Carbon is all over the news: about reduction, mitigation, and even cool technologies that directly capture it from the atmosphere. Businesses are increasingly wanting and needing to show their efforts to reduce their carbon footprints, others have pledged to become carbon neutral, while a select few have pledged to become carbon negative / positive.
Whether or not you are familiar these terms, you can probably tell these are a response to our worsening climate crisis, but what do these promises actually look like? Especially as a business owner, it can be a bit daunting to figure out! Let's investigate the factors you need to consider to reduce your carbon footprint.
As a small tea start-up researching and working towards carbon positivity, we have explored many angles on how to reduce our carbon footprint. Today we want to share some of them with you!
- Carbon neutral vs. carbon positive vs. carbon negative: what do these terms mean?
- Is it good to go digital? Is office or remote work more sustainable?
- How does the cloud contribute to our carbon footprint? The environmental impact of online storage and the idea of digital footprints
- The physical side of online business: what is the impact of shipping and storage?
- What do we do when mitigating isn’t enough? Let’s talk carbon offsetting!
This is the third installment of our Going Carbon Positive series, which covers all things carbon and our journey here at MatchaAlternatives to carbon neutrality and, eventually, carbon positivity.
To catch up on the series and learn the specific ways tea impacts carbon emissions check out:
- Part 1: Global Warming and Tea Primer for the basics of climate change and tea production
- Part 2: Making Your Tea Greener for in depth look at the impact of tea and its packaging on the environment
First, Some Carbon Jargon Busting
What is a carbon footprint?
Carbon footprint is a term that is often thrown around in regards to both personal and professional sustainability. Carbon footprint is a calculation popularized by BP Oil in 2004 to measure the impact of one's actions and daily practices on greenhouse gas emissions (1). While the measurement is often applied to the individual in hopes of reshaping one's personal actions, it can – and should – also be applied to businesses. For more about carbon footprints, check out the first blog in our carbon series.
Why’s that? Well, a study conducted by the Applied Energy journal found that roughly half of CO2 emissions were produced by small and medium sized businesses (2) and the (American) Natural Resources Defense Council found that roughly 71% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are produced by the 100 largest companies (3). It is a complex issue though, it is a bit harder to point the finger at Exxon as the producer of carbon (and firmly in the top 100 companies in the list), whilst standing in their gas station filling up!
This is where the goal of carbon neutrality comes into play. Carbon neutrality most basically is a net zero carbon footprint. This does not mean that the carbon neutral company in question does not produce carbon emissions but instead that they reduce their carbon output to an extent and then offset the remaining carbon emissions through practices that remove carbon from the atmosphere.
This results in a net zero carbon footprint but not in net zero emissions. So when, say, Apple says they are going carbon neutral, this is what they mean.
Carbon Positive vs Carbon Negative, what’s the difference?
But then suddenly in the news, we hear that Microsoft is going carbon negative and Ikea has pledged to become carbon positive - what is happening?!
Basically, these two terms, while used by different groups, are almost entirely synonymous and are often used interchangeably (4). What they mean is that instead of stopping once reaching carbon neutrality, businesses who are carbon positive or negative are taking steps to remove more carbon from the atmosphere than they produce. There is a net reduction of carbon in the atmosphere due to the company or a particular process existing.
Finally carbon zero is where something, such as a process or system, does not produce any CO2, and therefore it does not require offsetting or carbon capture. For example, a solar powered light has no CO2 produced in its runnning. Of course the production of the materials in the light, the solar panel, the brackets, wires, etc. did produce CO2 so it depends where one draws the line!
At MatchaAlternatives.com, it is our goal to reach beyond carbon neutrality. Through in-depth research we have worked hard to map out our emissions and mitigate our carbon output. We are well on our way to carbon neutrality and this year aim to become the first carbon positive tea shop in the world. We hope to pave the way for other small and/or digital businesses by sharing our research and process. In fact we may already be there with our carbon offsetting program but we must do more calcualations to be sure! (More on this carbon offsetting later)
Digital vs. Physical: A lot of factors to consider, which business model is more sustainable?
For many small businesses that don’t need their own storefront, office, factory or field, going fully digital is quite appealing. And at first glance, you would guess that digital businesses are greener than brick-and-mortar stores. Digital businesses require fewer obvious resources like office buildings and are therefore more efficient in unwanted carbon production, but there are other factors that make it less clear-cut.
