9 min read

How we created a company climate plan at Spendesk

Tom Morisse

How can a company take serious, meaningful steps to reduce its impact on the environment? More specifically, how can a typical growing business measure and improve its carbon footprint?

Climate change is a large, all-encompassing issue that affects everyone, everywhere, all the time. And most companies have no idea where to start in tackling it.

But like many tech startups, we’re solutions-oriented at Spendesk. When we have a problem, we build a plan to solve it.

We've embarked on a mission to dramatically reduce our climate impact. Here’s what the plan looks like, and the process so far.

The problem: where to start?

Obviously the real “problem” here is the devastating impact of climate change. This is quite possibly the "biggest threat modern humans have ever faced." 

And while we’re a bold, ambitious company, our core mission isn’t to solve that giant issue. 

But many of the team here feel that we have an ethical duty to take climate change seriously. One of our company culture code principles is “we are caring.” Since this is an issue we care about, we can’t just do nothing.

The big problem at work is the same as in our personal lives: what can we do, and where do we start? Of course we want to come up with radical solutions, fun challenges, and quick fixes, but that would be putting the cart before the horse. 

And maybe we didn’t even have a problem to begin with. Where would Spendesk fit on this scale?

  • The perfect example of climate responsibility. Seems unlikely.
  • A terrible carbon emitter, ruining the planet. Also unlikely for a FinTech company.
  • Neither good nor bad, but with lots of room for improvement. This feels right for a relatively lean company with no clear climate plan. 
  • A carbon-optimized FinTech startup. This is the goal.

As I wrote earlier, we’re never going to be the company that solves and reverses climate change. So our goal is to be responsible, to take our impact seriously, and certainly to be better than average.

Which requires a game plan.

The strategy: create a climate plan

Another Spendesk cultural principle is “we are owners.” We own our work scope, but also our place in the company. Plus we all have stock, so we literally own a piece. 

Part of being an owner is taking action. We could’ve waited for someone else to tell us to create a climate plan, but that’s not how this principle works. Instead, a small group decided to start the Climate Strategy Workgroup, measure our impact, and then make plans to reduce it. 

We had seen other companies sharing their carbon footprints - notably Mozilla. And this presentation from Magelantech showed that there’s a clear process for other companies who want to do the same - like us.

So here’s our strategy in a nutshell:

  1. Form the workgroup. This was entirely voluntary. Juliette Hervé made a Slack channel and invited everyone to join. Around a dozen accepted her invitation, and thus we had a workgroup.
  2. Find tools and resources to help. Chiefly, we wanted a tool that would calculate our carbon footprint for us.
  3. Secure a budget. Tools aren’t free. And once we measure our impact, we’ll also want to create initiatives to improve it.
  4. Assess our impact today. We’re not carbon experts, and we don’t have endless time, so we needed help.
  5. Create short-term initiatives. Once we have results and enthusiasm is high, we need a way for everyone to contribute. 
  6. Get company-wide buy-in for new initiatives. One goal is to help everyone understand our impact and how they can help manage it.
  7. Set a long-term strategy. What will be our approach for the long-term, once this initial focus and excitement wears off. And what if key members of the workgroup leave the company?

We’re somewhere between 6 and 7 today. We’ve done much of the tricky stuff already, and of course we now have the daunting task of setting standards and making them stick. 

To get here, clearly the biggest hurdle was number 3: measuring our impact. For this, we needed two tools:

1. Emitwise to measure our carbon footprint

We don’t have the time or expertise to go through every carbon-emitting factor ourselves. So we examined a range of new and powerful tools that will do this work for you. 

We landed on Emitwise for a few good reasons: 

  • Cultural/value fit: The team understood Spendesk and what our workgroup was trying to achieve immediately. 
  • A more advanced tool: Compared with some of the other options we considered, Emitwise did more heavy lifting and gave us the exact data we needed. And the dashboards are easy to understand.
  • An experienced team: The tool is built by former consultants who’ve calculated carbon emissions for big companies.
  • Intuitive tool: Anyone on our team who wants it has access, and there’s not a lot of onboarding required.
  • Great ROI: Emitwise is far from the cheapest option available, but they really did most of the work for us. 

And we got along with them right away! So once we saw that the tools were a fit, we were thrilled to sign up. 

2. Spendesk to monitor our spending

It’s relatively easy to find average carbon emissions for companies. Emitwise has these, and there are other services out there. But to get a more precise estimate, it’s important to analyze how your company spends. Everything from travel, to IT, to food, to utilities has a carbon footprint. If you know your consumption with each supplier, you can measure your emissions. 

Luckily, Spendesk tells us exactly how much we’ve spent, where, when, and what for. Our wonderful administrative and accounting teams could provide Emitwise with all the data they needed - and without spending weeks digging through credit card receipts.

Just another added bonus of smart spend management!

Early results: Spendesk’s carbon footprint

Of course, you’re probably most interested in our actual results. We’re a French company, and we took inspiration from our neighbours like Mozilla, and Shine, who had shared their results publicly. 

