Why you’ve never measured your carbon footprint

We all know we need to change our lifestyles and become more sustainable. We talk about it, and some of us actively try to, but honestly, most of us don't. Living more sustainably clearly needs to be easier, more interesting and more fun. This is within reach.

Technology is evolving to enable us to measure our impacts on the environment day-to-day and broadcast the results on social media to inspire a race to the top. Meanwhile, corporations can use this info to reward positive behavior and generate goodwill. Here are some ideas for how.

Carbon footprint calculators fall short

A common assumption is that if people knew exactly what their carbon footprint was, or how big it was compared to others, they would feel motivated to make lifestyle changes.  

Loads of free carbon footprint calculators have been available online for years. Some of the most popular in the U.S. come from the Nature Conservancy, US EPA, Carbon Footprint, Global Footprint Network, Center for a Sustainable Economy, Berkeley, Terra Pass and Conservation International.

Yet very few people have used them and they seem to have fallen short of inspiring significant behavioral change. There are surely a number of reasons for this, but several of their shortcomings provide insight into what might work better.  

First, vast differences in their methodologies mean that the same person will get a huge range of scores from different calculators, making it hard to know how one is actually doing. For example, my lifestyle produces anywhere from 12 to 30 tons of CO2 per year, according to the eight calculators mentioned above.

Second, the questions are usually too general to detect most behavioral changes that can lower our environmental impact, such as changing light bulbs. This means that we miss getting the satisfaction of seeing our score improve.

Third, accuracy aside, the final score is abstract. Carbon is an intangible concept for most of us. How much is 12 to 30 tons of CO2, anyway? Because we all want to know how we measure up, meaningful comparisons can help make these numbers more relevant, but many calculators do a poor job of this.

Most striking, carbon footprint calculators generally fail to show us how we should be doing. What would a sustainable carbon footprint be and how does one get there? Ecological footprint calculators give perspective on this by showing how many Earths would be required to sustain our lifestyle, but they say surprisingly little about the behaviors needed to achieve a sustainable level.

So, if carbon calculators fall short because the final score is abstract, questions aren't specific enough to capture our efforts to improve and meaningful benchmarks and clear targets are lacking, what would be better?

The next sustainability apps

People respond to metrics that seem relevant to us. We need specific targets and goals. We react to competition, want to be recognized for our accomplishments and need to be held accountable. The next sustainability apps should harness our ability to capture accurate personal data, our curiosity about how we are doing compared to others, and leverage social media to provide positive recognition, drive competition and offer rewards.

Athletic companies are doing this with products such as the Fitbit Force Bracelet, Jawbone UP Band and Nike FuelBand. These wristbands provide users with metrics about their own movement and allow them to compete with others. Nike's FuelBand, for example, tracks one's movement throughout the day. Users can set goals, visualize progress through charts, see how their movement compares to their friends, share their accomplishments and challenge their friends to match them.  

Strava, an app for mobile or GPS devices, lets users track their athletic performance and compare themself to other athletes. It also allows users to join races, runs and other challenges. It has 100,000 users and up to 70,000 people join any given challenge.

The popularity of these products makes it clear that we love personalized information about ourselves. So why not deploy the same principles and tools to track behaviors that relate to our impact on the environment? Apps could use the GSP on our phones and easily track the distance traveled by car, bus, rail, plane or elevator, generating the carbon footprint from our transport. This would allow us to see how changes such as walking or taking the stairs can make a difference from one day to the next. Other aspects of our consumption are tracked, such as our utility bills. This will make it easier to obtain a global picture about our impact on the environment, while requiring less data entry from us.

Relevant metrics, competition and social pressure

With increasing access to data at our fingertips, there are exciting opportunities for tracking tools and sustainability apps that incorporate gamification to leverage social media. Apps that show us how we are doing day by day, how the environmental impact of our lifestyles compares to our peers and encourage us to compete with each other via social media can have a real impact.   

O Power is doing this for home energy use. The company partners with public utilities such as PG&E to provide customers with personalized insights about how their energy use compares to neighbors in similar-sized homes and how they can lower it. They also activate social pressure through a Facebook app that imports user's energy use automatically and shows how it ranks against others. It allows users to post their performance and challenge their friends. Since 2008, users have reduced energy use by at least $250 million.  

But targets are needed, too. Knowing that one uses 14,500 KwH of electricity per year while a neighbor uses 13,246 KwH may inspire improvement, but falls short of providing an objective goal for what would be realistic, achievable and sustainable. We are more likely to reach the goal if we have a goal, so sustainability apps should incorporate goals set by scientific institutions, national governments, states or cities.  

It would be exciting to see social media challenges that show us how we stack up on all aspects of daily living, such as miles biked and gallons of water used at home. It should be easy to see — and brag about — how our efforts to turn off appliances, recycle more, eat less meat and buy organic make a difference day-to-day. Currently, individual efforts exist in somewhat of a vacuum. The social media component creates community and social pressure to improve through increased visibility and accountability. Such challenges could work even on a larger peer group-to-peer group or city-to-city basis. Behavioral change is a challenge, and people need to be challenged to do it.

Big opportunities for retailers and brands

Another characteristic of human behavior is our responsiveness to incentives and rewards. Herein lies a huge opportunity for retailers and brands working to attract a new generation of aspirational consumers. Research shows that consumers have a hard time naming brands they see as climate leaders. One way for brand strategists to position companies as leaders is to create initiatives that encourage and reward individual efforts to go green.

A few innovative corporate efforts to shape consumer behavior already have emerged. Patagonia's "Don't Buy This Jacket" ad campaign discouraged overconsumption by inviting consumers to buy things only when needed. Johnson and Johnson's Care to Recycle campaign urges consumers to recycle their bathroom products.

Recyclebank, a website and app that encourages sustainable living, has introduced a much needed element of reward. It offers individuals discounts at a wide range of companies in exchange for points accumulated by pledging green behavior. This is on the right track, but with room to go further. Recyclebank's rewards model is based on pledges to live greener rather than actual change.

Brands can take the next step by encouraging sustainable behavior and rewarding real achievements. For example, companies can take sponsor social media campaigns and contests to drive specific behavioral changes, such as reduced fuel use. These would be designed to incentivize improvements tracked using any number of new or existing tracking devices or other metrics for measuring green behavior. They could offer rewards to the winners such as free products or discounts. The highest impact can be achieved by incentivizing shifts to new, more sustainable products or lifestyles. Imagine rewards such as products made out of recycled material, bike tune-ups, organic meals, solar panels, etc. When coupled with a robust strategy addressing the company's own operations, it demonstrates a real commitment to leadership in green living.

By driving behavioral change, such campaigns could win over aspirational consumers, increase brand loyalty and leave both brand and planet a step ahead.

Footprint image by eteimaging via Shutterstock.