Our Journey to Net Zero

Posted by in B Corporation, Business Strategy, Sustainability

Illustration of a Net Zero Chicago with B Corp logo

Here’s how Mightybytes made progress in 2020 on our commitment to operate as a zero emissions company. Perhaps the ideas listed below can help your organization do the same.

Accelerated climate change and ecological breakdown have already impacted every corner of our globe and directly affected organizations of all sizes. As climate change accelerates, one by-product is increasing social inequities and inequality. Eventually, this will lead to disruption and social unrest on a scale we’ve never seen before. 

Per the B Corp Climate Collective:

It is clear to us that these twin crises are being driven, and responses constrained, by an economic system that rewards the single-minded pursuit of profits while untenably externalising environmental and social costs. This results in decisions that prioritize short term financial returns often at the expense of people, communities, and the natural world on which all life depends.

Mightybytes declared a Climate Emergency in January 2020 and committed to achieving net zero emissions as quickly as possible. While we have worked to reduce the company’s environmental impact for over a decade now, we made significant progress toward achieving our zero emissions goal this past year. Here’s how. 

graphics showing basic net zero principles
Emissions measurement, tracking, and reporting are key to a Net Zero commitment.

What is Net Zero?

Committing to Net Zero means that your organization will first reduce carbon emissions as much as possible, then offset what can’t be reduced to reach the equivalent of carbon neutral, or zero emissions. The B Corp Climate Collective recommends that companies wanting to make a Net Zero commitment follow these steps:

  1. Declare a Climate Emergency. Use the Climate Emergency Playbook for Business to encourage stakeholders and claim intent.
  2. Accelerate Carbon Reduction. Calculate Scope 1-3 emissions and devise a plan to reduce them as much as possible. 
  3. Develop a Net Zero Plan. Offset remaining carbon emissions to achieve Net Zero between 2025 and 2050.
  4. Join the B Corp Climate Collective. This global community of learning and practice is dedicated to climate action, climate justice, and climate advocacy.

The Collective also recommends engaging in ongoing climate advocacy and using the community’s collective voices to accelerate the just transition to a net zero carbon economy. (In other words, your actions don’t stop by joining the collective.)

Defining Emissions Scopes

Understanding how to approach a Net Zero commitment means understanding the differences in emission types, which are broken into three categories:

  • Scope 1: Direct emissions from company-owned and controlled resources, including onsite HVAC units, company vehicles, industrial processes, etc.
  • Scope 2: Indirect owned emissions from energy purchases 
  • Scope 3: Indirect not-owned emissions from a company’s upstream and downstream activities

There are 15 categories under Scope 3 emissions that include purchased goods and services, operations waste, transportation and distribution, leased assets, and so on. Scope 3 emissions offer the widest number of opportunities for organizations to make progress on their Net Zero commitment. However, because Scope 3 emissions are often out of an organization’s control, they can also be the most difficult to calculate and track. 

screen grabs of emissions tracking spreadsheets
Make no mistake: emissions tracking is spreadsheet-friendly.

Reduce Emissions First

In making a Net Zero commitment, organizations are encouraged to first reduce as many emissions as possible before resorting to offsets or renewable energy credits (RECs). Before Mightybytes became a Certified B Corp in 2011, we were members of Eco-Andersonville and went through their green business certification in 2009. Thus, reducing waste and improving our environmental impact has been a company priority for many years. 

Emissions We Reduced

The commitments mentioned above made reducing our carbon footprint easier. These included:

  • Energy Star-compliant appliances and HVAC units that use less electricity
  • Nest thermostats to better regulate office temperatures, especially after-hours
  • Intelligent plugs that can be controlled through wifi to shut off automatically, reducing “vampire power”
  • Reducing business travel, encouraging public transportation use and low-carbon commuting, such as walking or cycling
  • Cree LED bulbs in every office socket to reduce electricity consumption
  • In-house composting, which we later replaced with a zero-emissions composting service
  • Ordering supplies from companies (usually other B Corps) that offer low-carbon shipping options and buying recycled, composted, or low-impact materials when possible

This isn’t a comprehensive list, but represents the primary things Mightybytes did to reduce our emissions over the years. Unfortunately, we changed offices several times and didn’t set a baseline, so it’s hard for us to quantify how much we have improved over the years. Lesson learned.

graphic showing various statistics on how to achieve Net Zero using offsets
Offsetting emissions that you can’t reduce is key to achieving Net Zero.

Offset What You Can’t Reduce to Reach Net Zero

Elements out of our control also hindered the company’s specificity regarding science-based targets. Our building unit, for example, doesn’t have an electricity meter. To accommodate, we estimated based on square footage and similar usage rates from other units our size on Chicago’s north side. By “rounding up” estimates, we can reasonably presume that offsets and renewable energy credits (RECs) purchased for energy used more than cover our footprint.

What We Measured

Given our digital agency’s business model, the lion’s share of emissions came from running the office and our respective workstations. We also included the web hosting we do for clients. More on that below. 

We tracked the following components:

  • Airline activity: How much business travel did we do?
  • Ground travel activity: How much commuting or traveling to client meetings did we do?
  • Lighting: How much electricity (per bulb) did we purchase to light the office?
  • Plug load: How much electricity (per plug) did we purchase to run computers, equipment, etc.
  • HVAC: How much energy was used to heat the office?
  • Individual workstations: How much electricity was used to enable us to do our jobs?