Office Buildings vs Homes
Remote working is, in effect, working from home which comes with its own cost. You can see in the property-based pie charts below, that residential emissions have a different make-up than commercial, with heating and cooling becoming the leading emitter. This makes sense if you think about it - when ten people work from home, that’s ten homes needing to be heated, versus one office. Homes may also have less efficient water heaters, versus large boilers in an office.
Key Facts: Commuting, Furniture & More
On the other hand, running a digital business eliminates commuting, which cuts out a huge amount of emissions! The direct burning of fossil fuels to move tons and tons of cars (or busses or rail cars) from home to work. The question then becomes, does heating or cooling your home during the day emit more carbon than driving? Given that we don’t need to heat or cool our homes 12 months of the year, and a growing portion of electricity is from renewable resources, from our understanding working from home can be much greener than commuting. If, of course, your house has no insulation, and when you commute you use public transport, then the numbers can shift again.
Here in this pie-chart below we can see the other major sources of emissions, in addition to commercial and residential:
EPA, 2020 (5)
In the list below, we have outlined some key contributing factors and compared them based on online or in-person businesses, with some interesting figures and considerations:
There are a wide range of sustainable alternatives and solutions that can help mitigate your business’ carbon footprint, check out the links at the bottom of this article to learn more!
1. Carbon Emitter: Commuting
- Light-duty vehicles contribute 59% of transport emissions (includes passenger vehicles and buses) (5)
- Large cars (SUVs) produce up to 85% more CO2 emissions than smaller cars (6)
- Per person in cars, buses produce ~40% less emissions & trains produce ~60% less emissions (6)
- At home work eliminates commuting from the carbon footprint equation
- Emphasize public transport where possible by investing in company wide free public transport passes.
2. Carbon Emitter: Electricity
- Office spaces account for 11% of total energy output in the EU and electricity accounts for 11% or that output. (7)
- **The efficiency of this output varies based on the number of employees occupying an office
- Home electricity consumption accounts for 29% of total energy output, 11% of which is electricity. (7)
- **This statistic is likely to change once data from the pandemic is considered.
- You may find your local government offers tax subsidies for individuals and businesses who invest in renewable energy sources
- Energy saving items, like LEDs, can also be installed to increase efficiency
3. Carbon Emitter: Heating and Cooling
- Office spaces produce an average of 19.4 million tons of GHG emissions from heating and cooling (7)
- **The efficiency of this output varies based on the number of employees occupying an office
- Homes produce an average of 44.1 million tons of GHG emissions from heating and cooling (7). 10 employees in their own heated homes might produce more CO2 than a single office depending on use
- ** This statistic is likely to change once data from the pandemic is considered.
- Electric central air systems with solar power
- Geothermal heating
- Ensuring your workspace (home or office) is adequately insulated
4. Carbon Emitter: Furniture
- Often is "fast furniture”, low quality items which are shipped around the world before delivery.
- 17 million pounds of furniture ends up in landfills annually due to such poor construction (8)
- Sustainable pieces are often expensive which discourage at-home employees who may opt for "fast furniture" (8).
- However, remote working is less likely than an office to regularly replace all their office furniture.
- Both homes and offices can purchase used furniture which is a cost effective option or invest in sustainably produced furniture.
- Either way, all furniture should be recycled at end-of-life. (8)
5. Carbon Emitter: Technology
Tech such as computers are a major emissions factor both at home and in-office, and is discussed in the next section. Digital pollution and our digital carbon footprints are major factors to consider, and are something that isn't talked about very often (or for that matter, is even known about).
So you can see it’s not a clear-cut answer as to whether digital or physical working is greener!
What is missing above is the breakdown of which of these factors actually contribute the most to global annual emissions, as we try to find more detailed research we will come back to update.
It will be very interesting to see how the numbers change in 2020 and 2021, as the world has shifted towards remote working. In the EPA figure above, you can see travel makes up the biggest portion of relevant emissions in the US. Simply by cutting back on transport emissions, digital work has done a major favor to our atmosphere.
How much the residential part of the chart will expand (given our previous discussion) is now the million dollar question!
Cloud Storage: Out of memory, out of mind, into the atmosphere
There are other things that play a surprising role in the carbon footprint of a small business, online or otherwise. As MA is a fully digital start-up our research has been significantly based in bringing an online business to carbon positivity, so going forward in this blog, we will switch our focus mainly to online companies. There isn’t a lot of information out there to help digital businesses consider their carbon footprint, and we want to help our fellow businesses trying to understand their emissions!
The specific issue of a Digital Carbon Footprint was brought to MatchaAlternatives’ attention by one of our wonderful customers who was kind enough to complete a survey on our carbon mission. We, like many, had subtracted carbon emissions from our footprint due to our lack of centralized office space or store fronts, but she sparked our research into another huge carbon emitter: Cloud computing servers.
