“Reducing Our Carbon Footprint Today Is Not Rocket Science But Literacy” – Michelle Li, Founder Clever Carbon

"There Are A Lot Of Things We Can Do Today To Reduce Our Carbon Footprint. It's Not Rocket Science But Literacy," - Michelle Li, Founder Clever Carbon - Carbon Herald
Michelle Li, Founder of Clever Carbon. Credit: Clever Carbon

Every single person on this planet has a carbon footprint comprising all the activities he/she chooses. Being aware of our individual climate impact is critical to help us take responsibility. Clever Carbon is on a mission to empower people to find out their carbon footprint. It also helps them in their next steps to cut emissions in a clever and fun way that invites engagement.

We interviewed Michelle Li, Founder of Clever Carbon who shared with us the story of her inspiring journey towards climate action. She walked us through the mission of Clever Carbon, the climate-savvy content being produced for everyone, and the importance of carbon literacy.

My first question to you Michelle is, what is your background and experience?

I started my career in science, I studied biology and chemistry. But then I moved on to business and I went to San Francisco for business school. I ended up working in the Bay Area with companies like Salesforce and DocuSign. I was a sales engineer, helping customers solve some of their problems. I started my first project on carbon when I was in London, working with DocuSign.  

Credit: Clever Carbon

I used to walk in the park every day and I was so depressed as I walked in a park littered with mountains of garbage. And I thought to myself, how can 7 billion people be doing this day after day, week after week, year after year? I decided to do something about it…

I felt like there was just this missing piece to help people understand the numbers. I think they are so important as the human brain understands them. When we can measure, we can manage. And we can change…

So I set off on this journey to learn about impact and that’s how I learned about carbon footprint. All of the websites were very outdated, technical, and they weren’t for consumers. I took carbon footprint quizzes and I just wanted to create this resource where people could find, do a carbon footprint quiz, and start their carbon literacy journey in a way that is fun, engaging, inspirational and not doom and gloom. 

That’s how Clever Carbon started. I hired a developer, drew out all the requirements, and I created a carbon footprint quiz

How do you think your experience in tech companies helped you decide to found Clever Carbon?  

Credit: Clever Carbon

Some of the technology can be pretty complicated. The last solution that I worked on was at DocuSign and it seems easy on the surface but actually, there are a lot of nuances. I had to take very technical concepts and translate them to a stakeholder, a legal, or HR in a way that is simple to understand and demonstrates the business value. 

If I were to distill the concept of carbon footprint to a stakeholder who is a regular consumer, there’s a way that I can communicate that, if I want to distill it to a C-suite, there’s a different way that I would do that. Having this experience of understanding the entire problem, and then communicating it with different stakeholders is really key to the work I do with Clever Carbon.

Could you please walk us through your public speaking initiatives related to climate change?

Public speaking is a core part of my job. Larger engagements have included TEDx, SXSW (2022 and 2023), NYC Climate Week, and COP27. I speak regularly at virtual events such as ClairCon and Sustainability LIVE NYC and have also been a guest at numerous podcasts including GreenBusinessImpact and Ready Or Not Change is Coming. As a keynote speaker, I’m also hired for conferences such as NAEM’s TECH23.

I started my speaking career with a TEDx talk and I did a 10-minute talk on carbon literacy. In 2022, I spoke at South by Southwest (SXSW) on the topic of carbon literacy. 

I do various keynotes with the semiconductor industry and conferences in the United States.

Last year, in 2022, I was at COP27. I did a show press release for COP27 where we partnered with the Blue Planet Alliance and spoke about women and climate. I’m also headed to Doha in a couple of weeks to host the masterclass for the Carbon Capture, Utilization and Storage Forum. 

What is Clever Carbon and why did you decide to start the company?

Clever Carbon is a place where we teach people about carbon footprint in a really hip and fun way to make it easy and accessible. Our marquee tool is a carbon footprint quiz. It’s really fast and we can do it in under a minute. There are about five questions. 

We start with where people live because the average carbon footprint is different in countries. For example, an individual in the US traditionally has a footprint of about 17.5 tonnes of CO2 per year. In the UK, it is about 8.3 tonnes, in Vietnam it is approximately 2.1 tonnes; and most of Africa is under one tonne.

Credit: Clever Carbon

Our quiz takers can put in their first name and then we share results. You get a badge that has your name, your carbon footprint, and you can see where your areas of opportunity are, how you compare to your country’s average. We also have some resources to help them along with their next step.

We partner with different brands to bring a white-labeled experience. Aether, for example, makes diamonds from CO2 from Climeworks. They use renewable energy in the process of making high-end jewelry. They are really focused on carbon footprint and reducing carbon emissions. 

You can see our quiz on their website. When someone finishes the quiz, he/she gets a badge that has the Aether branding. We have partnerships with various companies that have designed a carbon footprint badge. The largest organization we’ve partnered with is the NBA, they have a social impact called NBA Green. Most recently for the playoffs, they had a QR code that leads to the quiz, so the fans can take it and find out their carbon footprint.

