The REWORK podcast

A podcast about a better way to work and run your business. We bring you stories and unconventional wisdom from Basecamp’s co-founders and other business owners.

EPISODE 0110

Greening Basecamp

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Basecamp recently set out to do a carbon accounting, looking at the company’s emissions, as well as meaningful ways to offset and mitigate those impacts. Jane Yang and Elizabeth Gramm, the two Basecampers who took on this daunting and nuanced project, come on the show to discuss not just the work itself, but how they’ve been processing the fear, skepticism, grief, and hope that come with trying to address the climate crisis.

Elizabeth’s Reading Recommendations


The Full Transcript:

[00:00:00] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Wailin: [00:00:01] Welcome to Rework, a podcast by Basecamp about the better way to work and run your business. I’m Wailin Wong.

Shaun: [00:00:07] And I’m Shaun Hildner. Wailin, we’re back.

Wailin: [00:00:10] Oh, my gosh.

Shaun: [00:00:11] How does 2021 feel so far?

Wailin: [00:00:13] Fine.

Shaun: [00:00:14] I mean, at least 2020 is over. So we’re going to sort of ease into coming back with a nice light topic, right?

Wailin: [00:00:22] Yeah, we’re gonna talk about climate change.

Shaun: [00:00:24] Oh, perfect.

[00:00:25] Today, we’re talking to some Basecampers you’ve heard on Rework before. Jane Yang is our head of data and policy. And Elizabeth Gramm is on our customer support team. They’re here to talk about their work analyzing Basecamp’s carbon footprint and thinking of ways we can do something about it.

Wailin: [00:00:41] I think it’s easy to spiral when it comes to climate change and what to do about it. It seems like such an overwhelming and intractable crisis that it’s pointless to engage in any individual action. And then so much of what corporations do just seems like greenwashing or empty public relations. That’s how you arrive at feeling despair and nihilism, and just throwing up your hands.

Shaun: [00:01:02] So we’re trying to offer an alternative to that feeling. This is an honest conversation about how we’re tackling climate change as a small and mostly remote tech company. We’re still learning a lot. But we’re finding ways to approach this issue that feel proactive and realistic.

[00:01:17] I think no matter what industry you’re in, or the size of your business, there are plenty of things large and small, that we can all do in this area. So here’s Wailin’s conversation with Elizabeth and Jane.

Jane: [00:01:35] My name is Jane Yang, and I am the head of policy and data at Basecamp.

Elizabeth: [00:01:39] I’m Elizabeth Gramm, and I’m a support rep here at Basecamp.

Wailin: [00:01:45] Where did this all start?

Elizabeth: [00:01:49] Several years ago, the UN report came out about climate change and what the projection was probably don’t need to inform anyone that it was bad. And it happened to come out, I think shortly before a meet up. I had been thinking a little bit about the ways in which the company might engage a little bit with climate change, despite being mostly remote. And so because it was right before a meet up, we all travel. So I was thinking about that and carbon offsets for traveling.

[00:02:25] And then at the meetup, David did a presentation about indoor air quality. He was talking quite a bit about the research that he’d done and thinking about it kind of like on a personal level. And it just seemed to me, like the right moment to think about how these things were interlinked. It was there that I kind of first brought up the idea about offsetting, specifically about flights, but then also, were there other things we could do?

Jane: [00:02:53] One of the wonderful things about how Basecamp runs itself in writing is that a lot of history is documented in a way that perhaps in other companies, you wouldn’t necessarily have known that this broader conversation had happened in a company. And I remember somehow stumbling upon a write up, perhaps it was it was right after that meetup that Elizabeth was talking about, that essentially issued some challenges, like what is it that we as a company can do. And there’s a lot of great discussion, but for variety of reasons that, perhaps, company wide movement hadn’t yet been doable. And I think part of that is because we don’t have, for instance, as a small company, like a dedicated sustainability team, or lead. So it’s sort of beholden on individuals to try to nudge a little bit. And that’s really hard to prioritize on top of everything else that’s going on in a business that is very ambitious and putting out these big products.

[00:03:52] Interestingly, the other thing is that I started noticing David and Jason talking about a book they had read, The Uninhabitable Earth. Whenever the CEO and CTO of a company sort of signal that they’re thinking about something to the point that they’re reading books about it, it sounds like it might be an opportune time to try to push. At least to me.

