Com­pare Your Foot­print

We meet the man whose car­bon foot­print cal­cu­la­tor aims to do much more than im­prove the en­vi­ron­ment


We meet the man whose car­bon foot­print cal­cu­la­tor al­lows com­pa­nies to en­ter their own en­vi­ron­men­tal data and find out how they rank against their in­dus­try peers.

It’s a provoca­tive ques­tion to ask a man who’s just set up a car­bon foot­print mea­sur­ing ser­vice – and it gets the friendly con­tempt it de­serves. “Hasn’t all this fuss about car­bon foot­print­ing died off?” I ask Wil­liam Richard­son, who’s been ad­vis­ing busi­nesses on how to be­come more en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly for more than a decade.

“It’s fallen away in your eyes – as in some­one who’s not in the in­dus­try – be­cause it’s just hap­pen­ing,” he said. Us jour­nal­ists have lost in­ter­est in car­bon foot­print­ing be­cause “it’s just some­thing you have to do now,” as much a part of ev­ery­day busi­ness prac­tice as record­ing a profit and loss in your com­pany ac­counts.

Suitably chas­tened, I pipe down and lis­ten to how Richard­son de­cided to help com­pa­nies bench­mark their en­vi­ron­men­tal records against one an­other – and how he even­tu­ally plans to use the ser­vice to give the un­em­ployed a foot on the jobs lad­der.

Green shoots

Richard­son set up his en­vi­ron­men­tal con­sul­tancy, Green El­e­ment, in 2004, with the aim of help­ing as many busi­nesses as pos­si­ble to go green. With no de­tectable trace of irony, Richard­son says the busi­ness has “grown or­gan­i­cally” for the past decade, hir­ing its second em­ployee around five years ago and now climb­ing up to five staff. Be­fore Green El­e­ment can help a firm be­come more en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly, it first needs to know how much dam­age it’s do­ing to the planet in the first place. Hence, ev­ery client has its car­bon foot­print mea­sured. As the busi­ness got bet­ter at bench­mark­ing, and with over a decade’s worth of data to fall back on, Green El­e­ment could show its clients how they com­pared to their peers in the same in­dus­try. That went down very well with Green El­e­ment’s cus­tomers, and so Richard­son be­gan to ex­plore the pos­si­bil­ity of mak­ing the bench­mark­ing ser­vice a busi­ness in its own right.

“We were start­ing to squir­rel away all this data and it was be­com­ing quite cum­ber­some,” he said. “We were do­ing ev­ery­thing through Ex­cel spread­sheets and I was think­ing ‘this is ab­so­lutely ridicu­lous’. I was see­ing how much time it was tak­ing us, through timesheets, to ma­nip­u­late all this data and put it into the re­ports.”

Richard­son did some re­search and soon ar­rived at the con­clu­sion that the data should be piped into an Ac­cess data­base – not be­cause he was fan­tas­ti­cally en­am­oured with Mi­crosoft’s pack­age, but be­cause Ac­cess is the near-uni­ver­sal for­mat that can be sucked into so many other data­bases if, fur­ther down the road, a more be­spoke so­lu­tion is called for.

“I em­ployed a guy who was look­ing for work, who was one of our fi­nance di­rec­tor’s next-door neigh­bour’s sons,” he said, this time clearly favour­ing word-of-mouth over one of Mi­crosoft’s other prod­ucts: LinkedIn. “He came to me and said I’m re­ally look­ing for work, I don’t know how to get into the en­vi­ron­men­tal sec­tor – I’ve got a PhD in data­base man­age­ment. I said, ‘well, ac­tu­ally, that’s weird…’” De­spite his PhD, Richard­son’s re­cruit wasn’t en­tirely au fait with Ac­cess, but it soon worked out. “This kid had Asperger’s [Syn­drome] and he told me quite quickly, and the rea­son why I men­tion it is be­cause when I said it to him [I wanted to use Ac­cess] the first thing he said was ‘oh, I’ve never used an Ac­cess data­base be­fore but I think I could prob­a­bly work it out’. Hav­ing spo­ken to him for a cou­ple of hours, I just thought ac­tu­ally, you know what, sod it, I think you prob­a­bly will.”

Richard­son’s gut in­stinct wasn’t wrong. Matthew spent six months work­ing to build what is now Com­pare Your Foot­print’s data­base be­fore tak­ing a job at Mi­crosoft.

Green with envy?

At the time of writ­ing, Com­pare Your Foot­print had only been up and run­ning for a cou­ple of months, but Richard­son says there’s a healthy ap­petite for the ser­vice.

As we men­tioned ear­lier, mea­sur­ing your en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact is now a stan­dard part of a com­pany’s an­nual re­ports, with com­pa­nies keen to demon­strate their green cre­den­tials to share­hold­ers, clients and cus­tomers alike. In­deed, with scru­tiny on sup­ply chains greater than ever be­fore, many smaller firms are now hav­ing to prove their en­vi­ron­men­tal cred if they want to work with firms such as the su­per­mar­ket chains.