A Clever Carbon Badge. Credit: Clever Carbon

I also want to share free resources from our website that people can print off. As an example, one of them shows the carbon footprint of an espresso which is 50 grams. People can think, I never knew coffee had a carbon footprint, why cappuccinos are so much higher, oh, there’s a difference if it’s a plant based milk. 

If I have coffee every other day, maybe 150 times a year and I multiply its carbon footprint, I may not like that number. So maybe I’ll start bringing my reusable cup. These labels are translated into different languages, from Korean to Japanese to Chinese and French. There are also coffee shops that display them. 

We also share product labels so a consumer can understand where the emissions are coming from when they purchase a product. Pantys is a Brazilian brand that brings carbon literacy to their consumers. They carbon label every single item in their portfolio and the idea is to be transparent and accountable to consumers. They are one of the few companies that are already doing this. 

Credit: Clever Carbon

Allbirds is another brand. Cocokind is a skincare brand that does carbon labeling. Just Salad is a restaurant that also carbon labels its menu. If you bring a reusable, you can also get a free vegan topping.

The future that we’re seeing is one where all the companies and products come with carbon labels.

Why did you pick carbon footprint as an area of focus for your company among anything else climate-related like clean energy? 

To be honest, I think carbon literacy is the easiest and most scalable way to ignite global climate action. Solar energy, for example, doesn’t apply to everyone, if you live in an apartment or you live in Sweden. 

Carbon footprint is incredibly powerful if people understand it and we have carbon literacy ubiquitous. Part of the issue today of why there are still so many people that are climate deniers or not taking climate action yet, is because they don’t understand the impact. 

I chose the carbon footprint because I think education is so powerful and applies to every single person on this planet. It’s also a low-cost way to scale climate action.

What are some of the services and initiatives of Clever Carbon that help people know more about their carbon footprint? 

I do workshops with corporations. Companies hire me to teach their employees. These are companies from Estee Lauder, to NBA, to small tech companies. The content that we create is very important, and I want to highlight that. 

We also do a monthly update on what the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere is every month. In March, the concentration was 421 parts-per million.

Up until the 1900s, the concentration was always under 300. But now, we’re increasing the amount of CO2. It’s important because if we surpass 450 parts-per million, we are going to see a 1.5 °C increase in temperature. 

We need to understand where we are today, and why carbon removal is so important. We share these very complicated topics and over time, we hope that the content will sink in people’s minds. This is not necessarily a service, but important content that we publish until people understand. 

Credit: Clever Carbon

Another example is – most people haven’t heard of ppm, parts-per million so we break down technical terms like this in a way that is easy for them to understand. In order for us to get to 350 parts-per million, we need a gigaton scale carbon removal so we explain those terms in a way for people to passively use them and learn.

Tell us more about your initiatives like the Clever Actions, the Clever programs for corporations, the Carbon Footprint Lesson Plan for kids?  

I started Clever Actions because a lot of companies don’t have resources to set science-based targets but they can still use sustainability as a tool to make it fun and meaningful for the workplace. Clever Actions is meant to have the same fun vibe. 

We use the sustainable development goals as a framework for different actions that are available. We made our own version of the sustainable development goals in a way that is more fun and colorful. 

Relevant: How To Reduce Your Carbon Footprint At Work

One Clever Action, for example, is file sharing. One of over 90 different actions asks people to send links to folders, instead of attachments and emails to reduce the need for additional data processing. These actions teach people why they are important. 

Another Clever Action is to have employees use a friendly travel guide to help them make better decisions when they travel. At the office, just unplugging devices overnight can be very impactful. You can even think outside the box, and include something that teaches people about the planet in your out-of-office message. We have a template people can copy.

Credit: Clever Carbon

The lesson plan for children is a resource that helps teachers and gives them materials they can use in class to teach kids about carbon footprint. We have a Google Doc that is available, there are notes in the speaker notes area. We also have a little video that goes over how a teacher can plan the lesson. It’s just a free resource that we want to share so that we can help spread carbon literacy.

It took a lot of time to put all of the database together. I had interns that were working with me. Another example of a Clever Action is when we did a shower challenge. We had eight companies participate and we had to find the company with the shortest shower time as water footprint is really important. 

People don’t really think about water usage, they just use water and it means a lot when they know how long their shower is. It’s fun to have employees compete with each other. Someone can actually take a shower in 30 seconds, others take 10 minutes. The idea is to be fun. It’s also not just for employees but for example, for marketing teams, HR teams; or regional and international offices. 

There is another thing we do for fun. We have a carbon footprint jams playlist, where we have songs that we dedicate to carbon. They’re mostly breakup songs but the idea is to make it fun, to engage people, and bring awareness to the carbon footprint topic.