Many readers are probably familiar with the cloud, which allows users to backup and store digital information without requiring an external hard drive. It prevents the use of extra memory space in each individual device and for businesses, it allows for easy access to shared documents and information between employees (9).
But are the benefits that cut and dry? Let’s take a look at the pros and cons:
- Currently, the amount of electricity consumed by data storage servers is only about 7% of the global electricity consumption (but this has appeared only over a few decades, and the use of cloud storage is increasing rapidly) (9)
- In a 2013 report published by Google they found that moving the majority of commonly used software applications to cloud storage could decrease our global energy use by 87% due to economies of scale (10 businesses sharing a one HUGE hard drive in a server farm versus 10 businesses dozens of large hard drives across the organization’s computers - the first is clearly more efficient) (10)
- Cloud equipment and servers require constant cooling due to the heat they release. Cooling accounts for 40% of energy consumption in temperate regions and up to 80% in warmer climates (9).
- Emissions impact of mass e-waste and production. In 2018, a study found that 50 million tons of e-waste are generated annually, which is greatly impacted by the constant consumption of new technologies, due to the exponential rate at which old products become obsolete (9).
But wait! Don't start taking all your data out of the cloud, our research so far does suggest that, if a company must have a digital footprint, it is more efficient in the cloud. The crucial thing is to acknowledge it, mitigate it (do you really need ALL those cat memes?) and offset the rest.
Many innovative solutions have been proposed within the industry such as the Arctic Circle Data Center (ACDC) which is a Norwegian-US partnership to build cloud servers within the Arctic circle (11). This will drastically decrease cooling costs and plans to offset most of the energy consumed by electricity needs by implementing hydroelectric power. The server station is planned to be completed in 2021 (11).
What about shipping and storage?
2021 is the year for ecommerce. Digital businesses are often service based, but a large number such as MatchaAlternatives still package, ship and store products, which accounts for significant emissions worldwide.
It is important to note that small, online businesses often have little control over large structural changes to the supply chain (12). While storage and packaging may be within your jurisdiction, shipping and sourcing may not be.
Let’s begin with storage
Depending on the product, storage of goods can vary greatly in its energy consumption. Some products – specifically perishable goods – require specific conditions for storage before/during the distribution process.
Cold Storage: Common refrigeration coolants often are made of highly processed chemical components that require a large energy output, and leak pollutants into the air during use and even more so once they are thrown out (13).
Green storage: There are many storage facilities that market themselves as green alternatives. Some run entirely on solar power for heating, cooling and electric and use primarily recycled packaging when possible (15). A quick search might lead you to a green storage facility in your area.
In fact, green tech is the umbrella term for sustainable alternatives to common appliances (13). GreenFreeze is a project created by Greenpeace that installs more natural coolants to personal as well as industrial refrigeration and freezer units (14).
Now let’s move to shipping
While local sourcing is by far the most sustainable way for a small business to cut down on shipping emissions and maintain greater autonomy over the sourcing and manufacture of their goods, that is often not a possibility for smaller start-ups.
In our case, MA works to bring our international experiences to our customers and allow them to explore teas from around the world. This means that shipping emissions are a major consideration in our journey to carbon positivity (and so is one of the crucial items we must offset).
Three main means of transporting goods:
- Sea: Ships accounted for only 2% of US carbon emissions in the transport center in 2018 (5). However, the industry is growing in size which could greatly increase their GHG emissions. In response the International Maritime Organization (IMO) has pledged to reduce the industry’s emissions by at least 50% by 2050 (16). By 2030, the IMO hopes to introduce the deep-sea zero-emissions vessel which runs on safer, less pollutive biofuels (16).
- Air: Aircrafts accounted for 9% of US GHG emissions in the transport center in 2018 (5). Unlike ship transportation, there has been very little headway into the creation of greener, long-distance aircrafts, so the main way to reduce the carbon impact of air travel is through offsetting (17).
- Land (trucks and trains): Trucks and trains accounted for 25% of US GHG emissions in the transport center in 2018 (5). Delivery vehicles have the greatest impact on GHG emissions in product transportation, almost triple that of freight trains (18). Delivery vehicles produce the greatest amount of emissions in the last mile of delivery; to avoid this an MIT study cited the importance of in-store pickup or, when that is not an option, pickup from a localized delivery drop-off like a post office or storage locker (19). Companies like General Motors in the US or Volta Trucks in Sweden have begun to transition manufacturing of all their delivery vehicles to electric (18).
