If you work for a creative business, what’s the biggest impact you have on the environment? Is it the energy and materials that you use to run your studio space? Or perhaps travelling to see clients, or your team commuting to work? Or is it the digital processing required to produce the work itself, or storing the ever-increasing archive of source materials and assets in the cloud?
At the start of the year we asked ourselves this question and had no honest idea of the answer. None of us want to be part of the unchecked system that continues to contribute to the climate crisis, but the standards by which carbon emissions are measured, reported and compared can make it hard to get your head around.
“Companies need better tools to help tackle their emissions,” says George Wade of Zevero, a fast growing startup which is developing a software platform to help companies measure, report and reduce their carbon impact. “Once companies understand where all their carbon emissions are coming from they can focus their time and effort on decarbonising the parts of their business with the biggest impact,” says Wade.
At Stink Studios, we’re working with Zevero to measure and report all of our annual GHG emissions from our operations in London (based on pre-pandemic data). The report, which is published online, has given us lots of valuable insight. What became clear was that, while we only produce a small fraction of the emissions of some other companies from industries that create physical products, there’s lots of areas we can improve and reduce our ongoing impact on the environment.
So what have we learned so far? By far the biggest area of impact was business travel, accounting for more than 80% of our emissions. One of the few good things to come from the COVID pandemic has been ease with which most companies have universally been able to switch to remote meetings. Like most creative businesses we benefit from the in-person work environment when working locally, but we’re now committed to reducing overseas business travel by more than half by the end of 2022, based on raised confidence in remote working and how our clients have adapted during the last 18 months. We’ve now published a straightforward policy that will help ensure all non-essential business travel is avoided.
Technology is also having an increasing impact on the environment. As an industry we rarely think about the infrastructure that’s powering all of the digital tools and services that now underpin almost every creative business, and the storage that’s needed to house files that have grown exponentially in resolution and formats. While the carbon impact of Data Processing in our audit was a magnitude smaller than business travel, it still highlighted more than a tonne of CO2 attributable to our internal storage and the rendering process used for our automation platform, RITA. We’re now developing an online calculator to help our clients understand the impact of the rendering process, while optimising the location of servers used for rendering to reduce the impact as much as possible.
Resources like the Thanks In Advance website give useful advice on the sort of changes you can make in this area. These smaller actions can perhaps feel like tidying up a landslide with a dustpan, but the sum of everyone being more aware and taking action can still help to improve things.
We’ve also worked with our landlord in London to better understand the percentage of our facilities that meet green building standards, how much of our energy comes from renewable providers, and the supply chain for our company waste disposal — working together to find improvements in areas that were found to be lacking.
The problem with carbon neutral
The adoption of carbon neutral as marketing language has unfortunately become a distraction from the more urgent need to reduce the source of emissions. Wiley businesses talk about planting trees as a PR friendly way to trumpet their green commitment. It’s surprisingly cheap to plant trees, which is both good and bad, for obvious reasons.
If your carbon policy only amounts to planting trees, then you’re definitely falling short. By committing only to neatly packaged commercial reforestation, companies are side-stepping the bigger issue of actually reducing emissions (and the need to remove carbon already in the atmosphere). Planting trees in order to position a company or project as carbon neutral for PR and advertising purposes is a bit like a celebrity parking a car where they please and happily paying the fine in exchange for the convenience.
It’s also worth demystifying carbon offsets at the outset, because the term ‘offset’ has a specific meaning. For something to be considered an offset the ‘climate positive’ process has to have happened already, i.e. the CO2 has already been sequestered and stored, or else avoided.
Don’t get me wrong. We should definitely be planting more trees, but it’s not the magical solution that a lot of companies would have you believe.
So, only once you’ve taken all available steps to reduce emissions should you consider making investments equal to (or greater than) your emissions. There are a number of different ways to do this, and a growing number of resources available to help ensure that your carbon strategy has integrity and will make a meaningful difference. At Stink Studios we’re trialling a balanced portfolio of investments, greater than our emissions, in the following:
1. UK nature-based solutions (equal to 100% of our 2020 emissions)
We have invested in the Gameshope peatland restoration project (which includes the appropriately named Rotten Bottom site) with the help of Forest Carbon using the Voluntary Carbon Market. Our support of a peatland restoration project aims to reduce the GHG emissions from degraded sites, and increase the ability for the site to store water, support wildlife and biodiversity, and mitigate flooding downstream.
2. International projects (equal to 100% of our 2020 emissions)
We are a global company and as such want to make sure we’re recognising the impact our emissions have on communities around the world. We are making an annual investment in a portfolio of international projects through Gold Standard that are verified as preventing carbon emissions from entering the atmosphere.
3. Direct Air Capture (equal to 10% of 2020 emissions)
As a technology-led company we’re keen to explore the most innovative solutions to combating climate change. We have signed up with Climeworks whose Direct Air Capture (DAC) technology removes CO2 from the air. While DAC is currently one of the more expensive ways to balance your unavoidable carbon emissions, it is seen as being one of the most effective as it is permanent and easy to trace.
Following the landmark report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and as the world’s attention turns to Glasgow and the COP26 conference, it’s becoming clearer that we’ve got a mountain to climb. The science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson, who is a keynote speaker at the conference, has called on private businesses to invest in “survival-oriented projects”, which feels appropriately alarming against the current backdrop. But there are reasons to be optimistic too. As a creative industry we can work together and share what we learn. We have the potential to influence our clients and collaborate to make sure we’re all part of the solution. We know that change is needed. Now we just need to work out how we pull together and get on with delivering it.
5 steps you can take
- Measure and track your emissions and set a plan to reduce them. A platform like Zevero will help you create benchmarks and set goals to reduce emissions year on year.
- Take a considered route to achieving net-zero. Only once you’ve taken all available steps to reduce emissions should you consider making investments equal to (or greater than) your emissions. There may be emissions that are unavoidable to your business, but being aware of them will help you better manage and understand the impact.
- Start thinking now about an internal £/ton price for carbon that you can commit to for next year and beyond. It’s a complex issue, but it’s important to start somewhere. The cost commitment should be an incentive to reduce emissions at source and become a factor in every ongoing business decision.
- Don’t talk about your company or project being carbon neutral unless you’re willing to disclose the detailed methods used for offsetting or £/ton price paid.
- Be transparent and share the things you learn along the way.
James Britton is Group Managing Director at Stink Studios.
Illustration by Avalon Nuovo