How do you monetize Clever Carbon? 

Credit: Clever Carbon

Revenue comes from the corporate workshops and through the Clever Carbon quiz. When we white label and work with a brand, we have a small fee for that. But Clever Carbon for me wasn’t meant to make a lot of money. It is for education so it’s nice that the workshops have a demand and they bring in revenue. My keynote speaking is also a part of how I support myself.

Does Clever Carbon have any investments or financial backing?  

This is not an attractive investment for VCs, the education is not something that they’re necessarily interested in. It hasn’t been a big area of focus for me as a result. That is part of the frustration – are we trying to save the planet or are we trying to make money? Sometimes things that save the planet don’t necessarily make money. 

What are your future plans for development of Clever Carbon? What is the scale of impact that you’re hoping to reach?

The scale is every company in some way to include carbon literacy in their organization. Let’s take Salesforce as an example. I used to work for Salesforce. Imagine if every single Salesforce employee took the quiz, knows what their carbon footprint is – these are 50,000 empowered people. 

Imagine if at Dreamforce – Salesforce’s largest conference where over 100,000 people attend, use the quiz and find out what their carbon footprint is… That is the scale that I want. I want the carbon footprint to be so common that everyone knows immediately what it is. 

Also, I would like brands to use it as a tool to engage in a fun way. For example, you walk into a McDonald’s, you can take the carbon footprint quiz and get 10% off their vegan burger.

Since you have been working with companies and corporations on climate action, what is your experience with them? Are they eager to take part in your initiatives? 

I will give you an example. DataIQ is a data science company based in Paris, and they have offices in London, New York and Toronto, they’re growing very quickly. I did around five workshops with them at different locations.

Credit: Clever Carbon

They liked it so much that they have licensed my content. They use it during employee onboarding. They also did a branded badge. This is an example of how companies have adopted it but sometimes it takes time.

They do the workshop and have other ideas later on so they come back in a couple of months. The NBA is another great example – I did the workshop with them and now they’re bringing it to fans.

At one of the games in March, they put a poster on the Jumbotron with a QR code, so people at the game could find their carbon footprint. If you go to https://green.nba.com/carbon/, you will be led to our quiz. 

We are also working on getting players engaged. For Earth Month, they promoted Clever Carbon as an account to follow. There are NBA branded social assets to get their fans to find out their carbon footprint. We also are partnering with the NBA to bring this to prominent people, whether they are players or coaches.

Do you plan to work in similar partnerships with other companies?  

Credit: Clever Carbon

Yes, definitely, I think sports teams are a great opportunity as they have a lot of fans, also musicians and other corporations. We have been planting the seeds.

How is the technology behind Clever Carbon’s calculator different from other carbon footprint calculators? 

Our technology is really simple. We use data from the Global Carbon Atlas, publicly available data, and it has information on the carbon footprint of each individual. We take that and use it as a base. We scale up and down based on what people’s input is. We add about 100 kilograms of CO2 for each hour flown. 

Relevant: The First Carbon Footprint Map Is Now Live!

My developer and I have done over 20 carbon footprint quizzes and based our scaling numbers on our research.  

The goal is to have a simple calculator for everyone to use so as many people as possible can know what their carbon footprint is.

Exactly, you don’t have to download an app, you don’t have to create an account so people who normally wouldn’t care, maybe would take it because it’s so easy.

Credit: Clever Carbon

The target audience is everyone including people who are not climate savvy or interested in climate change.

What is next for Clever Carbon?

It’s working on some of these larger partnerships, and spreading carbon literacy. If everyone knows about carbon footprint, I don’t really need to work. I want to get carbon literacy on stage to be included in normal circumstances, for example, at a semiconductor conference. 

Because they care about sustainability, they could be more open to include this type of content in there. There are a lot of ways Clever Carbon can evolve. It hasn’t even come to light yet because the project has only been around for about two and a half years. Some of the ideas take time and a company has to be ready. 

Doing more partnerships is where I want to see this next and with large companies like MasterCard. They already have a carbon footprint calculator, which is an API and database of carbon information that they’re working on with financial institutions. Plugging into that and taking over some of the branding is where I see Clever Carbon going next. 

What is the key message you’d like to send? 

Credit: Clever Carbon

One of the key points I want to make is that we don’t have to wait for heat pumps to come down in price. We don’t need green hydrogen to be able to reduce our impact today. So much of the climate narrative is focused on doing this and that in the future. However, we need to act now. 

And it’s not rocket science, it’s just turning off your lights when you’re not using them, it’s walking more and eating a plant-based diet. The global emissions for food and agriculture is 30%, commercial flying is 2,5%. 

If everyone made a change to their diet, whether it’s including more plant-based items or going plant-based in general, we could really scale and reduce emissions, instead of needing green hydrogen to become widespread. There are a lot of things that we can do today that don’t cost money and I want to make people aware of this. It’s not rocket science but literacy.

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