To learn more about our sustainable packaging, here is a link to our statement on Ethical Sourcing and Packaging, or for more information on the environmental impact of tea packaging beyond MA check out the second blog in our CO2 series, Making Your Tea Greener. And make sure to keep up with the series by subscribing to our mailing list as we will have later blogs go more in depth into the carbon impact of the entire supply chain!
Is mitigating our emissions enough? What is offsetting?
As we mentioned in the first section, becoming carbon neutral and positive is difficult or impossible to accomplish exclusively through mitigating your company’s emissions, it is often necessary to also invest in projects that remove carbon that is already in the atmosphere. This process is called offsetting.
Carbon offsets basically work as carbon credits; for every ton of carbon you produce, you can purchase a carbon offset that removes the same amount of carbon from the atmosphere, in effect canceling out your emissions. In reality, your company invests in campaigns and projects that remove carbon from the atmosphere (20).
One form of offsetting comes from direct air capture (DAC) which employs machines to suck the carbon from the air and store it in man-made wells deep in the ground. For more information on DACs check out this Wired article: Is It Time for an Emergency Rollout of Carbon-Eating Machines? - Wired
Other forms of carbon offsetting can range from planting trees to community outreach installing greener appliances in areas of need (20). We should note there is no one silver-bullet to offsetting or removing carbon from the atmosphere. Mitigation is essential to prevent it being added in the first place too.
Here at MA we currently offset via the tree planting campaign #TeamTrees in partnership wtih the Arbor Day Foundation in the USA. For each tea bundle sold on our site, one tree is planted saving 1 ton of CO2 over its lifetime. So far we’ve managed to offset 125 tons of CO2! Also for Black Friday for example, instead of promoting just more consumption, we instead promote more carbon offsetting. We like to think more sustainably, and give our customers the opportunity to make green choices.
Here are a few links to carbon offsetting campaigns if you want to get involved or learn more:
A Note From the Author
I’m Anna, this is my first blog with MA! I’m pursuing my degree in Environmental Studies and I’ve spent a lot of time learning about the scary negative effects of carbon in our atmosphere so I understand just how overwhelming it can be to try to find productive ways to make a difference. But looking into reducing your business’ carbon footprint is a great step in the right direction!
There is a lot of advice out there on how one reduces their own carbon footprint, but this blog is about making sure there remains a focus on the impact of business on the environment and our carbon production. I am lucky enough to live in a city, New York, that provides many opportunities for businesses to lessen their impact on the environment, though we – just like everyone else – have a long way to go. I know not everyone lives in an area that offers as much support, but I hope what I outlined here will help in your business’ own journey to carbon positivity!
Finally, Happy February!!! In honor of Valentine’s Day today, if reading about carbon offsetting wasn’t romantic enough for you, check out some of our rosey teas :-)
Mix rose and caramel, then add a hint of fruity cherry: love is in the air with this romantic rooibos. Sweet and smooth, tastes like dessert!
Deep savory rose, smooth and floral both on the nose and the palate. White Peony tea and organic rose petals brew up beautifully both hot and iced
Imagine traveling through the lavender fields of southern France, the sweet scent of lavender in the air - this rooibos will transport you there!
Rooibos vs. Honeybush: What's the Difference?
White Tea: An In-Depth Introduction to this Elegant Tea
Antioxidants in Rooibos, Honeybush & Chamomile: What Do They Actually Do?
Every purchase you make comes with a free download of extended songs from the Dance of Life album by Norwegian composer Peder B. Hellend.
Each thirty minute track is perfect for studying, meditation, or just ambient music for a relaxing afternoon.
A new song every month, so collect the entire album - for free!
All of the information regarding the herbs, botanicals, minerals, vitamins, etc., is information drawn from traditional use data or academic research and should be regarded as such. If you, the reader, has a health or medical concern, please consult your healthcare professional. The information found here is not meant to diagnose, treat, prescribe or cure and has not been evaluated by the FDA. This information is for educational purposes only.
