Carbon Calculators Measure Path to Sustainability

When consumers become aware of their environmental impact, most want to reduce their footprint and actionable data provides proof.

By Joey Held

By Joey Held March 2, 2023

Over the last 20 years, businesses have become more environmentally aware. Likewise, environmentalists have become more business aware. The global sustainability movement shows they share a similar mantra: You can’t manage what you don’t measure.

As “corporate social responsibility” (CSR), “environmental, social and governance” (ESG) and “eco-friendly” become terms tied to business missions and activities, consumers must sift through messages to understand what these efforts mean to their lives. To build trust and avoid perceptions of greenwashing, a growing number of organizations objectively measure and report on their environmental impact.

Editor's note: Learn about the Nutanix Carbon and Power Estimator for IT systems in this blog post.

Some argue that a general lack of standardization across industries is creating a cloudy view of corporate sustainability. The clouds are beginning to part as more companies turn to a new generation of data-based carbon footprint calculators. By showing tangible evidence of positive and negative environmental impact, they’re making it easier than ever for companies to measure, monitor and report their sustainability efforts. And thus set goals that contribute to a more sustainable future.

From Carbon Calculators to Carbon Labels

Consumers will support sustainability if they recognize it, suggests consulting firm Simon-Kucher & Partners. According to its Global Sustainability Study 2022, nearly three-quarters of consumers (71%) have made modest to significant changes to their consumption behaviors to live more sustainably, and one-third (32%) say they’d pay more for sustainable products or services.


Attention Turns to IT Sustainability and ESG

But products’ environmental impacts aren’t always clear. Opting for compostable packaging or energy-efficient light bulbs is one thing. Deciding what kind of nuts to bake with based on how they’re farmed is another.

“We need to reach the point where an average person can walk up to two different foods in any supermarket, see that one food has half the impact of the other based on scientifically valid measures of real environmental effects, and use that as a factor in their purchasing decision,” said Mike Tice, founder and CEO of PINESTAND, a startup that wants to bring sustainability to shopping carts. 

PINESTAND’s app allows people to search for foods by name or barcode, see the environmental impact of each item then compare those to other products.

But food is only the beginning. Whole industries are shifting attention to measuring sustainability efforts. The IT industry, for example, uses data centers and data transmission networks that underpin the world’s digital operations. These accounted for almost 1% of energy-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which is 0.6% of total GHG emissions, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). The rapid growth in workloads handled by large data centers has resulted in rising energy use in this segment over the past several years, increasing by 10-30% per year. 

The IEA warned that significant additional government and industry efforts on energy efficiency, RD&D, and decarbonizing electricity supply and supply chains are necessary to rapidly curb energy demand and reduce emissions over the coming decade. Without measuring emissions, setting goals and reporting progress, the industry won’t meet their Net Zero by 2050 Scenario.

When consumers understand the carbon footprint of cars, clothing, office supplies, home goods and other purchases, that information can lead to decisions and behaviors that reduce their environmental impact.

Enter Doconomy, a Swedish tech startup that’s focused on confronting climate change. In 2020, it launched a free 2030 Calculator, which quickly became one of the most popular and intriguing carbon footprint calculators on the market.

“The 2030 Calculator generates an accurate product carbon footprint in minutes at no additional cost per calculation,” states the calculator’s website. “It works in multiple product categories and enables a whole new transparency. The brand can communicate the impact of the products and build consumer trust and loyalty by enabling consumers to make more sustainable choices.”


IT Sustainability Becomes Business Imperative

What Doconomy provides for individual products, climate tech companies like Sweep, Persefoni, Watershed and Greenly aim to provide for entire enterprises. Designed for small and medium-sized businesses, the latter offers an automated software platform that helps companies measure, reduce and offset their carbon footprint based on international carbon accounting standards.

“We want to build the Quickbooks of the carbon footprint,” Greenly co-founder and CEO Alexis Normand told TechCrunch.

From PINESTAND to Doconomy to Greenly, the genius of carbon calculators is that they create simplicity for consumers and businesses by letting data do the heavy lifting. Eventually, that simplicity could pave the way for “carbon labels” on products. Imagine comparing two pairs of sneakers, for example, and being able to determine at a glance which one is more sustainable based on how and where it was made, packaged and shipped.