Wailin: [00:04:16] Were we in a situation where The Uninhabitable Earth just kept coming up over and over, and even a conversation that didn’t start out about environmentalism or about climate change would end up in this, like, big spiral of discussing everything in that book?

Jane: [00:04:33] Yes.

[00:04:35] One day, I don’t know what exactly David was doing, but he created his own project for accounting and carbon accounting specifically and was like, I think we should do a carbon accounting. And that was sort of, in my mind like a green light finally of, okay, great. Now I can set aside cycle time for us to do this. That’s how I think more focused work started to come into play.

Wailin: [00:04:57] Yeah, so then you started with this really big initial question of what is Basecamp’s carbon footprint? Where do you even start with an exercise like that? Even given the greenlight officially to do it as part of your job responsibility, so this is not just a quixotic side project that you have to pitch but this is something you’re given full license to pursue? Where do you even start?

Jane: [00:05:23] I should say that in a former life, I actually studied sustainable energy. I majored in chemical engineering and spent a summer in college interning for a large engineering services firm and part of my job there was putting together greenhouse gas accounting protocols for wastewater treatment plants. And I was familiar with some of the broader framework such as thinking about what are scope one, scope two and scope three emissions? Essentially, how direct are the emissions that are attributable to your business? Are you directly burning fossil fuels? What are the heating and other energy sources that your buildings are using? And then the scope three, which for a company like Basecamp, is the largest contributor of carbon emissions, is what could possibly, through the supply chain, be a driver of emissions?

[00:06:15] And so I had that initial framework, and there are some obvious places to start. We did, for instance, at the time, have an office in Chicago, as well as flights. And pre-COVID, we also did have two annual meetups as well as a smattering of team-specific meetups where, despite the fact that in general, we’re a remote company, we would gather together.

[00:06:38] But the other piece of it is that I was hired as Basecamp’s data analyst and as a result, I see the books and the numbers. I know what we spend our money on and also what is sort of bringing in the revenue. And you can essentially just pick a spot and say, okay, well, let me think about what are the possible emissions? For instance, do the fact that outside of labor, cloud spend is our largest cost for the company, for running the business, at any point in time? So what are the ambitions affiliated with us hosting a lot of our applications and services on the cloud.

[00:07:09] And I basically just went through our revenue and our expenditures, and I said, how could this possibly be tied to admissions? Do I think that this is likely to be a large driver? And having to make some calls throughout this process of like, okay, this one is probably going to be a driver, but it’s also probably going to be really, really difficult to size. So I’m just going to round up generously in the hopes that it will cover any emissions that are specifically tied to this one software that three designers are using.

Wailin: [00:07:43] So you got pretty granular, then.

Jane: [00:07:46] I did. In the end, I ended up bucketing the major footprint drivers into less than a dozen major ones. And I and I certainly made a lot of assumptions. For instance, I didn’t try to calculate the carbon footprint of every single meal that we as a company indulge in, during meet ups, I instead figured out what were the emissions for beef and dairy, which within the agricultural food space are some of the largest drivers, and made some very generous assumptions of how much beef and dairy we consumed and used that, for instance, as a way to create a floor estimate. Especially because Basecamp is in the luxurious position of being able to round up generously in favor of the earth, that there were just some judgment calls there on what to really drill down on. Transportation, I actually figured out the destination for person by person, where they lived, and how long it would take them to get to the office for a meet up and by what mode of transportation and how many times they made that trip.

Wailin: [00:08:52] It occurs to me that this is an exercise where you start pulling on a thread, and you could be still trying to calculate the carbon footprint years later. Like if you were looking at, okay, we have a small group of employees using this particular piece of software, I’m going to try to figure out the environmental impact of this piece of software, then all of a sudden, you could be calculating the carbon footprint for this whole other software company that’s not even our company. So where did you figure out how to draw some boundaries around, okay, I think this is now indirect enough that I shouldn’t count it as part of Basecamp’s carbon footprint.

Jane: [00:09:32] To a certain extent I use costs as a proxy. There is a very long tail of other software providers that we use. I sort of said, okay, I will size out our cloud hosting and on-prem hosting, because those are by far our largest expenditures when it comes to running our applications. And then I’m going to, sort of arbitrarily to be completely honest, markup 10% to account for everything else. So it was very much guided, for the large part, by expenditure. With a couple of exceptions. For instance, I did dive into the fact that Basecamp’s founders published books. The revenue from those books does go towards Basecamp. And so I thought it was reasonable to say that Basecamp was responsible for the emissions affiliated with printing and distributing those books. And that is not at all a large revenue factor for Basecamp as a company, but given that it was about shipping physical items and removing carbon sink as part of the production process, I thought it was important to really drill down onto that.

