S4E6: Can Carbon Accounting Hold Corporations Accountable?

Updated: Nov 4, 2021

Shannon "Parker" Parker is a young sustainability professional focused on supply chain sustainability and environmental entrepreneurship. She is the co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of carbIN, a carbon accounting tool that translates spending behavior into a carbon footprint score and provides best courses of action for carbon footprint reduction. She is also completing her dual-degree Master of Environmental Management and MBA at Duke University.

In this episode, we'll be discussing the role of businesses and corporations in the climate crisis, keeping corporations accountable, and whether carbon accounting is a way to do that.

Check out carbIN here: https://www.carboninsights.co/

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Guest: Shannon Parker

Hosts: Katherine Li and Clare Sparling

Producers: Katherine Li and Clare Sparling

Audio Engineer: Clare Sparling

Music: Cali by Wataboi, Awakening by Wataboi


KATHERINE: Hey, welcome to Operation Climate, a podcast made by young people for young people, where we break down environmental issues through conversations with cool people.

Hey, everyone, I'm Katherine.

CLARE: And I'm Clare.

KATHERINE: and we are your hosts for this episode of Operation Climate. So to start off, Clare, I want to know, how was your COVID semester?

CLARE: Yeah, it was really different in that everyone kind of had to pull together and do their part. Because when it comes to COVID, and a pandemic, the actions of one person impact the rest of the community. So if someone doesn't want to do their part and follow the COVID guidelines, then everyone else kind of deals with the consequences. And so I think that made for definitely a very interesting semester.

KATHERINE: And I think I know what you're hinting at here, Clare, because one of the most interesting but not fun things that happened this past semester for Clare and I, who are both Duke undergrads, was that there was a massive spike in positive COVID cases because of fraternity rush parties that were happening off campus. And because of that, the entirety of the Duke community had to go on lockdown, which was not fun at all. And this relates to our episode, because when we're talking about how one individual’s action can have an impact on the rest of us, it's kind of like talking about how corporations produce most of the greenhouse gas emissions, while the rest of the world suffers the consequences. So what are we talking about today in this episode, Clare?

CLARE: Yeah, today, we're going to be talking a little bit about carbon footprints and how we can keep track of the carbon emissions of these different corporations.

KATHERINE: And this is super relevant, because we want to know which corporations are producing the most emissions, because then we as consumers can make smarter decisions and use our influence to kind of keep these corporations accountable. So to answer these questions about greenhouse gas accounting and corporate responsibility in terms of climate action, who do we have today to talk to us about this?

CLARE: Yeah, today we're excited to bring our guest Shannon Parker. She's an MBA student at the Fuqua School of Business at Duke University. And she's also the co founder and CEO of Carbon Insights.

KATHERINE: Carbon Insights works with businesses and financial service providers to find you a personalized carbon footprint based on your spending, traveling and day to day activities. So we're super excited to welcome Shannon Parker, and let’s get started.

Thank you so much for joining us today.

PARKER: Yeah, thanks for having me. I'm really excited to be here.

CLARE: So to get us started, could you tell us a little bit about yourself and what Carbon insights is?

PARKER: For sure. I am also a fellow Dukie over here. And, you know, over my time, really, in that I spent at Duke doing my masters of environmental management MBA dual degree, you know, I had an idea for, how do we build carbon literacy among people. You know, when you talk to people, sometimes if you say, like a metric tonne of co2, or even just start talking about carbon footprints, there's almost a deer in a headlights look. And you know, this information shouldn't be that complicated to understand. So I started to have this idea during one of my internships here and paired up with a few co founders to found carbon insights almost a year ago to the day. So right now, carbon insights is an API as a service platform that we can use to calculate the environmental impact of any transaction. So the goal is to really work with financial institutions, so that when you log into your bank app, or you log in to see your credit card statement, you can also see the environmental impact that you're having along the way.

KATHERINE: Yeah, so we were just curious to know what led you to make sustainability a big part of your career.

