The start of this new year marks the beginning of our final decade of opportunity to act on climate change. There’s no question corporations have played a major role in creating the problem we’re facing, but that also means that companies both large and small have the chance to help solve it. In the face of a truly existential threat, buzzwords like “sustainability” and “eco-friendly” fall short of what this historic moment requires.
It won’t be enough for businesses to reduce their harm, and doing good alone won’t cut it, either. Whether or not we solve the climate crisis will come down to our collective net impact on the planet in the years to come. At this critical time, a truly sustainable business must embrace transparency and ultimately accountability. It’s not about marketing — it’s about science and math.
Motivated By a Desire to Keep Minnesota’s Signature Cold
Take our company, Askov Finlayson, a climate-positive outdoor apparel business based in Minneapolis. We believe that winter in Minnesota is when we’re at our very best, but our signature cold is at risk.
That’s because Minneapolis is projected to be the 2nd most disrupted city in the nation by climate change, behind only New Orleans. And we have among the fastest warming winters in America.
If we lose our winters, we will also lose a big part of our identity. So in 2013, Askov Finlayson began a program called Keep The North Cold to help fund solutions to the climate crisis.
I’d like to share how this program has evolved over time, which I hope will be helpful to other business leaders also wrestling with how to respond to this monumental challenge that we all face together.
How We First Approached Building an Environmentally Sustainable Business
Keep The North Cold started out as the traditional model of donating a percentage of proceeds from the sales of our products to charity. And it was a somewhat arbitrary number: 10%.
As our company grew, that started to result in meaningful support to our nonprofit partner and soon enough, we were one of their largest donors.
We were funding important work — the education of high school students to become climate leaders — and feeling pretty good about it. Everyone was happy.
But there was something that bothered me, and that’s that I didn’t know if we were actually fulfilling our mission to keep the North cold or not.
Thinking More Critically About Whether a Promise Was Being Delivered
As I saw it, we were making a promise to our customers, but I wasn’t sure that we were truly delivering on it. I knew we were doing good. But I also knew that, like with any company, we were also causing some harm.
So the key question became, which way did the scales tip? I wanted to find out, so we began investigating our own carbon footprint. In doing so, we discovered new opportunities for improvement, so we promptly made those changes.
I’m proud of the steps we’ve taken to minimize our environmental impact, but that still didn’t answer my question. And so, in 2018, we did an overhaul not just of our giving model, but of our entire business model.
We call it Give 110%.
The Math Behind Our Model and Our Definition of Sustainable Business
We realized that the only way to credibly claim we were keeping the North cold was to know that we were having a net-positive impact on climate.
Simply put, we needed to do more good than harm.
With the help of a third-party partner, we are now able to accurately measure our carbon footprint as a company. This annual audit is comprehensive of everything from our supply chain all the way down to the impact of our employees commuting to work.
We share the results with our customers in the spirit of transparency — and also so that they can check our math.
We then take that carbon footprint total and multiply it by what’s called the social cost of carbon, which quantifies the true cost of a ton of CO2 emitted into the atmosphere in terms of its negative impact on society.
That cost comes out to over $40 per metric ton compared to $8-12 for carbon credits.
Once we’ve converted our carbon footprint into dollars, we then multiply that amount by 110% and that’s what we invest in leading-edge solutions to the climate crisis.
And we’re committed to doing this each and every year. I wouldn’t feel comfortable calling Askov Finlayson a sustainable business, let alone a climate-positive one, if the numbers didn’t back it up.
Accountable To The Planet
Give 110% is essentially a self-imposed carbon tax. It’s our way of holding ourselves accountable for our own negative impact, while also keeping our promise to our customers that our positive impact on climate is greater.
The good news is that it doesn’t just work for the planet; it’s a financial model that works for us as well. We don’t claim to be perfect, but we’ve come a long way. And we’re constantly learning and working to improve further still.
I believe in the potential for companies to be a force for good in the decade to come. But that will require pushing beyond vague notions of sustainable business practices and corporate responsibility and instead embracing true accountability.
Because while we might be able to fool ourselves with less, we can’t fool Mother Nature. And in the end, her balance sheet is the only one that matters.