Com­pare Your Foot­print re­quires busi­nesses to en­ter as much data as pos­si­ble about their op­er­a­tions. Firms are asked for de­tails of their wa­ter us­age, waste ton­nage, busi­ness and freight travel, pa­per us­age, IT pro­cure­ment. The ba­sic data can often be gleaned eas­ily from util­ity bills and in­voices, but if com­pa­nies want to get a true rep­re­sen­ta­tion of their en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact, they can feed “ab­so­lutely any­thing” into the data­base.

“If you were send­ing a pack­age from Maiden­head to Bei­jing, and it’s on a par­tic­u­lar kind of boat, then that par­tic­u­lar boat, size of pack­age, weight of pack­age would have its own emis­sions fac­tor and you can put that into our data­base,” Richard­son ex­plained. “You put in all the vari­ables and out will pop the end re­sult. Ev­ery other car­bon foot­print­ing tool that’s on­line cur­rently is much more ba­sic than that.”

One rea­son why com­pa­nies might be pre­pared to go to the ef­fort of in­putting the data and pay­ing the £300 fee for the re­port is that abil­ity to bench­mark them­selves against their ri­vals, po­ten­tially al­low­ing a firm to boast that it’s the most en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly busi­ness in the ac­coun­tancy sec­tor, for ex­am­ple. “I wouldn’t be sur­prised if that’s the driv­ing fac­tor,” Richard­son con­cedes.

But given the po­ten­tial rep­u­ta­tional up­side, how does Com­pare Your Foot­print ver­ify that the data firms are en­ter­ing is ac­cu­rate? He admits the com­pany “isn’t able to ver­ify ev­ery sin­gle re­port” en­tered by cus­tomers, but he says it has enough ex­pe­ri­ence to spot anom­alies in the data. “If you’ve seen hun­dreds of them, there will be one or two that stick out. Nine times out of ten you’ll find that some­thing’s been added wrongly, and we’ll go back to them and say: ‘we don’t un­der­stand where you got this num­ber from, would you mind telling us how you got this num­ber and the cal­cu­la­tion be­hind it?’”

Giv­ing back

Richard­son isn’t only mo­ti­vated by the op­por­tu­nity to help com­pa­nies im­prove their en­vi­ron­men­tal record, he’s clearly en­thu­si­as­tic about do­ing good in other ways too. Be­fore we’ve even got to the nuts and bolts of how Com­pare Your Foot­print works, he’s ea­ger to share his plans for what hap­pens if this nascent busi­ness be­comes suc­cess­ful, plot­ting what he’s go­ing to do with the prof­its be­fore he’s even made any. And we’re not talk­ing about a huge house or a trop­i­cal is­land next to Richard Bran­son’s.

Once the com­pany has re­couped its re­search and de­vel­op­ment costs, the plan is to do­nate an hour’s work to an en­vi­ron­men­tal char­ity for ev­ery re­port sold. Com­pare Your Foot­print will main­tain a data­base of school leavers or job­seek­ers look­ing for work ex­pe­ri­ence, and will part­ner with char­i­ties who can put th­ese peo­ple to work. Cus­tomers will get to choose which char­ity they do­nate their hour to, and once that char­ity has amassed eight hours’ worth of do­na­tions, Com­pare Your Foot­print will pay a job­seeker to go and work with them for a day.

“We’ll go to that char­ity and say we’ve got eight hours work now, can we put you in touch with this per­son who’s got the skillset you’re look­ing for, and you can use them on any project you want,” said Richard­son.

The com­pany al­ready has a cou­ple of char­i­ties signed up for the scheme, and it even­tu­ally hopes to have ten from which its cus­tomers can choose in a drop­down menu at the end of their re­port. Richard­son es­ti­mates that the cost of run­ning the char­ity scheme will be around £14 per re­port, with £10 of that cost go­ing towards the job­seeker’s hourly wage. Even­tu­ally, how­ever, he wants to of­fer an en­tire day’s work to the char­ity for ev­ery re­port sold.

“Be­cause we’ve done most of the [data­base] work al­ready, I can af­ford to do some­thing like that,” he said. “Hav­ing come across so many peo­ple that are look­ing for work, and so many char­i­ties and not-for-prof­its that are look­ing for staff that can’t nor­mally af­ford it, I see it as a win, win, win for ev­ery­one.”

Firms are asked about their wa­ter us­age, waste ton­nage, busi­ness and freight travel, pa­per us­age, IT pro­cure­ment

ABOVE Com­pare Your Foot­print al­lows firms to bench­mark their emis­sions against those of their ri­vals

RIGHT Data can be eas­ily gleaned from a com­pany’s util­ity bills and in­voices

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