PARKER: So I've always been pretty passionate about the environment. I didn't have a concept of quote unquote, sustainability until a few years into my career. But, you know, as I was graduating undergrad in Hopkins, everybody there thought I was going to be a doctor. And then I thought I was going to be a wildlife veterinarian. And then I realized that I just had no idea what I wanted to do. So I decided to go out and just work for a few years and I was working in operations and supply chain, but I realized that while I love the work, I love the challenges, and I loved the concept, I wanted to apply it to something that was a little bit more personally meaningful to me. And when my company hired our first Director of Corporate Social Responsibility, it was just like light bulbs going off everywhere. I finally had found this name, that was ultimately what I wanted to do. So I think I always just had this passion for the environment, you know, being outside my whole life in various forms, but realizing and working for a few years and recognizing the scale of the challenge that we ultimately had to address as well brought me back to do my dual degree and then ultimately pivot into this field.

KATHERINE: For our listeners, could you provide a brief overview of what exactly a carbon footprint is, and how you go about calculating that?

PARKER: So a carbon footprint in summary is just the total amount of carbon emissions that are associated with your lifestyle in a way. So every action that you take, whether that is purchasing utilities, or purchasing food, or driving, or flying has a certain amount of emissions associated with it, those emissions come from the fact that a company has to do XY and Z to be able to provide that service for you. And so there's a proportion of responsibility that, you know, comes to you whether that's using the electricity to charge your iPhone or another example, and that ultimately makes up your carbon footprint, because every action that we take, whether it's at the personal level, or ultimately the corporate level, has some sort of emissions. And so the personal carbon footprint is really just a measure of how carbon intensive your own lifestyle is.

KATHERINE: So something that is very interesting that I did not know until like, now, is that the carbon footprint was actually popularized by the oil company, BP.

CLARE: Yeah, so BP was really trying to popularize the carbon footprint so they could shift the blame for climate change from corporations like them, and instead place all the blame on individuals.


despite the fact that BP released over 34 billion metric tons of carbon emissions since 1965.

And so this popularization of the carbon footprint by BP has been called one of the most deceptive PR campaigns in the environmental world.

KATHERINE: I found that you have a lot of experience in addressing the business side of climate action, whether through founding your own companies, studying supply chain management… And so I was wondering, why do you find this more business perspective to be important in addressing climate change?

PARKER: I try not to think about these things as either or type things, I, you know, I think everybody has a personal responsibility to understand their carbon footprint and do the best that they can to live as sustainably as possible, you know, that's something I'm always striving to do.

However, you know, the argument for business action and larger scale institution actions, whether that's government or the private sector, is just the scale of impact. And maybe they move a little bit slower, but we'd like them to move a bit faster. And if we can get, you know, all of this capital, and all of these businesses that are running our everyday lives to help us make easier decisions to help make lower carbon products and everything like that, we're gonna be able to make greater achievements in a shorter amount of time. And so that's why I think there's really this power of, you know, working in business to take climate action. However, it's not without, you know, a certain degree of personal responsibility. It's not without public private partnerships, and it's not without government action at all, either.

KATHERINE: And I think just touching more on that business side, the tool that Carbon Insights has for consumers, do you think that can be applied for like corporations? Because we know that corporations play a huge part in emissions and climate change.

PARKER: Sure! We actually, you know, are looking at opportunities to work with small to medium sized businesses as well to help them educate themselves on their carbon footprint and take action. There are definitely existing tools that are very similar to what carbon insights does that do help address the corporate sector. And so I think that's why our initial focus was really on empowering the individual is because we believe that, you know, first by understanding what a metric tonne of co2 is, and how it relates to, you know, $1 amount of consumption or even understanding what a carbon footprint is, every individual is then better enabled -- are more empowered to go to these corporations and say, I want something that is a lower carbon product, or I want something that is better, and I'm educated enough to be in this space to be able to say, yes, you're truly doing this and you're not just greenwashing, or you're not just telling me that it's more sustainable, but I don't have any, you know, ability to actually evaluate that.

KATHERINE: Yeah, so this discussion of corporate responsibility when it comes to climate change is super relevant because just 100 companies are responsible for 71% of the world's emissions.

CLARE: And if you look at just 20 companies, you see that they're responsible for 1/3 of the world's cumulative carbon emissions.

KATHERINE: which is crazy. Right? Like 71%, from just 100 companies, 1/3 from just 20 companies.