“It’s really difficult right now to compare, say, Nike sneakers to Adidas,” Doconomy Head of Platform Strategy Shawn McKell told TIME magazine in November 2022. “But if they both calculate their carbon footprints in the same way, you can give products a carbon label so consumers can make decisions based on impact.”

How Data Fills Gaps

Just like consumers, companies also want to be able to make more sustainable purchasing decisions. Among them: Walmart, which created Project Gigaton in 2017 to “engage suppliers in climate action” and reduce or avoid 1 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases by 2030. Because most emissions occur in product supply chains, Project Gigaton looks at the environmental impact of its suppliers across six key areas: energy use, waste, packaging, transportation, nature, and product use and design.

To avoid greenwashing within its supply chain, Walmart encourages suppliers to set specific, measurable goals that will help them improve their performance in one or more areas. Suppliers just getting started are encouraged to start with one of the six key areas, while more mature suppliers can tackle multiple areas at once. In either case, goals are shaped by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), which works with companies to set science-based targets for reducing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and to define specific, actionable steps for achieving them.


Building Scalable, Sustainable Data Centers

For example, Adobe has committed to “reduce absolute Scope 1 and 2 GHG emissions by 35% ... and reduce absolute scope 3 GHG emissions from business travel by 30% from 2018 to 2025.” Associated with its goals are clear action items, like utilizing alternative energy sources when possible and meeting virtually instead of in person.

As with carbon calculators, the aim is to quantify targets and performance based on objective measures instead of biased half-truths.

In many cases, what makes objective measurement possible is mixing internal with external data. Along with information furnished by producers, for example, PINESTAND makes impact calculations based on public data sources, as well as the latest academic research on food and climate change. In particular, its methodology revolves around data about five critical Earth systems: climate, nutrients, water, land and photosynthesis.

“Tackling climate change is about more than reducing the amount of greenhouse gases that we pump into the air,” Tice said.

“We have to do that, but we also have to deal with the effects of climate change that are already happening and … make ourselves more resilient.

“For instance, climate change is already making the western United States drier and more prone to drought, so we need to think about how food production can affect water scarcity, too.”

Doconomy’s calculations also have numerous inputs. For any given product — be it a computer, a couch or a baseball cap — it calculates environmental impact based on emissions data for product parts, material, packaging, transportation and manufacturing.

By ingesting diverse data types from diverse data sources, the best carbon footprint calculators create outputs that are holistic, realistic and reliable. As a result, consumers and companies can more accurately track their carbon footprint and reduce their reliance on “green” language that’s promotional instead of productive.

Sustainability: Simplified

It could take years for carbon calculators to spawn widespread carbon labeling. But environmental data can still have immediate positive impacts in the meantime.

Case in point: Replate, a nonprofit that connects organizations with surplus food to communities facing food insecurity. A large enterprise like Snapchat, Stripe or Indeed may have regular lunches for employees. Rather than throwing leftover food away, they can use Replate to donate it.

“We want to make it as easy to donate as it is to throw away,” explained Courtney Garcia, head of communications at Replate, who said the company’s mission helps the environment as much as it helps people. 

“When food gets wasted, it goes in a landfill, rots, and turns into methane, which is a big contributor to climate change.”


Green Data Centers: Designing an Eco-Smart Future

Businesses that donate food through Replate can see how many pounds of food they’ve donated, how many meals that food can produce, how much carbon emission their donations have prevented, and how many gallons of water their donations have saved. Companies can also learn their most donated items and what days are most wasteful. For example, if a business routinely donates 100 pounds of chicken every Wednesday, it can curb its meal prep to be more environmentally friendly.

Clearly, the green economy has only scratched the surface when it comes to environmental intelligence. As carbon calculators gather more inputs from more companies and industries, however, even more platforms will surface to leverage carbon data and drive sustainable outcomes among companies and consumers.

“The only way to make [decarbonization] tangible to consumers is to have a common understanding of what the key impact factors are, use standardized metrics for measuring and communicating these factors, and to communicate them in a way that they become relevant to consumer’s lives,” Doconomy’s McKell said during a panel discussion at the 2021 4YFN conference. 

“Adoption is less about precision than about simplification.”

Editor’s note: Learn about Nutanix’s sustainability efforts in the 2021 Nutanix Environment, Social and Governance Report.

Joey Held is a writer and podcaster based in Austin, TX, and the author of Kind, But Kind of Weird: Short Stories on Life’s Relationships. Connect with him on Twitter or LinkedIn.

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