Cooler and the Quixotic Quest for Carbon-Neutral Consumption

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by: Joel Makower

The notion of carbon-neutral shopping looms large for many in the environmental world. If only we could shop without guilt, knowing unquestionably that the global warming impacts of our purchases were being rendered harmless, we'd all feel that we were being part of the solution to climate change.

It's a compelling and nearly rational notion.

Of course, an even better bet is to buy less stuff, and to make sure the stuff we buy is made using materials and processes that minimize harm to the environment (and, especially, to the people who make the stuff). And to use the stuff we buy for as long as we can, repairing and refurbishing it when possible, or making sure the stuff has another useful life. And to ensure that the stuff is disposed of in ways that ensure it will have nutritional value in the earth or in industrial materials cycles.

But, inevitably, we'll still end up buying more (and more) stuff. So, the quest for carbon-neutral shopping continues.

It hasn't been easy. Consumers interested in neutralizing the carbon impacts of their purchases — by purchasing, either directly or indirectly, carbon offsets — quickly find themselves in an informational morass. Carbon-neutral products and services have been coming fast and furious: credit cards that invest a portion of your purchases in offsets, services that allow you to offset your driving or air travel — or just about anything else. Some of these have been roundly criticized for their methodology, resulting in geeky debates over technicalities about which even the experts don't agree.

And so, into the fray, comes Cooler, an Oakland, Calif-based start-up founded by a veteran environmental leader, in partnership with some of the largest environmental groups, using a pioneering methodology incubated at one of the nation's leading universities. It's partnering with 400 online retailers — an impressive list, including Apple, Bloomingdales, Circuit City, Dockers, eBay, Florsheim, Godiva, and on down through the alphabet to Zales, Zappos, and Zones.

Suffice to say, it caught my eye.

Actually, Cooler first caught my eye two years ago, when its founder, Michel Gelobter, then head of the nonprofit Redefining Progress, invited me in to show me his green shopping idea. I'd heard the pitch before — not from him, but from probably a dozen others: a means to help consumers make a difference with every purchase. At the time, Gelobter's budding company was planning a climate-neutral credit card. I was dubious about its prospects, and said so.

Fast-forward two years. The service, launched this week, has come a long way. The credit card idea has disappeared, at least for now. The service allows consumers to have all purchases made through any of its 400 online retail partners rendered carbon neutral.

As the company describes it:

Consumers who shop through pay the same prices they would going directly to the retailer. The company uses a product-level carbon calculator that is the first global warming solution to address the impact of almost any consumer good or service sold in the U.S.  Fees paid back to Cooler by the stores on its site are invested in renewable energy and pollution prevention projects approved by some of the world's best known environmental organizations.

That's half the story. The other half is a service launched by Cooler to help retailers — online or off — to more easily create carbon-neutral offerings for their customers, not just for a few products, but all of them.

What's makes Cooler — well, cooler — is that it utilizes an innovative database developed at the University of California at Berkeley. Called LEAPS (for Life-cycle Environmental Assessment of Products and Services), it provides an economic model, rather than an engineering-based one, for determining the climate footprint of a given product.

In the engineering model, companies conduct a life-cycle analysis (LCA), a costly and time-consuming methodology that examines all aspects of a product's environmental impacts, from the sourcing of its raw materials, through its manufacturing and use, to what happens to it at the end of its useful life. LCAs are comprehensive in their findings, but can take thousands of hours and many months to complete.

LEAPS — which Gelobter calls "the country's only product and service carbon calculator" — uses economic data, a blunter instrument yielding less-precise data, but doing so far faster and more cheaply, and with reasonable accuracy, maintains Gelobter. Analyzing the economic flows — not just of the materials and processes that go into a product, but also including other related business activity, such as business travel or office operations — LEAPS has created data for 1,100 product categories.

There are limits to LEAPS. Because it provides data only for product categories, not for individual products, there's no way to compare, say, Coke versus Pepsi. But it may be the best thing currently available to help consumers understand the impacts of the widest possible spectrum of their purchases.

On the offsets side, Cooler has partnered with Environmental Defense, the National Wildlife Federation, and the Natural Resources Defense Council, as well as Gold Standard, a European organization just now entering the U.S. scene, widely regarded as the international marker for high-quality carbon offsets. Gold Standard projects must meet very high criteria to ensure that they contribute to the adoption of additional sustainable energy projects, rather than simply funding existing projects. The four nonprofits monitor Cooler's offset projects to ensure a high level of integrity.

All told, Cooler is a compelling business. I've poked and prodded a bit to find the greenwash potential, the thing that critics will zero in on to show that it isn't all it's cracked up to be. I haven't found it, though I'm sure others will; they always do.

Of course, there's that whole consumption thing. Gelobter is quick to say that, "We don't want people to have any excuse for buying. We don't want to help people absolve their sins. We actually want to solve this problem." But, he adds, "People are going to continue to shop. And forty percent of Americans' carbon footprint comes from everyday consumer products and services." Cooler, he says, can mitigate much of that.

Gelobter says his principal concern is getting business on board. "Our biggest challenge is helping companies understand that getting to their carbon footprint is not all that hard. The people who have been leading the way, to their credit, have been digging deep into their operations and to where their products and supplies come from. And that's really important work. But we have to do that more quickly and in so many arenas that there actually isn't the manpower to do it all that way for the next five to ten years."

Can Cooler get companies and consumers to act, and act responsibly? That will be the acid test. And while shopping will never likely be truly carbon-neutral, Gelobter and his team are proving that it can come close.

And that's probably good enough for most of us.

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