[00:10:48] I think, also, that anyone could argue that I missed on where I drew boundaries. And actually, when we published the carbon footprint online, on our Signal v. Noise blog, a couple of people pointed out some things that they thought were omitted. For instance, I didn’t know this was actually fairly large emission, I didn’t take into account HVAC for the home offices of employees. And as a result, we ended up going from an initial internal estimate that already included a round up of 820 tons of CO2 for 2019. And I just said, okay, we’re just going to round up to 1000.

Elizabeth: [00:11:24] That long thread that you can keep pulling and pulling, I think the fact of it is just a really good reason to be doing this. When you start to do it and you see, of course, we’re not operating in a vacuum at all. And in fact, all of these decisions that we make as an organization are connected to all these other things. And that’s kind of the point. It’s funny, because you really can just keep going and going. And in a way, that’s a source of hope for me. But also, I suppose, part of the grief, because you can just see these ripples, and at the moment they’re ripples in a pretty dark pond, I guess I would say.

Wailin: [00:12:12] One aspect that you calculated that I was very surprised by and very intrigued by was that you took into account our banking provider, JPMorgan Chase. Can you talk about that?

Elizabeth: [00:12:24] A lot of these financial institutions obviously bankroll lots of kinds of projects and other organizations. And so, to me, at least, and I think, to Jane, too, it seemed just as important to think about that bigger picture. They benefit from our work with them and our money helps them do the kinds of things they’re doing in other areas. It was also much bigger, if I’m remembering correctly, then maybe people would guess. And it’s because of that long thread.

Jane: [00:13:01] There is this op ed by the founder of 350.org, which really makes this case and Elizabeth was the one who brought it to our discussion. It points out that a lot of these deep sea drilling, oil extraction ventures, they need money. They need someone to put up the funds, and very often, it is large American banks, especially JPMorgan. Then the question becomes, well, if you as an individual or if a business uses a particular financial institution for deposits. Not for investment purposes. How much of the deposits in a bank are then used to go towards ventures like this? This is now when we get into the really deep, nitty gritty aspects of how our financial system works. But this is something that I would love for some scholar out there who both knows how the financial industry works to a more granular level than me and has a passion for understanding this. I would love for someone to publish this because my current hunch is that we should be accounting for our banking relationship to some extent. I personally think that we should really be reconsidering who our financial partner is.

[00:14:28] Basecamp could essentially erase itself off of the earth, and the carbon emissions that would be saved from doing so is a 100th of a 100th of a 10th of the carbon budget that we have remaining. It is inconsequential.

[00:14:46] But if Chase bank, for instance, and I’m you know, we’re using them because they are often named as the largest oil, coal and gas barons, given how much they invest in the fossil fuel industry. If they were to cease that activity, it would not be the unnoticeable blip of Basecamp’s work. So there’s also that aspect of trying to understand what are the real levers that any individual or institution has to try to really meaningfully change the dialogue and therefore the actions that stakeholders are taking when it comes to mitigating emissions.

Wailin: [00:15:29] What you point out about even if Basecamp was to eliminate itself, that it wouldn’t really represent more than like a teeny tiny blip, which then, of course, we also know to be the case for individual action when it comes to climate change. You’ve done this big accounting exercise. And you see the scope of the problem. You see where Basecamp, even as an influential company, in certain circles, fits into the picture. Where do you go from there? And like, how do you start framing out what steps you want to take in a way that feels useful?

Jane: [00:16:10] I do think that we still need to have a serious conversation around what can we meaningfully mitigate? For reasons that, truth be told, were not motivated by a reduction in our carbon emissions, Basecamp ended up closing down our physical office. And a nice side effect is that that reduces our carbon footprint quite considerably, because our physical office ended up being quite the building to heat.

[00:16:41] But I think that, for instance, we need to have a conversation as a company about how do we think about meetups and we know from a year of isolation from each other, that it’s not really sustainable as a remote company to never see each other in person. That has a cost as well. We need to talk about what is it that we’re choosing to continue to emit? And what is it that we are willing to try to reduce.

