Reflections on 2021 and the Year Ahead

Austin Whitman
January 12, 2022
Our CEO, Austin, reflects on a year of new challenges and rapid growth, and offers some insights on a year of progress ahead for climate technology, carbon markets, Climate Neutral certification & more.
My 8-year-old daughter looked up from a Nancy Drew mystery at breakfast the other day and said, pensively, “I wish global warming wasn’t happening.” The absence of snow on the ground during the holidays had been gnawing at her. “Don’t worry,” I said, “they just solved climate change at COP26.”
Actually, I didn’t say that, because that’s not what happened in November. Or at any point during 2021. In fact, the opposite happened.

While pandemic interfered with travel, shopping, and supply chains, it apparently didn’t solve climate change. The emissions dip in 2020 was a blip, nothing more.

As people in 2021 got back to the business of being humans, not hermits, we bought lots of things and drove many miles. Now we’re a year closer to 2050, and emissions are again trending in the wrong direction. Collectively we got right back to destroying the planet as effectively as we were before. It sure sharpens the mission and the urgency for Climate Neutral as we move into 2022.

Happily, our impact is growing.

In 2021 (our third year since launch) we made it through a few more levels of the arcade game known as “starting a nonprofit.” When we started in 2019, we faced Level One challenges like “name yourself” and “complete this massive IRS 501(c)3 application.” Now we face challenges like “certify 350 brands in 120 days, credibly and completely.” 

Like an arcade game, the reward for passing each level is a chance to try your hand at the next harder one. Thankfully, along the way you gain tools, powers, and friends who help you rise to each new challenge. In 2021 we gained many of these.

Get this: we began the year with three people on our team, and now we have eight. Five dynamic professionals changed course in their careers to join our nonprofit mission. Equally stunning is that another few dozen people agreed to work for us for free. Volunteers contributed in meaningful ways to all aspects of our work — writing code, advising our brands, configuring our Salesforce, and more, to give us dramatically more reach. And the icing on the cake? They won’t owe taxes on their wages.

The team behind our work. From top left (clockwise): Austin Whitman, Ellie Read, Patrick Gold, Lauren Frisch, Alicia Rodriguez, Sarah Shoemaker, Bella Todaro, and Graham Gephart.

As record amounts of venture capital poured into climate tech, we kept moving to our own nonprofit beat. The pandemic paused long enough for us to squeeze in our first ever all-hands meeting in Boston, replete with whiteboards and hot dots. It was a huge moment for our virtual team. The vibe, in living color and 3D, was tremendous. Old-fashioned face time still beats FaceTime.

We increased our revenues (grants + earned income) by 50% — a massive jump, by our terms. Earned income grew from nearly nothing to cover about one-half of our $850,000 budget. We enjoyed the freedom to build lean and pursue our mission with ever more companies.

From 2020 to 2021 our list of certified brands grew from 150 to 330, with 70 others committed. And the list keeps growing, with dozens of new conversations happening each month. We attribute this growth to broader awareness of the Climate Neutral Certified label, a tremendous referral rate, and our own efforts to reach millions of consumers through low-budget marketing. We got the word out through nearly every major form of digital media*, including a fun video produced in pieces by some of our brands.

* Except TikTok, but I sense a debut is inevitable.

Until last year, we had hypothesized that consumers would care about our climate label. To prove it, we did a little consumer research with the help of Rare.org, a fellow grantee of the Mulago Foundation. The research confirmed that climate labels do matter — a lot — when people evaluate product attributes. Good news.

"87% of surveyed consumers valued Climate Neutral Certified products, and consumers broadly associated positive characteristics to products across multiple dimensions of quality, sustainability, cost and trust."

We had more capacity to strengthen the systems and tools that our small team uses to work with large numbers of companies. We continue to think that the world lags about two decades behind schedule when it comes to evaluating carbon emissions. It’s a problem greatly underserved by the tech sector. While we’ve welcomed the recent explosive growth in the category, we’re cautiously staking a claim to the title of “leading nonprofit carbon measurement platform.”

What’s more, our entire certification process, with all of the necessary document tracking and workflows, now also lives (mostly) in a single software platform. And soon we’ll be able to get that platform into the hands of consultants to help companies take on certification. Technology continues to be an essential ingredient of scale.

A sneak peek at our new Brand Emissions Estimator (BEE) measurement tool, being deployed currently for brands in the our first 2022 Certification Cycle during Q1.

Beyond the metrics and operational details, things felt different by the end of 2021. Thanks to the tools, powers, and friends we’ve gained, we’re having conversations with more, larger companies, and are working on some very interesting partnerships. Going into 2022 we’re ready to focus on basics:

  1. Keep building an excellent team,
  2. Work with well-aligned partners,
  3. Focus on the massive opportunity to mobilize consumers and brands against the threats of climate change.

This year will offer plenty of challenges. Like any startup, funding the growth of our operations will remain a priority. We’ve found no easy money. These days, climate philanthropy seems to favor policy answers, community empowerment, and progressive movements — worthy causes, to be sure, but not our strengths. I welcome any and all new ideas and connections.

The carbon markets are being roiled by cryptocurrency platforms, which have scooped up large volumes of credits, pushed prices up, and confused just about everyone. We continue to think that our brands are best served by a deliberate approach to credit buying, where there is more transparency and connection to each underlying project. Easily said, harder to execute. We’ll take on this question anew this year with the help of many advisors.

Team-building will continue to be exciting and challenging. We’ll soon start a search for an excellent communications professional who is both creative and strategic. A job posting will be on our website later this month. We love referrals.

The full Climate Neutral team gathered for the first time in person. Keep your eyes on the job postings to be the next member of the team.
Some of the craziness of 2021 will certainly define 2022. But we can harness it for good.

“We are living through a time when all the stories the larger culture tells us about ourselves are being rewritten,” writer Kaitlyn Greenidge said in a recent column. “The story of what the United States is; what it means to be a man or a woman; what it means to be a child; what it means to love oneself or other people. We are imagining all of this again so that these stories can guide and comfort us rather than control us.”

Indeed, it’s a time when the story of global industry is also being rewritten: from a fossil-powered, win-at-all-costs model to a new reality where resource equity and rights are the business of business. 

Global warming is happening, but it’s up to us to rewrite the story, so that we spare ourselves and our kids from the more intense versions of the climate disasters we’re already suffering. No one promised that rewriting this story would be easy, but if each one of us takes a sentence, we can end up with a masterpiece.

Here’s to a 2022 full of progress.

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About the Author

Austin Whitman
CEO, Climate Neutral

Austin Whitman is the CEO of Climate Neutral. He started working on climate change and clean energy 17 years ago and believes companies and consumers must do more to eliminate carbon emissions. When he's not building Climate Neutral, he's a dad, a husband, and an amateur at many hobbies.

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