Are You Clever About Carbon? — Michelle Li

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Michelle Li founded Clever Carbon thinking hashtag: #clevercarbondecisions. She set out to teach the world about their carbon footprint in a way that feels like an interactive, grown-up version of Bill Nye the Science Guy (the early 90s children’s TV show). She wanted people to relate to what they were learning and have fun making clever carbon decisions.

Carbon footprint learning can be intimidating and frustrating as it seems like everything you do creates a huge carbon footprint. Michelle wanted people to see how easily they could learn about their carbon footprint with her modern approach, and in doing so, hopefully reduce it. People go to the grocery store and make decisions based on nutritional content, branding or pricing, so, why can’t they also make simple decisions when it comes to their carbon footprint? Brands like Oatly (dairy alternatives made from oats) and Allbirds (sustainable shoes and clothing) include their products’ carbon footprint data on their packaging and websites.

Everyone has a carbon footprint, not just big organizations and governments. Everything from the apple you cut up for lunch, your Peloton ride or a warm, relaxing bath produces carbon emissions, or greenhouse gases. This is neither good nor bad, it’s just a fact of life. Carbon dioxide is emitted when fossil fuels like coal or natural gas are burned. It traps heat on our planet, like a greenhouse traps heat, and causes the global temperature to rise, among other side effects. “Carbon footprint” measures the amount of carbon dioxide released when fossil fuels are burned. In all, the lower the carbon footprint, the kinder something is to the planet.

Michelle believes that when companies learn about their carbon footprint, they will see how their carbon footprint data is useful and relatable to consumers. If consumers become carbon curious, then more brands and companies will publish their carbon footprint data because they’ll see how important it is to their customers. This will lead to increased transparency and accountability by both parties.

Michelle began her career in Silicon Valley where she worked for big tech names like Jawbone, Salesforce and DocuSign. She is a TEDx and Dreamforce speaker and has done a TEDx Talk on carbon footprint literacy. Before working in tech, Michelle obtained a Master of Science in Cancer Genetics Research from the University of Toronto. She can capture audiences and break down the complexity of carbon footprint data into digestible information so everyone can learn and follow along.

Michelle states that season three of the Serial podcast where was the original inspiration that first alerted her to climate change. It inspired Michelle to look at the extraordinary stories of our ordinary world. “This guy in Alabama (John B. McLemore), he was obsessed with [climate change]. Hearing his story inspired me.” The season took place in the courtrooms of Cleveland, Ohio, and covered the entire criminal justice system while looking at ordinary cases. The podcast found the troubling mechanics behind the criminal justice system and followed the cases in and outside the building, into neighborhoods, people’s homes and even prison. Everyone saw how justice was calculated in cases of all sizes and heard the extraordinary stories of ordinary cases in one courthouse.

Prior to moving to London in 2019, Michelle dutifully carried around a reusable bag, water bottle and made sure she recycled. She says, “When I moved to London, that’s where a lot of things really clicked for me because in Europe, they are far more aware of climate, much more serious about climate action in many ways. For example, where I lived, I could walk to just a regular convenience store and bring a bottle to refill my shampoo, or refill my dishwashing detergent, or laundry detergent. Having lived in San Francisco prior to that, I thought we were really forward when it came to sustainability, but I had never seen a dispensary or refill station like at that convenience store.”

Michelle believes a carbon literate society and one where people understand carbon footprint data is a society where transparency and accountability will flourish. Michelle even works remotely in order to reduce her footprint. Though, if she were to have a physical space, she would make sure that it was carbon conscious by controlling certain aspects of the physical environment, which is a way that companies can control their footprint. “The number one impact is energy. Whether it’s from temperature control, lighting, or running hardware/appliances,” Michelle explained. “One of the most helpful things you can do is track your monthly energy consumption at the office and see how it changes over the months. Then inquire about local renewable energy suppliers and how you can go about switching! Small things like composting are also very impactful.”

Michelle created a Clever Actions list on her website that helps engage employees, build culture within the company and of course, help people be kind to the planet. The list includes over 70 actions that an organization can take to engage their employees and team members. One of these actions includes downloading Clever Carbon’s Coffee Menu to view the carbon footprint of a coffee, cappuccino, latte, lid, cup and sleeve — instead of the dollar amount of those items. Clever Carbon’s website allows anyone to download the menu, print and frame it for all to see. There’s even a Clever Carbon playlist on Spotify that is dedicated to carbon dioxide. The playlist is office-friendly and can be played before company meetings, at office parties, or wherever some pick-me-ups are needed!

It is simple actions like these that Michelle wants companies to start incorporating into their daily routines to help team members become carbon conscious. Clever Carbon even created a labelling guide to help businesses understand the process, costs and benefits of carbon labelling. Michelle believes that the easier and more transparent the process is, then the more companies and brands will begin to carbon label and help consumers become carbon conscious and make smarter decisions.

While Clever Carbon is a for-profit business, the carbon footprint labelling guide doesn’t give Clever Carbon any financial incentives. Michelle’s company created the guide to help accelerate the carbon labelling movement and create a sustainable and transparent society. Carbon labels are similar to nutrition labels in the sense that they help the consumer understand the impact of the item they are purchasing or consuming. A label contains the carbon footprint of the product which is a number such as 0.48 kg CO2. This number helps consumers understand the impact of that product on the environment. The carbon footprint is calculated by a consultant that is familiar with product carbon footprint quantification standards. An example the website gives is the carbon footprint of a t-shirt. Clever Carbon found that a t-shirt’s carbon footprint is 3.3 kg CO2. The number, 3.3 kg CO2, is referred to as cradle-to-grave because it incorporates emissions for product use and disposal or end-of-life. Some labels are cradle-to-gate which only includes the emissions of a product up until it is sold, so the emissions from product use and disposal are not counted (these tend to be items that are easy to compost or recycle). Clever Carbon recommends companies use labels that contain cradle-to-grave figures.

A carbon label includes the materials of the product (including packaging), emissions released in the factory to manufacture the goods for exit, transportation emissions from shipping the product, then finally, product usage and product disposal. Carbon labels help the consumer quantify their environmental impact of their purchase. Clever Carbon works with brands to start carbon labeling, to in turn help consumers rethink sustainability and their individual impact on global emissions. It also helps brands (businesses that have a greater net effect on the environment than individuals) to become more transparent and accountable. Michelle and her company, Clever Carbon, also tell brands that carbon labelling can help create marketing buzz and get eyes on your company. They believe that the future holds mandatory carbon labelling so they tell companies that the earlier they start, the more prepared they will be. Michelle currently dedicates all of her time to Clever Carbon, giving herself half Fridays off and, with so much remote work, makes sure she hits a gym at least once a week. Michelle believes that everyone can work in climate change and work to make a difference. “You don’t need a special degree, you don’t need to switch jobs,” she wrote. “There are so many things you can do to help with climate.”

Conversations with Slow + Sustain Magazine. Written by Samantha Stanich.

Cover Art by Sarah Emory. Brand Design by Meghan Hricak.