How every organisation can prioritise the planet

Be brave, raise awareness, and rethink the way you measure success

Whenever the question of what is the most important thing to do when it comes to the climate emergency (or any issue!), my answer is always educate yourself and lead by example to educate others. That is unashamedly stolen from the likes of Gandhi and it cannot be dismissed.

Once you’ve approached this subject with an open mind and continued to educate yourself, it’s time to start a conversation with people at your workplace. Just see what other people think, what the level of awareness is.

Don’t let them think you’re just telling them to use digital stuff less (there are more reasons than the environment to do that). I don’t want this to become focused on individual behaviour. This is something the recycling industry in particular has struggled with.

For example, Coca-Cola running ads last Christmas telling us to recycle our bottles is an easy way to distract from the point that polluting organisations don’t contribute enough to clearing up the waste they have created. Governments haven’t legislated well enough and recycling schemes are fraught with inconsistencies across regional areas.

For the scale of problem we’re facing, we all – as individuals and as members of different groups – have to genuinely pull in the same direction. However, some groups’ pulls are simply more powerful than others.

Is it better that one person consciously reduces their consumption of digital products, for example, or that one organisation cuts its page weight in half?

Practical steps

Starting the conversation around the climate emergency and digital in your organisation means introducing people to these ideas and why they are important. Hopefully, with the right approach, you’ll be able to get everyone on board.

In terms of educating a bigger part of the organisation you work for, there are a few easy things you could consider.

  • Could you put a few links for people to read in an internal newsletter or comms tool?
  • Could you organise a lunch and learn where someone could come and talk about the subject?
  • Could a simple initiative like changing your organisation’s default search engine be a catalyst for a conversation?
  • Or, taking things a step further, could you put together a network of environmental champions like Mozilla? This will help you to drive the cultural change that is necessary to incorporate sustainability into everything an organisation does.

CO2e budgets

Beyond starting the conversation, it is vital that we put CO2e emissions on a par with financial concerns. There are two complementary ways to do this.

The first is the fairly commonly known internal CO2e tax. This requires each team in the organisation to record the CO2e they create and charges them for every tonne. Microsoft recently upped their internal carbon tax to $12 per tonne. They want to remove 12 million tonnes at that price which will cost them $180m. (They had a gross profit of $24bn in the financial year ending in 2020.)

I’m not implying anything with these figures, I just think it’s fascinating to look at these numbers within a wider context. For more on this listen to this episode of The Energy Gang, from 10 mins and 41 seconds in.

For CO2e taxing to be successful the serious problems that CO2e causes have to be understood. Similarly, people’s agency – and duty – around preventing those problems has to be enforced. Otherwise it just gets seen as a get out of jail (at quite a low price) card, and behaviour doesn’t really change.

The second principle is putting CO2e budgets/targets on projects to sit alongside financial budgets and success KPIs.

For example, your new website build might have a financial budget of £100,000, a CO2e budget of 1 tonne, a target of 1,000 signups and a monthly emissions limit of 100kg.

For this to be successful the aforementioned respect for CO2e measures has to be present, but also so do the measurement, corrective, celebratory and punitive processes.

Put simply: if people can’t measure their emissions in a consistent way, or support isn’t given to avoid going over budget, or staying within budget isn’t celebrated, or going over budget isn’t punished, then CO2e budgets will fail.

Rethinking KPIs

We all need to consider the impact of the KPIs we set for our digital products; the unintended consequences as well as the intended ones. The consequence scanning exercise is a great way to identify them.

This discussion around KPIs might be tough for some people. Marketeers. Product owners. Data analysts. Directors.

Why? Because it requires a fundamental shift in the way they think. A significant change for those who have metrics like number of page views, time on site, bounce rate and number of pages visited ingrained in their minds.

To give a not particularly imaginative example, decreasing bounce rate, as well as increasing traffic, is often something that is aspired to. However, what if your organisation has a support phone line which people often search Google for? In that instance, someone coming onto the homepage, seeing the number in the top right corner of the page and bouncing off is a positive thing.

To take that a step further, given that a phone number can be coded up properly for Google (and other search engines) to recognise it, it would be better for a person who needs that number to get it in the search engine results page. It’s more convenient, and it has the added planetary bonus of less data needing to be powered around because they don’t need to visit the site. However, it also means a reduction in views for the homepage. If the statistics are viewed in isolation, the investment doesn’t look great…

That’s why it’s so important to look at a more holistic view. Are you receiving more phone calls? Are you receiving more phone calls about previously niche topics? Are you hearing from people you haven’t heard from before?

Admittedly there could be a plethora of reasons why the above things might happen, but we have to get better as teams, departments and organisations at focusing on a smaller number of measures that are genuinely indicative of the organisation’s vision.

And reducing impact on the planet, not just offsetting it, is a measure that every organisation needs to have. Once this and other key measures are in place people will work towards them in a collaborative way, rather than concentrating on individual goals that don’t consider the bigger picture. Or worse still, that damage it.

Be vulnerable

Vulnerability as a word is not usually a positive as far as digital goes. However, I am using it in the sense Brene Brown describes it. People won’t be loved unless they’re vulnerable. And that’s not to be misconstrued as weakness. It’s about people being open and honest, not claiming to know it all, being willing to share thoughts and opinions, wanting and needing support because you know that makes you stronger, acknowledging when you get stuff wrong and learning from that.

I think all of the above applies to organisations. Once an organisation knows reducing its impact on the planet is a key part of its vision it should say so. Don’t worry about spinning it, just tell the world why it’s important and what they’re doing about it. Then keep people posted on what went well and what didn’t.

If other organisations learn from this, or it inspires someone to apply for a job there, or a new partnership/customer comes about, or some much deserved respect is earned – then that’s a bonus.

“When it comes to sustainability, we don’t see ourselves competing with one another, but competing for the future. If we don’t bring about change quickly, there won’t be a future to speak of.” Tim Brown, Allbirds’ co-founder.

Being vulnerable in this way also means standing up for what you believe in because you know it’s the right thing to do. Yes you might get some flack for it, but having educated yourself and considered the unintended consequences, you know it’s right – and you can justify it.

Some of my favourite examples of this are: Stripe purchasing carbon capture, Wholegrain Digital going vegetarian, MMT declaring their pledge to become carbon negative and Futerra being transparent through clear facts and figures.

Badge your stuff

As mentioned in a previous part of this blog series, a common language about CO2e emissions, particularly from the digital industry, just doesn’t exist yet. However, we have to start somewhere. Badging your site in one way or another to display its carbon emissions is a start.

Make the planet part of your procurement process

Finally, we have started including sustainability as a criterion in the CMS selection projects we run for our clients. Stipulating your environmental aspirations during procurement processes is a crucial way of raising awareness of the issues our planet faces.

It will allow you to delve into the environmental credentials of organisations you want to partner with in the same way you expect to understand their financial credibility. To make sure there isn’t any greenwashing going on, ask them why the planet is important to them, what initiatives they have put in place and what aspirations they have. You’ll soon be able to decide whether this company will be a good partner for you and the planet.