[00:17:09] However, I also think that the bigger part of what an organization like Basecamp, which has a loud megaphone, can do, is to try to really just beat the drum, that this is important. And as we can especially do that within our particular industry, and to call for members of our industry that have significantly higher power. Looking at you, Amazon. Looking at you, Google. To take on the responsibility that comes with that power. One specific example is to make transparent to all of their cloud services customers, what are the actual electricity consumption affiliated with the usage of their services.

[00:17:59] And Microsoft, to their credit, have started to offer this sort of transparency to their cloud customers. Once we have transparent information of the cloud resources we’re using, we can start to think about how do you optimize when we’re running jobs. You know, could we do that a time in which there’s a higher share of renewable energy in our power supply and things like that. But those sorts of conversations for mitigation are completely nonstarters, when we don’t even have the baseline information of how much we’re consuming.

Elizabeth: [00:18:27] What can be sort of paralyzing, we see this on the individual level, but we can also think about it in terms of individual organizations. Which is that we get stuck in this place where we feel like either every single choice we make matters, like the whole fate of the world hangs on it or nothing we do matters. Both of those put the individual at the center of things, right. And that’s where a lot of despair comes in.

[00:18:55] So I think something about both doing this kind of work and seeing the way the connections exist… throughout our industry, but even beyond that… and especially the part where we publish it and talk about it and make it part of the way we think about budgets. I think a big part of that makes it more of something a whole community is doing. Because the whole thing about where we are in this moment is that I think it’s really a cultural problem that we’re having.

[00:19:30] As this sort of work becomes more visible, imitated, accepted, and expected, then the people who make the larger decisions start to see more and more out of step. And so what they want to do is try to make choices that seem more in line with the larger public. At least that’s my hope. Something long term as well as that this kind of gives us a chance to, I don’t know, redefine or kind of think about what profit is, or wealth, or success. If enough people are doing it, it can change the way it’s part of the cultural conversation.

[00:20:17] One of the books I was reading kind of talks about how organizations can think about the question over time, like is our growth greener than last year, qualitatively and quantitatively? And hopefully, that means that there will be more conversations at the political level that can make the really big changes that need to happen. Something I was reading, where the author kind of talks about active skepticism. And he says, basically, the way he thinks about it is that what we’re trying to say, when we do this kind of work is, yes, it’s hopeless, and we’re going all in. Like, realizing the hopelessness of some aspects of this allows you to sort of process the grief or the rage, or the fear, which means you can start to move forward and actually do things which might, over time, have a little bit of an impact on what happens.

Wailin: [00:21:20] So along those lines, what did the Greening Basecamp decide to do as some primary first steps, some initial steps? After doing the accounting exercise.

Jane: [00:21:32] In thinking about how we move forward, your options are essentially good to know we’re not going to do anything, h, wow, that’s bad. Let’s start trying to do better moving forward. Or, oh, wow, that’s bad, can we fix what we did in the past to some extent, at least? And then also, let’s keep moving forward. And Basecamp chose that last option.

[00:21:53] Wse can’t erase the emissions that Basecamp has contributed in the last 20 years of its history, but we can take full responsibility for all of those emissions. And so what we ended up doing was researching, how do we engage with carbon credits, because that’s a whole other discussion of what are the ethics and the theories of changes around carbon credits. But purchasing carbon credits for our cumulative history of 1999 through 2019, in order to essentially, the term is “become carbon neutral,” which, in my estimation, it’s not truly becoming neutral, but it is a method of taking accountability.

[00:22:38] And then, too, moving forward, think about okay, what else can we do? And we have a couple of levers. These other levers include being open about what we’re doing, which is why we tried to publish in detail, what we have been thinking about, how we’ve approached the work of footprinting as well as selecting carbon credits. Making further investments beyond technically getting neutral, but into nascent technologies that are trying to help humanity essentially, actually keep its emissions from boiling over the existing carbon budget. That is a start. But also, it’s not enough yet, in my estimation.

Wailin: [00:23:22] Reading in the Greening Basecamp project, when you’ve outlined some of the different programs and initiatives that you’re looking into as something that Basecamp could invest in as part of this process. I mean, it seems so daunting to vet these programs, there’s so many of them now, and all of them claim lots of different things. How are you organizing this process of evaluating vendors and charitable organizations and kind the whole gamut of groups that are in the space?

Elizabeth: [00:23:55] I mean, Jane has just taken on a monumental amount of work. She has talked with people at these organizations, she’s looked at the documentation about them.