COVID and Carbon Emissions

In March 2020, the global COVID-19 pandemic forced our team to work from home. Because of this, we were able to drastically reduce annual office energy use. We also adjusted the components above to compensate for reduced commuting, business travel, and home offices over the course of the year.

How do you power your digital products and services?

Scope 3 Emissions: Carbon Negative Website Hosting

Expect data sustainability to be a major keystone in companies’ climate-change goals over the next decade.

—Wunderman Thompson Intelligence, February 2021

For the first time this year, we were able to provide carbon negative website hosting for clients who host their websites with us. This was part of our Scope 3 emissions. What does this mean? Let’s break it down:

  • We use Pantheon as our hosting partner. In turn, Pantheon uses Google Cloud Platform (GCP), which claims carbon neutrality since 2007 and has pledged to be carbon-free by 2030. We think this is pretty impressive.
  • Pantheon shared 2020 hosting account data with us. Using the formula Wholegrain Digital employs for their free Website Carbon Calculator, we were able to estimate our account’s energy use in kWh. 
  • Even though our hosting was already pretty green due to GCP, we opted to purchase wind power RECs to cover all account electricity. Again, we “rounded up” these estimates to cover the Scope 3 emissions generated by our hosting. 
  • This allows us to claim that website hosting with Mightybytes is actually carbon negative. In other words, it is regenerative. It removes carbon from the environment.

For us, this is a big deal. It represents a positive result from a long and sometimes painful journey to offer our clients truly green, emissions-free website hosting. 

Purchased Offsets and RECs

With all of the above in mind, the offsets and RECs we purchased gave us the equivalent of:

  • Growing 3,325 trees per year for 10 years, or…
  • Taking 27 cars off the road for one year, or…
  • Not using 302 barrels of oil…

We worked as we have in previous years with our friends at fellow B Corp 3Degrees to support projects that are local to the Midwest, in this case the UPM Blandin Native American Hardwoods Conservation Project.

graphics showing next steps to achieving Net Zero and how to make a commitment
Emissions are invisible. The people they impact are not. Put people and equity at the heart of your strategy.

Moving Forward: Net Zero Obstacles

Mightybytes is lucky. Our small team and digital-native business model means that reducing and offsetting emissions isn’t as arduous as it might be for product-based companies with large supply chains. We don’t purchase a lot of goods and services. We don’t travel much for business. And in 2020, we barely commuted. This enables us to make progress on Net Zero commitments faster than most. However, as a small company, many factors are also outside our control and we don’t have the resources to positively impact them, which presents ongoing challenges.

Still, there are areas where we can improve our efforts: 

  • We can learn more about setting and maintaining science-based targets, the global standard for which will be finalized in October 2021.
  • We will start better quantifying our Sustainable Web Design efforts.
  • We can further explore our Scope 3 emissions to identify areas on which to focus.

Compounding this, Net Zero is an always moving target. It’s not a “set it and forget it” endeavor but rather a dynamic process that requires ongoing diligence. In their Net Zero Initiative project, Carbone 4 notes that a company cannot claim carbon neutrality but rather can only contribute to it. The objectives are collective, not individual.

Similarly, according to the Science-Based Targets initiative (SBTi):

The use of offsets is not counted as reductions toward the progress of companies’ science-based targets. The SBTi requires that companies set targets based on emission reductions through direct action within their own boundaries or their value chains. Offsets are only considered to be an option for companies wanting to contribute to finance additional emission reductions beyond their science-based target/net-zero.

For more information, Carbon Trust has a great post on why defining Net Zero is so complicated.

Opportunities to Innovate

Some pundits predict that climate change will bring about the next entrepreneurial revolution. Climate tech investment has already increased at five times the venture capital market rate over the last seven years.

The greatest opportunities will no longer be found in the overbuilt sector of consumer and business internet applications. Instead, they’ll be found in climate tech…With the innovation that is needed to transform entire businesses and economies to net zero emissions, there will be more billionaires created over the next two decades than during the internet boom.

Tim O’Reilly, Wired

I want to be guardedly optimistic about this. While entrepreneurial innovation is great, it has to be grounded in clear climate priorities and not succumb to greed and other adverse consequences of traditional capitalistic growth models. Climate change is the existential crisis of our times. We need to treat it as such.

To this end, we’re looking to redesign our web sustainability tool Ecograder so it can benchmark and improve performance and efficiency while also helping people better understand emissions that come from digital products and services. This could make Ecograder a key tool in helping organizations work toward Net Zero commitments.

So, is Mightybytes Net Zero?

Based on the math we did and my current understanding of Net Zero commitments, Mightybytes is heading in the right direction. We have a baseline and a clear path to improve our efforts. Net Zero is an always moving target that requires ongoing vigilance in the face of changing circumstances. We’ll need to revisit our commitment regularly and learn what needs to change, then execute those changes over time.

For these reasons plus the potential damage that relying on offsets could bring to the company’s reputation, I’m hesitant to shout from the highest rooftop that we’re a Net Zero company. However, I’m still proud of our progress and look forward to continuing this work. We must reach a zero emissions economy as soon as possible! 

NOTE: Special thanks to JD Capuano, esteemed Mightybytes advisory committee member, and his students at Bard College for helping us make significant progress on our Net Zero commitment. 

Tim Frick founded Mightybytes in 1998 to help mission-driven organizations solve problems, amplify their impact, and meet business and marketing goals. He is the author of four books, including Designing for Sustainability: A Guide to Building Greener Digital Products and Services from O'Reilly Media. Follow Tim on Twitter or connect with him on LinkedIn.