses that are trying to do their bit for the environment.
Climate change poses an existential threat to all life on earth, humans included. Almost everything humans do generates emissions, and it’s hard to know where to start in addressing the problem. The idea of offsetting is that, for each ton of carbon emissions that a polluter generates, a payment is made to someone else that can remove a ton of carbon from the air (for example, by planting trees). There has always been controversy surrounding carbon offset schemes, and they are certainly not a silver-bullet solution to the problem of climate change. But we decided that offsetting our emissions would at least be a start to making our business sustainable.
When we first decided to address sustainability in the business we made enquiries with several local consultancies that could provide us with various forms of ‘net-zero’ accreditation. There is even an ISO standard for this now. The quotes we received back for the initial audit and for maintaining ongoing annual compliance ran into several thousand dollars.
So we decided to go with a ‘do it ourselves’ approach instead and skip the formal certification. We knew that our calculations would be less precise than the professionals, but we figured we could make up for that by adding in some extra margin to our emissions estimates.
I started working on our homebrew emissions estimate at the end of 2019. I quickly got into figuring out our flight emissions and hotel stays. I thought that was all we needed to offset. How misinformed I was! Turns out, aside from air travel, the most damaging thing we have/use is electronics.
Did you know, it typically takes about as much energy to manufacture, ship and dispose of a laptop as the device will consume in it’s entire useful life? And to calculate the CO2 emissions, we had to look at the emissions in the country of manufacture, rather than where it was purchased/used. I found it impossible to find any tool that would help me calculate the emissions created by manufacturing and disposing of electronics (especially given that we have so many different types of devices in the office - laptops, servers, monitors, smartphones, etc - and we are continuously buying and disposing of them). So we decided to use a simple rule-of-thumb instead:
We assume that the total energy required to make, ship and dispose of all our electronics is about the same as the energy they will consume during their lifetime.
This allows us to ‘amortize’ the total carbon footprint of our devices over their useful life. Our office has used a total of 32kWh of electricity since the business started. So, in addition to offsetting our office electricity usage, we decided we should offset an additional 32kWh of energy to cover the additional carbon footprint of our devices beyond their operating power consumption. This is likely to be a conservative estimate: most of our office electricity probably goes on heating / air conditioning, and I suspect an AC unit requires relatively less energy to manufacture than a laptop. But I haven't been able to verify that yet.
To convert the additional 32kWh to tons-of-CO2, we decided to use electricity generation emissions data for China, rather than NZ, as few if any of our electronic devices are made locally. It turns out that this consideration makes a big difference to the overall offset calculation, as some countries rely a lot more on fossil fuels for electricity than others. So while our direct electricity usage so far only produced about 3 tons of emissions, we estimate our indirect energy usage (amortized over the same period of time) to have generated almost 23 tons!! At the end of this year we will run the calculation again, and every year after that, as we continue to pay-down on the carbon footprint of all our electronic gadgets.
Our philosophy: spend on offsets, not audits
In general, I think this approach of using rules-of-thumb, based on reasonable / defendable assumptions, is a great way for small business or individuals to estimate their carbon footprints. There is no need to ‘nickel and dime’ mother nature, or spend great amounts of time and money trying to do a perfect calculation. Just use conservative estimates, throw in some margin, and who cares if the estimate is a bit higher than reality? Carbon credits are not that expensive, so the difference in the cost of offsetting is pretty small.
Have you seen the workbooks for calculating emissions? The one we used had 10 different sheets ranging from travel to water supply, waste, freight and fuel usage. It is extensive. For example, how was I meant to know how many kilometres our staff had travelled (and what sort of engine size/fuel type they had!)? Honestly, we could probably employ a person who JUST calculates our emissions.
Again, I used an approximation. I looked at the range of cars and picked the mid range size. I looked at the staff members who lived furthest away and assumed they drove every day. These assumptions informed our calculations, which ran from when the business was incorporated in April 2019 until December 2020. We had several months in lock down which probably makes my calculations wildly over what was actually driven by staff, but for the purposes of helping the environment, I think it’s better to overestimate then underestimate.
Our carbon footprint
So I FINALLY finish my workbook, making some assumptions along the way. This is what the final breakdown looked like (for the period Apr 2019 - Dec 2020):
After a year of living with COVID restrictions, it seems strange to see 'Air Travel' listed as our biggest source of emissions! It's been ages since any of us have flown anywhere. The next time we do these calculations the numbers will look very different...
Anyway, armed with our (conservative) estimate for the carbon footprint of the business, the final step was to find a way to offset those emissions.
Choosing an offset scheme
There are a range of programs available. Locally and internationally, there are plenty of places that will plants trees on your behalf, and other programs such as wind farm development, solar water heaters and other conservation projects.
We wanted to support local kiwi programs, so I started to research those. I decided to use EKOS because of their approach in improving New Zealand. They not only provide a way to offset carbon, they actively encourage alternative ways to help improve the environment - reducing food waste, cleaning up coastlines and even donating to other causes, improving the lives of New Zealanders.
We can now proudly say that, for the period from April 2019 to December 2020 we have been certified by EKOS as a Carbon Friendly Business. EKOS offers some other certifications too, so when we repeat this process at the end of the year I might take a closer look at those, to check whether a ‘more formal’ certification could work for us.
I’m excited that ZOZO NZ has started taking steps to becoming a sustainable business. In the scheme of things, we are just a small company with limited impact. But collectively, small businesses account for 97% of all businesses in NZ, and employ 30% of the total workforce. So if we all takes steps to clean up our operations then together we can make a big difference. Change has to start somewhere.
We are still learning though, so if you have of a better way to calculate/offset our footprint, then please let us know!
I am the HR & Administrative Coordinator for ZOZO New Zealand and I work remotely from Australia. I love the work I do for ZOZO NZ and look forward to being able to visit the office again when there are no travel restrictions.