CLARE: So focusing, I guess a little bit more on the corporate level, do you see greenhouse gas accounting as a potential way to hold corporations accountable? And if so, how would you see that happening?

PARKER: Absolutely. So I think, you know, it kind of comes back to-- I can't recall who said this originally-- but you can't manage what you can't measure, right. So there's no way to really tell if we're going in the right direction, if we don't have some sort of accounting and measurement system for these corporations.

So step one is to understand where you really are and figure out what that carbon baseline is. And then step two is take meaningful actions to actually reduce it. So I do think carbon accounting is a huge tool. It's something that you know, all students in this space who are hoping to work for corporations, you know, CSR type programs, should learn. And it's actually really, you know, quite popular. I just read The State of Green Business for 2021, it's a really popular report that comes out, and over 6 billion tonnes of co2 are committed in reduction targets within the past year, looking at the report. So that's companies essentially, accounting for their carbon, and then saying, we're gonna reduce this amount, and that totaled 6 billion across the globe, or across the companies that they surveyed, which was really inspiring. So it enables those kinds of commandments and that kind of movement towards a more carbon neutral society.

CLARE: So given that greenhouse gas accounting is becoming more popular, is there almost like a growing pressure in the corporate world for companies to calculate and publicize their emissions?

PARKER: Yeah, I think we're starting to see that pressure from a few different angles, right? It would be great to believe that all businesses are just going to do it because it's the right thing to do. But the reality is, we have to think that they're, you know, working to address demands from all different stakeholders. So whether that's investors or customers, or suppliers, or you know, people that are in their communities and everything like that, they've got to answer to a lot of people. And especially with the younger generations, as we come up, we're starting to see environmental sustainability and these carbon types metrics is carbon accounting, and reporting is almost a permission to play in a lot of major businesses. Like it's frowned upon if you don't do it at this point. And so, you know, I think that's where the personal responsibility angle comes in.

As members of communities, as consumers of different products, and everything, we have to continue to apply that pressure. And we have to be willing to take a stand and like I said, live more sustainably if we don't necessarily agree with the way that a company is doing.

So I do think that there is an external pressure, we're starting to see a lot of influence throughout the supply chain. So major providers, such as Walmart, might have a massive supply chain. And they're going back to the people that they buy products from and saying, you have to make XY and Z targets for me to even consider selling you to my customers. And so that's another major, major source of pressure that's become really, really influential.

CLARE: And the good news is, the shift is not just limited to Walmart, thanks to increasing public pressure, companies are starting to view carbon neutrality as an important part of staying competitive. And in fact, 200 of the world's largest companies have committed to a 100% renewable energy supply.

KATHERINE: That's really great that the culture is kind of shifting for everyone and more people are becoming more conscious of their carbon footprint. My next question for you is, do you see any limitations or challenges with calculating and tracking a carbon footprint?

PARKER: I mean, there's always challenges, right? I said, you can't manage what you can't measure earlier. But I say that with a grain of salt, because the measurement is not a perfect science. You know, every every day, every year, we are making scientific developments that support better science and better calculation methods for this, but there's often disagreement, there's often just, you know, missing information or gaps that companies can't answer that people can't answer that make it really difficult to say like, here is my exact proportion of the emissions and everything like that. And so, you know, it's often challenging to try to compare different carbon accounting reports and stuff across companies because you don't know the different boundaries of what was included or what isn't. It's definitely not a perfect science, but like anything, even with financial reporting and everything like that, there are ways that companies can manipulate different metrics. And so it's trying to continue to set standards, and perhaps even regulations about how we report and how we talk about things so that we aren't being manipulated by the different metrics and everything as well.

CLARE: Yeah, and then kind of switching focus a little bit, you've hit on before how this data is really important. But it's important so that we can then take action and do something with this knowledge that we've gained from the greenhouse gas accounting. So what do you think are some ways we can better utilize the data we obtained from greenhouse gas accounting to combat climate change?

PARKER: I think that's where Carbon Insights is really hoping to step in, is first, we can provide very specific information based on your lifestyle. So we did a really fun case study where we looked at my co-founder and I’s, carbon footprints before COVID and then during COVID. Because obviously, there were some really drastic lifestyle changes, we weren't flying anymore, we weren't really driving anymore. And that changed what the highest impact categories were for us.

