Corporate carbon footprints assume that we are not humans. I want to change that.

Written by Tom Greenwood - September 21, 2020

At Wholegrain, we’ve been trying to be a sustainable company since we started in 2007, and we are constantly pushing ourselves to take that further and redefine what sustainable really means.

When working out my own personal carbon emissions, it struck me that the line between corporate emissions and personal emissions is not as simple as it sounds. It’s easy to say that everything I do at work represents corporate emissions, but in a world where the boundaries between work and home are more blurred than ever, we have an opportunity to question this arbitrary divide.

In this post I will explain why I think that this artificial separation of work and home has let business off the hook for a lot of carbon emissions and how work in fact represents an opportunity for us all to make a positive impact together.

Plus, inspired by this idea, I am excited to introduce our new “green handshake” initiative for all Wholegrain Digital employees. Read on!

Humans vs companies

According to WWF’s carbon footprint calculator, the average UK citizen is responsible for greenhouse gas emissions of 10.5 tonnes per year. To put that in context, it is an amount of gas equal in weight to 127 average UK men or 150 women. We are each emitting well over 100 times our own body weight in greenhouse gases every year. This strikes me as rather a lot!

What stood out to me in particular though, is that our annual company emissions at Wholegrain Digital last year were 10.5 tonnes.

WWF’s carbon calculator is a great way to understand your personal impact

In other words, Wholegrain Digital as a business has the same carbon footprint as one British citizen. This is of course a coincidence, but its a coincidence that has been niggling me. If we all spend much of our waking time at work, then how can a company that employs 16 people have a carbon footprint equivalent to just one of those people? Surely it should be more.

Perhaps it’s low because we’ve worked so hard to be a low carbon company, meaning that the impact of an hour spent working at Wholegrain Digital is much lower than an average hour in the life of an average Brit. Or maybe we’ve massively underestimated our company emissions. Most likely, it is a combination of the two. Whatever the reason, it highlights something that we have seen before when calculating our emissions for commuting and home working – that the line between personal and company emissions is very very blurry.

The weird similarity between our annual company emissions and the emissions of an average UK citizen led me to wonder where home ends and work starts. In turn this led me to ponder a more philosophical question. 

What is a company? 

According to Investopedia, a company is a legal entity formed by a group of individuals to engage in and operate a business—commercial or industrial—enterprise.

That might be technically correct, but on some level I’m not satisfied with this definition. The idea that a company is an entity in its own right, like another human being, is a legal sleight of hand that passes responsibility from real humans to pieces of paper in filing cabinets at Companies House. As co-owner of a limited company, I personally benefit from this legal abstraction, but I’m nevertheless aware that it obscures a simpler truth. 

A company is just a group of people who work together to create something of value that they can trade.

This simpler definition brings us a little bit closer to the origin of the word company, from the Late Latin word companio that apparently means “one who eats bread with you”. Pre-corona, our colleagues at Wholegrain were indeed those who ate bread with us, not to mention falafel. A company is, in truth, just a group of people working together.

Looking at a company as a group of people instead of an abstract legal entity creates a radical shift of perspective. Our company carbon emissions are not limited to activities directly related to our commercial operations, but are the sum of our individual impacts. They are the total impact of us as a group. In other words, our company emissions are 17 times bigger than what we record as our official company emissions, when factoring in the full impact of our lives at home and at work.

Of course, most businesses will be keen to maintain this separation of corporate and personal emissions in order to limit liability, and this is completely understandable. In fact, most of us reinforce that separation on a personal level when we talk about work-life balance, as if work is not a part of our lives. Or worse, perhaps implying that we are not alive at work!

This is a missed opportunity. Our time at work is generally our most efficient and productive time. When work is viewed as a part of our whole lives rather than something separate from it, we can leverage the power of business to take responsibility for our whole selves as humans and maximise our positive impact.

Once I got this idea in my head, it became clear that we needed to embrace this opportunity.

Carbon Synching our team

Last year, I wrote about how we were applying the principle of Carbon Syncing to our business. This means planting enough trees upfront that they can absorb the equivalent of our company emissions, not over the lifetime of the trees, but in the same year that we have emitted them. The aim is to get as close as possible to removing our own emissions from the atmosphere in real time, limiting its warming effect.

I am cautious not to refer to this as carbon offsetting, because we can never truly undo the damage we cause, and the idea of ‘neutrality’ is somewhat misleading. However, the carbon synching approach does give us a way to roughly quantify our impact on the environment using carbon as a metric, and to translate that into a quantified approach to ecosystem regeneration.

Kanaan tree nursery in Kenya

Today, I’m very excited to announce that we will be extending our Carbon Syncing program to cover our team’s personal impact in addition to our official company impact. This will start with an initial planting of 20,160 trees to cover all 16 members of our team, including our new project manager, Nick, who starts today. Welcome Nick! 👋

Any new team members who join our team in the future will get a “green handshake” of 1,260 trees planted on their behalf, which will go on absorbing CO2 for many years to come.

This will apply to all staff, regardless of whether they are full or part time and it will be funded through our 1% for the Planet contributions. The trees planted will follow our best practise guidelines to ensure that they don’t just absorb carbon, but also help to regenerate native ecosystems, increase biodiversity and support local communities. 

When combined with our existing tree planting efforts, to date we have funded the planting of 24,969 trees, which absorb approximately 208 tonnes of CO2 per year, roughly 30 tonnes more than the total of our company and personal emissions. Assuming roughly 1500 trees per hectare, that’s about 16 hectares of land reforested with native species.

A step forward into the woods

This initiative is a step towards ensuring that we as a group at Wholegrain Digital have a positive impact on the natural world that we depend on. I am cautious however that this path should not lead us into the shady territory of treating these trees as “offsets” that somehow eliminate our need to reduce our negative impact on the environment. 

That is actually part of the reason why we are not calculating the exact emissions of each team member’s lifestyle and are simply using the average figure for a UK citizen. These trees are not offsetting our individual lifestyles, but simply represent a gesture on behalf of each of us to give something back to the natural world. 

I believe that this is a positive step forward for us in trying to be a regenerative business in an industry that feels very much detached from nature. I hope that this step can inspire other businesses to widen their perspective and leverage their resources further to help restore the natural systems that we all depend on. At a time when we need to repair nature at a rapid pace, this feels like an opportunity to be embraced.

I’d love to hear your ideas and experiences for leveraging the power of business to maximise positive impact on the environment. Do get in touch to say hi or tweet @eatwholegrain.