For more information on some of the subjects above, check out the links below:
- National grants and subsidies for green infrastructure in the US
- New York solar power subsidies for businesses
- Sustainable office furniture
- Geothermal Energy Advantages & Disadvantages
References (by order of appearance)
- Barnett, A et al. 2013. “A history of product carbon footprinting.” Technologies for Sustainable Built Environments Centre Conference. nd, 2013. https://www.reading.ac.uk/web/files/tsbe/Barnett_TSBE_Conference_Paper_2013.pdf
- Meng, Bo. 2018. “More than half of China’s CO2 emissions are from micro, small and medium sized enterprises.” Applied Energy, 230 (2018): 712-725. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apenergy.2018.08.107
- Axelrod, Joshua. 2019. “Corporate Honesty and Climate Change: Time to Own Up and Act.” Natural Resource Defense Council. February 26, 2019. Accessed February 5, 2021. https://www.nrdc.org/experts/josh-axelrod/corporate-honesty-and-climate-change-time-own-and-act
- Jones, Craig. 2020. “Microsoft goes Carbon Negative as Unilever goes Carbon Positive.” Circular Ecology. January 24, 2020. Accessed February 4, 2021. https://circularecology.com/news/carbon-negative-or-carbon-positive
- EPA. 2020. “Green Vehicle Guide: Fast Facts on Transportation Greenhouse Gas Emissions.” EPA. June, 2020. Accessed February 5, 2021. https://www.epa.gov/greenvehicles/fast-facts-transportation-greenhouse-gas-emissions
- Timperley, Jocelyn. 2020. “ How our daily travel harms the planet.” BBC News. March 17, 2020. Accessed February 5, 2021. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200317-climate-change-cut-carbon-emissions-from-your-commute
- Airaksinen, Miimu & Pellervo Matilainen. 2011. “ The Carbon Footprint of an Office Building” Energies, 2011 (4): 1197-1210; doi:10.3390/en4081197
- Hayes, Greg. nd. “The Environmental Impact of Office Furniture.” The Branch News. nd. Accessed February 5, 2021. https://www.branchfurniture.com/blogs/turn-key/the-environmental-impact-of-office-furniture
- Beardmore, Adele. 2020. “Uncovering the Environmental Impact of Cloud Computing.” Earth.org. October 12, 2020. Accessed February 3, 2021. https://earth.org/environmental-impact-of-cloud-computing/
- Masanet, Eric et al. 2013. “The Energy Efficiency Potential of Cloud-Based Software: A U.S. Case Study.” Google. June, 2013. Accessed February 7, 2021. https://crd.lbl.gov/assets/pubs_presos/ACS/cloud_efficiency_study.pdf
- ACDC. nd. Main page. Arctic Circle Data Center. nd. Viewed February 7, 2021. https://arcticcircledc.com/
- Brandt, Luce. 2021. “The Carbon Footprint of Tea Cradle to Grave, Phase 1.” Matcha Alternatives. January 4th 2021.
- Greene, Eleanor. nd. “Climate Friendly Fridges That are Truly Cool.” Green America. nd. Accessed February 3, 2021. https://www.greenamerica.org/new-green-tech-promise-and-pitfalls/climate-friendly-fridges-are-truly-cool
- Morgan, Jennifer. 2018. “How Greenpeace changed an industry: 25 years of GreenFreeze to cool the planet.” Greenpeace. March 15, 2018. Accessed February 7, 2021. https://www.greenpeace.org/international/story/15323/how-greenpeace-changed-an-industry-25-years-of-greenfreeze-to-cool-the-planet/
- IStoreGreen. nd. “Our Green Approach.” IStoreGreen. nd. Accessed February 4, 2021. https://www.istoregreen.com/why-istore-green/green-self-storage/
- Whiting, Kate. 2019. “An expert explains how shipping industries can go carbon free.” World Economic Forum. September 22, 2019. Accessed February 5, 2021. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/09/an-expert-explains-how-the-shipping-industry-can-go-carbon-free/
- Berge, Chloe. 2021. “Can carbon capture make flying more sustainable?” NatGeo. February 5, 2021. Accessed February 6, 2021. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/2021/02/can-carbon-capture-make-flying-more-sustainable/
- Farmbrough, Heather. 2019. “Why Internet Shopping Isn’t Always Better for the Environment.” Forbes Magazine. October 14, 2019. Accessed February 4, 2021 https://www.forbes.com/sites/heatherfarmbrough/2019/10/14/why-internet-shopping-isnt-always-better-for-the-environment/?sh=369604b5c189
- Weideli, Dimitri. 2013. “Environmental Analysis of US Online Shopping.” MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics. nd, 2013. Accessed February 5, 2021. https://ctl.mit.edu/pub/thesis/environmental-analysis-us-online-shopping
- Gibbens, Sarah. 2019. “What are carbon offsets? Here’s why travellers are buying them.” NatGeo. December, 10 2019. Accessed February 7, 2021. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2019/12/what-are-carbon-offsets/