Jane: [00:24:06] Anytime that I was just catching up on the news and heard about something, I would just put a note in the project to look back at it later. And as a result, even before we formally started this project, I had already started to accrue some lists of providers that were getting media attention, debates around, are carbon credits, do they even mean anything?

[00:24:32] Pretty quickly in the process, we determined that we’re likely to want to try to engage with some form of platforms that help us a little bit with the vetting because they can then spend their full time jobs doing that vetting, and it’s a matter of us assessing, are our values aligned and do the initial projects that they are endorsing, do they seem to sort of match our sensibilities? That is, for instance, how we ultimately found Cool Effect and GoClimate.

[00:25:08] I spoke directly with folks who are on their very small teams, I also have a background in international development. So I was very keen to try to find projects that were led by the communities that are doing the work, and where the majority of the financial gain from the carbon credits would go towards those communities doing the work. What we found was that, actually, once you started to apply all of those filters, the number of projects that that met the bar started to dwindle.

Wailin: [00:25:36] Who are some writers and thinkers and doers that you take a lot of encouragement and hope and good ideas from and that you recommend other folks follow and read and listen to? Whether they’re at the beginning of this kind of work in their company, wanting to start a conversation, or maybe if they’re further along, even.

Jane: [00:25:57] So specifically, within the technology space, I highly recommend folks who are interested in doing to join the Climate Action Tech community. They have a website, ClimateAction.tech. And there’s a very active community that are sharing resources and sharing time with each other to try to talk through, hey, this is what we’re doing. And there are folks in there who are heads of their greening teams and there are folks in there who are at companies where they’re just trying to start this conversation.

[00:26:32] There’s a team, Wholegrain Digital, based in the UK. They have a great newsletter that’s focused on digital stability. They also have, for instance, a tool where you can run your websites through and see essentially, what percentile are you at when it comes to how green your website is.

[00:26:53] The other source that I tried to really follow closely is local environmental justice groups. They’re fighting for the steel mill in their community to, when it is demolished, to not create a literal blanket of dust on their community in the middle of the COVID pandemic. I think it’s really important to keep centered the humans, especially the ones who are going to be disproportionately, and already are disproportionately affected by environmental decisions that don’t take into account the whole human cost of those decisions.

Elizabeth: [00:27:31] Yeah. And to that end, if people are interested, they might want to look at 350.org. that might be a good place if someone’s just kind of starting out thinking about what they can get involved in locally. Because, like Jane says, it is the human piece of it. It’s that element, really, of justice and ethical action in this world, I think, to care for one another. And to think about the connections between communities and the environment.

Wailin: [00:28:01] Have you two become much closer through this process?

Jane: [00:28:04] Elizabeth is just frickin’ fantastic. I was selfishly very pleased to have a reason to work with her. Definitely someone that I so, so appreciate and consider a friend.

Elizabeth: [00:28:20] To do work at work that feels meaningful and bigger than yourself, and is with someone you admire and respect and love to work with. I mean, it doesn’t really get a lot better. It was lonely to me before I knew whether or not people shared any of these values, or if it was on anybody’s radar. It was like a scary thing to bring up in the whole company setting. But it felt too sad and scary to think that no one else was paying attention. And so that’s why it means a lot to have just found people who want to have these conversations, let alone people who want to invest time and energy and money into seeing what Basecamp can do and like where we can fit.

[00:29:14] Broken By Design by Clip Art plays.

Shaun: [00:29:22] Rework is produced by Wailin Wong and me Shaun Hildner. Music for the show is by Clip Art. Jane has written up a bunch of her carbon accounting work on our company blog, Signal v. Noise. We’ll link to those posts in the show notes for this episode, which you can find rework.fm.

[00:29:38] We also have a long list of reading recommendations from Elizabeth that we’ll put in the show notes as well.

Wailin: [00:29:42] You can find us on Twitter at @reworkpodcast and our email is hello@rework.fm. If you have suggestions for stories you want us to tackle in 2021, please drop us a line. I’ve also enjoyed hearing about all the scented candles that people have been buying so keep those emails coming, too.

[00:30:14] If we were on Zoom, I could show you how high I got my bun today. It’s so high.

Shaun: [00:30:18] Uh, just text me a picture.

Wailin: [00:30:20] Okay.

Shaun: [00:30:20] Or ping it.