New crowdfunding site for carbon offsets forges unique path

Based on the belief that storytelling is the most effective way to capture hearts and minds, a new crowdfunding site for carbon offsets aims to use its platform to go beyond engaging concerned individuals.

CarbonStory wants to get companies on board to launch employee engagement programs -- and perhaps even the customers of company brands -- through offsetting projects of their choice within a gamification framework.

The website first guides users through its carbon footprint calculator, then enables them to choose from almost two dozen offset projects around the world to offset their monthly consumption. Rates range from $4/ton (for renewable energy projects) to $16/ton (for a drinking water project in Kenya distributing filters that eliminate the need for heating). After purchasing the offsets, users can boast about their carbon neutral status with their social network (they must log onto Facebook first) – and possibly entice others to do the same.

Co-founder Andreas Birnik, an adjunct business professor at the National University of Singapore, said CarbonStory’s roots were based on a desire to create an improved carbon offset experience that calculated a more comprehensive carbon footprint, as well as one that provided more transparency around offset projects.

He also started the project as a way to engage his students more deeply.

“I was getting their minds around it, but not capturing their hearts around it,” he said of his efforts to get students to understand the global impacts of a consumer-focused lifestyle.

So Birnik built a platform that shares the story from each offset project with photos (videos too, in some cases) and click-through links enabling the user to check its certification, including verification and validation reports.

“If you look at Bill Clinton’s project in Malawi you can look at the maps, photos, and the methodology it uses for sustainable agriculture,” Birnik said. “You can also have full transparency down to the third party auditor.”

Normally, this documentation is only provided to corporate customers, Birnik added.

Screenshot of Kenya water filter carbon offset project featured on CarbonStory platform courtesy of CarbonStory

The site’s carbon calculator, developed by Birnik during a master’s program at Harvard, takes into consideration greenhouse gases produced beyond the U.S., as well as international travel – two areas commonly omitted in calculators, according to Birnik.

“The carbon footprint of the average American goes up [in the calculator] because the country is a net importer,” Birnik said.

Birnik devised the calculator as a way to address the problem of different carbon calculators producing vastly different results. He first came up with a set of 13 principles on how to develop carbon footprints based on a meta-analysis of the literature focused on sustainable footprints and carbon consumption. Then he took a look at the 15 most commonly used carbon calculators and mapped their features against his principles.

“There were a lot of gaps,” he said.

Since its beta launch at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Eco in March, users have been forming “teams” based on a range of affiliations from companies (Geostellar, Starbucks, Whole Foods) to universities (Harvard, Columbia, Yale, Presidio Graduate School) to cities (New York), states (Texas), nongovernmental organizations (World Wildlife Fund) and fellow crowdfunding platforms (Kiva). Even Team Sweden has joined the fold.

Birnik said a variety of businesses -- including a "leading enterprise software company in the Bay Area," a major Australian investment company and a property developer -- have expressed interest using CarbonStory for employee and customer brand engagement programs.  

“We’re seeing a lot of mainstream San Francisco Bay Area tech companies doing this for their employees – creating teams and showing the collective impact,” he said. “I’m also seeing interest in brand engagement using team concepts in various areas to promote this to the customer, so it becomes a collaboration between employees and customers under the brand.”

Earlier this spring, Birnik traveled to Silicon Valley to meet with companies about developing pilot CarbonStory employee engagement programs.

While Birnik did not disclose the companies he met with, he gave some hints as to what the employee engagement programs could look like.

Companies would promote carbon neutrality and give the carbon credits away (or pay a certain percentage of the cost) as part of an employee benefit, he said, then bring the employees together as a team to compete against others.

“It could be an internal gamified program, where each employee gets a carbon budget,” he said. “The amount of greenhouse gases you need counts as part of the team.”

Birnik stressed that despite the fun for teams to compete against rival schools, cities or companies, the effort would be more collaborative in spirit rather than competitive.

One way a brand could boost engagement in their customers through CarbonStory, Birnik said, would be to give away carbon offset credits.

“For example, if you spent a certain amount of money at Safeway or Trader Joe’s, maybe that company would pay for credits,” he said. “Or you would earn points.”

And for those would-be users who don’t use Facebook? Birnik has plans to launch a Twitter interface in the future.

“Interestingly enough, we’ve had more pushback in the San Francisco Bay Area compared to Sweden and Singapore for just having a Facebook login,” he said.