To understand the results, you probably need a few basic facts: 

  • We’re a FinTech company with two main product elements: physical debit cards and our cloud-based spend management platform
  • We have around 270 team members today, but were closer to 200 when we did this analysis. (We’ll hopefully be 400 or so next time we do it.)
  • Head Office is in Paris (200 employees), with locations in Berlin (15), London (15), and San Francisco (5), with the rest fully remote.
  • This analysis was done in 2020. Thanks to the COVID crisis, our offices had very different levels of occupancy throughout the year. Our rates of travel were also significantly reduced.

Emitwise shared our carbon footprint (and some analysis) with us in early 2021. It showed year-end results for 2019 and 2020, which of course lets us compare the two. I won’t reprint the entire document, but here are the five most interesting takeaways.

1. Our carbon footprint increased in 2020

We obviously had considerably more employees by the end of 2020. But even on a per-person basis, the output was higher. Which was somewhat surprising - we’ve all heard that one potential silver lining of the COVID crisis is the drop in air pollution.

First, that’s probably true, but not as significant as we all hoped. Second, Spendesk’s impact on air pollution (in a way that COVID might affect) is minimal. We’re not an aviation or manufacturing company, for example. 

Our web servers do have an impact - “the cloud” is far from carbon neutral - and this didn’t change with COVID. And while our teams worked from home more, most of us live in well-connected cities and either take public transport, ride bikes, or walk to work. So saving on commuting didn’t make a massive difference. Which leads to the next point...

2. Remote vs office work have roughly the same impact

In early 2019, teleworking didn’t have a large footprint. Spendesk has always been flexible and remote-friendly, but the vast majority of our teams preferred to be in the building together at that point in time. Most of these emissions came from remote workers in the US, Germany, and London.

You’ll see a pretty significant increase in electrical and commuting emissions in early 2020. This is for a few reasons: 

There’s also a large spike in electricity overall soon after. This is a combination of those new offices opening in London and Berlin, and our move to a new HQ in Paris. We’ll examine these next. 

3. Paris has the highest per-person emissions

The main cause of this isn’t actually the offices themselves. Electricity and utilities are pretty comparable across our offices, and in fact our Paris HQ is one of the greenest office buildings in the city.

Paris is Spendesk’s HQ, and thus holds the vast majority of our mail, furniture, swag, decorations, and other bits and pieces. And these added transactions are the main reason for this discrepancy. Which brings us to the next point. 

4. Purchased goods and services make up 90% of our carbon emissions

This was clearly the biggest wake up call. Retail and professional services in particular account for a huge portion of our climate output. 

We’ll talk shortly about the next steps, which are very much still a work in progress. But the benefit of having this analysis is that we can highlight these areas causing the biggest issues and give clear guidance on how our teams can help reduce them. 

Until now, we really had no idea how significantly those small office purchases could be hurting

5. Business travel could be an issue in the future

We all know from our private lives that travel - especially air travel - has a serious climate impact. And obviously we didn’t do a lot of business travel in 2020 - company-wide it represented only 1.4% of our spending. 

Yet it still contributed 5.3% of our indirect emissions. So it’s pretty clear that, once the pandemic has eased and travel gets back to normal, we’ll need to keep a very close eye on how much of it we do. 

So what now?

The purpose of this article so far is to show you how we arrived at “Step 1” - the why and how behind measuring a company’s climate footprint. 

And while it would be great to show you a flawless list of next steps that will bring us neatly to carbon neutrality, we’re not there yet. Now comes the hard work. 

Spendesk’s Climate Strategy Workgroup will make recommendations to the wider company about how we can do better. Although not set in stone just yet, these might include: 

  • Avoiding flying once business travel becomes the norm again.
  • Purchasing refurbished office furniture, computers, and other equipment.
  • Buying locally-produced food for office snacks and events (and avoiding products that require serious long-distance shipping).
  • Keep encouraging commuters to choose carbon-neutral options.

These are just examples. The major point is that we need to embed carbon responsibility deeper into our company culture, and to have clear policies about this. It shouldn’t be up to individuals to make the right decisions - we need guidance for the whole company.

Small climate initiatives

In the short term, we have started a few initiatives to generate interest and help others buy in. 

  • Inter-office challenges. Since we can now measure the climate cost per employee, each regional team will have the chance to prove their own commitment. 
  • Low-carbon travel. Once the worst of the pandemic is behind us, we want to see our teams find creative ways to meet face-to-face with minimal emissions. This could mean cycling from Paris to London - or for the really brave, Paris to Berlin - and taking trains instead of flights. The big challenge here is making this both enjoyable and fun, but also efficient. 
  • Earth Week 2021. Earth Day comes at a perfect time (April 22), and we can raise awareness about the climate initiative alongside other ecological programs. Speaking of which...

Join our Earth Week events

Some of our Earth Week events this year are open to everyone, not just Spendesk. And we’d love to see you there. All the information you need is at the links below: 

👉 https://lnkd.in/d7NwNyJ

  •  Apr 20: "Your food eats climate - How can we be more responsible in our food habits and fight against global warming ?" with Loic Fayet & Annabelle Fayet

👉 https://lnkd.in/dAG7JKz

  •  Apr 21: "How companies can (easily) take actions to start having a positive impact on the planet today" with David Turner & Juliette Hervé

👉 https://lnkd.in/duKuWT8

We can’t wait to see what improves and to share next year’s results!

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Tom Morisse

Tom Morisse is Knowledge Manager at Spendesk, a Forbes contributor, and the Deputy Mayor of Ville d'Eaubonne.