Being Neutral

Why my micro-sized design business strives for carbon neutrality, and how attainable the process turned out to be.

May 4, 2020 / 6 min read

The studio is carbon neutral.

A few days ago on Earth Day, I announced that Maggie Putnam Studio is Climate Neutral Certified. I've measured and offset my 2019 carbon footprint, and am working on a plan to keep reducing my footprint going forward.

Climate Neutral is a non-profit organization working to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon world. They believe, and I agree, that all brands should measure their footprint, reduce what they can, and offset the rest.

Editors Note: This is a very positive review of my experience working with Climate Neutral. Please note that they did not prompt me in any way. I want to make my process available to other small studios in hopes that they might find this information useful. If you’re interested in knowing what my footprint turned out to be, and what that cost me in dollars and time spent, this is for you. Hopefully, my digging into this pays it forward to another agency looking for answers to their curiosity. 

Rewind one year

In the spring of 2019, I’d already decided to shift my studio practices closer in line with my values. Our environment and combating climate change were my deepest concerns—but I wasn’t sure how I was going to put this into action.

In March, I attended a presentation by Peter Dering, the founder and CEO of Peak Design, at an annual summit for 1% for the Planet. Peter was speaking on a panel about a new non-profit he was starting, called Climate Neutral. He was planning to create a certification so that buyers could see which products were carbon neutral on all three tiers, and at a stable high level of standards. 

Peter reminded us why it’s so important to reduce as well as offset. He put some numbers forward that helped me realize that the actual cost of offsetting compared to other office expenses was surprisingly low. He mentioned developing a tool that would allow small businesses to calculate their footprint without a consultant. All of this piqued my interest—especially the ability to calculate a footprint without a considerable overhead.

Several weeks later, I still couldn’t stop thinking about impact and action, but I was spinning with questions. I wrote this post on Instagram on Earth Day 2019: 

I’ve been thinking, and it’s time to share. How can a small, one-person service business be more environmentally responsible? What does it look like to be carbon neutral for someone who rents studio space in a converted warehouse? Is it possible to only partner with printers, paper companies, and contractors who are doing their part? What else can I do, as a designer, to help brands understand the power of design thinking to save resources throughout a company’s processes? What does design and typography have to do with environmentalism?

Welcome to my brain for the past year. These are some big questions here for a little studio, and one of my goals is to understand the answers better. I ask you to give our earth some time today in the form of thought, respect, or participation. Even if you’re on the job and not on a mountainside.

Why I joined

Firstly, I joined out of curiosity. How big is my footprint? What kinds of impact does each angle of my business have, from building to office supplies, to website hosting? 

Second, I joined with a sense of urgency to change our business systems to be more in line with goals to combat climate change. We’re at a point where we need to act. We need a sweeping change worldwide, from our leaders in particular, but also change on the ground on every scale.

Lastly, I joined on the principle that small acts can make a difference. I believe this kind of bottom-up evolution in how we do business, starting with small companies that are most nimble, can powerfully fuel important innovation for making new systems more widespread. If a tiny shop stokes that fire even a little, I want to help make that happen. 

The full cost

What did it cost?
Offsetting my 2019 carbon footprint cost my business $50. Reread that: $50 a year—knowing this is over-estimating. Many freelancers in my circle working for themselves probably spend about that on coffee in a week.

How was the process?
The process was truly effortless and attainable. Communication was clear and straightforward. There were clearly defined stages: providing information to measure my footprint, listing reductions, and eventually signing formal contracts validating my business details. It kept me moving forward to have this kind of clearly defined schedule and accountability to the Climate Neutral staff.

What kinds of info did I need?
Because my studio is so small, Climate Neutral asked questions about my business and then over-estimated based on industry averages according to annual revenue. All I needed to know was simple info required to run a company, like income and expenses, and the cost of goods sold (zero for me). I was ready and armed with the energy bills from the entire garage space I work out of, and I never actually needed this information. 

How long did it take?
Engaging in September 2019 (September 20 of the Climate Strike, to be specific), I signed on to measure, cut emissions, buy offsets, and label and communicate by the spring of 2020. 

Because I track all my work hours, I know that it was under 40 hours from the first contact to finishing this post (I’m rounding up). This time includes research about Climate Neutral, signing up, following through the process, paying for credits, back and forth emails, and everything involved in the Earth Day launch, including this piece of writing. 50% of this time was related to the Earth Day launch. It’s clear that as a small business, Climate Neutral took an enormous load off my work in calculating my footprint as well, saving me a lot of time! 

The offsets

Ten tonnes of CO2e
My footprint for 2019 was ten tonnes CO2e. tCO2e stands for tonnes (t) of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent (e). One tonne of carbon is equivalent to a metric tonne, or 2,200 pounds. For comparison, Climate Neutral states in their Kickstarter campaign that the average American's personal footprint for a year is 24 tonnes. 

Is my impact negligible?
One of my worries when starting was that any assessment tool would show my footprint to be negligible, and thus not worth it to do the work in calculating and offsetting. I was relieved to find that this is not the case at all. There were over 100 other companies achieving certification, so there was economy of scale working for us. What Climate Neutral learned about one company could be applied to other companies. This new framework allowed it to be significantly more possible for small businesses to join in and make a difference.

What’s more, the simple act of deciding to be carbon neutral and following through creates one ripple in a sea of waves happening globally. Change is not a trickle-down process but rather depends on the actions of individuals, and by extension, individual businesses, small as well as large. By taking personal responsibility and sharing my story with my community, our small studio and many others are creating a cascade of ripples. 

Pooled procurement
Due to my tiny scale, Climate Neutral procured credits on my behalf through a Pooled Procurement vehicle. They purchased credits in bulk that meet their criteria. The credits for my studio came from forests and landfills. 

The simplicity of this system ensured that we'd all be likely over-estimating. Still, I don't mind that because I'd rather have the peace of mind that my business has at least covered its impact, and the process was simple enough that I could afford to do it in the first place. 

2020 reduction goals
As a critical part of the process of certification with Climate Neutral, each company named goals for reducing our footprint this year.

I set these three goals: 

1. Move website hosting to a 100% offset hosting company*
2. Organize the process of going paperless for all business prints
3. Travel to and from work without a car (foot, bike, etc.) 50% of the time or more.

* Please email me if you know a good hosting company that is 100% offset already! So far Green Geeks is on my list. 

Was it worth it?

Without a doubt, yes. My commitment to carbon neutrality with Climate Neutral is a significant step in taking action in line with my core values for 2020. I look forward to each of the goals in my reduction plan. Working with Climate Neutral made my intention attainable. They put structure to the process and did a lot of prior research for all of their companies, thus saving me a lot of time, energy, and money.

I believe that taking responsibility for the energy required to operate my business is a core part of leading an accountable and trustworthy design studio in today’s world. As a micro-sized design studio, I hope our story with Climate Neutral can show similar businesses that carbon neutrality is achievable, and is a possible alternative to ambivalence, complacency, and inaction!