And I bring that up to say, you know, maybe there is a change over time in your own footprint, and you constantly need to be observing that, but maybe there's just a difference between people as well. You may not fly as much as I do. But instead, let's say you're, you know, not purchasing renewable electricity, right. And so we'll be able to go to a specific individual and say, because, you know, you are not purchasing renewable electricity, we recommend x y&z like purchasing Arcadia power, which allows you to purchase renewable energy. So I do think that each of the recommendations that we have have to be specific to the individual, but there are four major, you know, buckets that they tend to fall into. And it's transportation, its air, travel, it’s diet, and ultimately, it's your utilities or your electricity. And so just kind of keeping in mind that when you're thinking about your footprint overall... It's great to switch to more sustainable beauty products, right, but that as a proportion of most people's footprint is not going to be the most impactful category. And so instead, trying to switch over towards vegetarianism or eliminate meat from your diet, is likely going to be more impactful than switching a little bit of your beauty counter over to a lower carbon impact product.

KATHERINE: And our last question for you today, kind of just to summarize everything we've talked about, is what do you think is the most important thing our listeners, who are mostly students, can do or should be mindful about when it comes to carbon footprint/ greenhouse gas accounting and keeping corporations accountable?

PARKER: So step one is to always just stay informed, right. And I know, your generation, students in particular, are really passionate about these topics. It's making sure that you're critically evaluating whether these corporate social responsibility reports are coming out. And you're seeing these different carbon accounting things, make sure you you call people out or you ask questions if something doesn't seem right to you.

The other thing is, you know, to demand more sustainable products from these companies. We're starting to see companies such as Allbirds, or whatnot, put labels of carbon intensity on the products. And I think that would be really game changing. So trying to demand from companies that you want to see this this type of thing on the product, you want to see a product based life cycle assessment and see what all goes into it. It's really just keeping the pressure on around transparency, and doing your best to integrate it into you know, your work, your purchasing habits, all of these things.

Because on a macro level, the choices that we make every day are what are putting pressure on these companies and whether or not we're willing to work for a company that's not sustainable, or whether or not we're willing to purchase from a company that's not sustainable. Like in aggregate, we as students, we as people do have a lot of power to really shape where business happens. So that would be kind of my number one thing when thinking about carbon accounting, is just demand better from these companies. And you can do that specifically by asking for product dossiers and for carbon intensities.

KATHERINE: So after listening to this episode, we hope that you guys really understand the idea of corporate responsibility when it comes to climate change, and that it's a really important thing to think about.

CLARE: And also that when we're trying to hold corporations accountable, it's really important that we get the best information we can, so when we push for change, we're the most effective we can be.

KATHERINE: Now we have some action items for you, our wonderful listeners. So think of the top five companies that you shop from or top five products that you buy and research what their environmental impact is.

CLARE: Maybe you can consider, do you need this product? Or are there other environmentally friendly alternatives that maybe you could switch to? Because the fact is that what we consume matters, the consumer choices we make can influence companies to change their production patterns to more sustainable methods.

KATHERINE: And other things that you can do include voting for people that will enact environmentally friendly legislation and will keep corporations accountable. And you can write or call your representatives to tell them that this issue matters to you.

KATHERINE: Thank you for listening to this episode. My name is Katherine.

CLARE: And I'm Clare. And we'll see you next time!

KATHERINE: Thanks so much for tuning into this episode of Operation Climate. Make sure to subscribe on Spotify, Apple podcasts, Google podcasts, and anywhere else that you find your podcast. In order to stay updated about future episodes, visit our website at bit.ly/operationclimatepodcast for a full transcript of this episode, and for more information and links that you can explore to learn more about this topic that we covered today. Follow us on our socials, we are @operationclimate on Instagram. And lastly, we want to hear from you. So write a review on Apple podcasts, that would help us so much, and send us your feedback and your messages through our website. Email us. You can DM us on Instagram, you can fill out our feedback form which is on our website. And if you're a student listening to this podcast, head to our website to fill out our students stories form to get the chance to have your story and voice featured on a future episode of Operation Climate. Thanks so much and we hope you join us next time. See ya.

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