Caitlin Drown & Isabella Todaro of Climate Neutral: certifying climate claims

Caitlin Drown & Isabella Todaro of Climate Neutral: certifying climate claims

Understory Team
Understory Team

Climate Neutral is on a mission to reduce global carbon emissions. The independent, nonprofit organization helps companies become Climate Neutral certified by providing a framework and process to measure, offset, and reduce carbon emissions. As a result, the Climate Neutral label makes it easier for consumers to identify and support products that take action against climate change.

In this episode, we chat with Caitlin Drown and Isabella Todaro of Climate Neutral. Drown and Todaro share the importance of using a practical and iterative frameworks to reduce emissions so that more organizations can drive impact now, not 30 years in the future. They give a great primer on some of the basic concepts driving their process: carbon footprint, carbon offsets, scope one, two and three emissions, employee advocacy, and more. Tune in to learn more about the Climate Neutral label, certification process, and how they are reducing emissions across industries.

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Episode Transcript:

JJ (the host of the Understory Podcast): Welcome to The Understory Podcast. Understory is a global community with innovators and innovations that help make our world more sustainable. Today, we're really excited to have two individuals or two guests on our podcast. One is Isabella Todaro and the other guest is Caitlin Drown.

Isabella and Caitlin, welcome to The Understory Podcast. We look forward to talking to you about Climate Neutral and what you're doing there, but first, tell us more about your background and how you got involved.

Caitlin Drown: Thank you so much for having us today. My name is Caitlin Drown, and I'm the brand engagement manager at Climate Neutral. My background is rooted in communications and marketing with an interest in psychology and human behavior, wrapping that together with communications to create strategies and campaigns that help drive consumer behavior, especially on climate change.

It’s a very overwhelming topic and crafting communications in a way that spurs individuals to take action versus feeling overwhelmed or that they don't have a role to play has been a passion of mine over the past few years. I've been able to use that passion at Climate Neutral by helping brands talk about the fact that they are climate neutral certified and help consumers understand what it means when a brand is climate neutral certified and how to help them use their voice to drive change within the business community toward lessening their own climate impacts.

JJ: Welcome, Caitlin.

Isabella (Bella) Todaro: Thank you so much for having us. My name is Bella and I manage the certification process at Climate Neutral. Before I joined the Climate Neutral team, I was working in sustainable development in East Africa, specifically on off-grid energy and selling solar home systems, specifically.

I decided to join the Climate Neutral team because of the scale of the solution that Climate Neutral presents. We're working with brands, but our target audience is consumers, which is a lever that isn't often pulled in climate, and it's just been so exciting over the last two years to see the momentum and the scale that we've been able to impact. It's been a fun ride and I'm excited to talk about it.

JJ: Great, so let's first talk about what is the Climate Neutral organization and tell our audience a little bit more about what the organization does? What's its mission?

Caitlin: Climate Neutral is an independent, nonprofit organization that's on a mission to decrease global carbon emissions by solving two problems in the carbon neutrality space. The first is making it more accessible for brands of all shapes and sizes and industries to measure, offset, and reduce their emissions in a much shorter time frame and for a fraction of the cost of traditional exercises to reach carbon neutrality. We've done that by creating a three-step certification process that brands go through every year to measure and offset last year emissions and implement plans to reduce their future emissions. We built out this program to make it achievable within just a matter of three months and again at a much lower cost to these brands.

The second area that we're focusing on is making it easier for consumers to identify and support the companies that are taking action on climate change right now and not in 2030 or 2040. We do that through the Climate Neutral certified label, which is a standard, trusted symbol of carbon neutrality that's verified by our organization, and that makes it easier for consumers to look for the label and feel confident in the products and services that they're purchasing and that those companies have all gone through the same process to lessen their climate impacts. We've been around for just about two years and in that time, we brought about 400 brands ranging from software and technology to food and beverage, to fashion and apparel, and we're helping to fundamentally change how business views its role in tackling climate change by giving the tools to companies and consumers to take action right now.

JJ: That's really interesting and I want to unpack a few things because as you said, this may be something that a lot of consumers are still learning, and even a lot of the brands are still learning. Whether it's for the brands or for the consumers, can you elaborate more on what carbon credit is? What is carbon offsetting and some of the basic concepts that are important in what you do that ultimately gets brands certified because you're doing the right things or measurable things that will over time build that trust and recognition with consumers and in the marketplace.

Bella: The first term that's important to define is a carbon footprint. Anytime you consume a product or interact with a brand, even if you're not filling up your car with a tank of gasoline, you're still consuming carbon emissions. Everything that we use and everything around us -- our T-shirt, our computer in front of us -- there are carbon emissions embedded in all of it.

Carbon footprints accumulate at the brand level, so Climate Neutral has created a carbon footprinting tool. It's a piece of software to help brands understand their carbon footprint from cradle to customer. The carbon footprint is measured in tons of carbon equivalent because we look at all of the major greenhouse gases. That's the first big term to understand, all the brands we work with have a carbon footprint.

Once a brand understands its carbon footprint, we ask them to purchase carbon credits or carbon offsets to neutralize that footprint. A carbon credit or a carbon offset, used interchangeably, is a financial mechanism. What you're doing is you're paying someone else outside of your supply chain to either avoid or to offset or to remove a metric ton of carbon. If you have 30,000 metric tons of carbon in your footprint, you have to buy 30,000 carbon credits. A carbon credit can be generated in lots of different ways from lots of different projects, ranging from renewable energy to water filtration to tree planting.

All of that activity either sequesters or removes carbon or offsets it from the global system or avoids further emissions. You're paying someone else to do a service for you, either technologically or ecologically. That's how you get to a place where you are Climate Neutral, which means that the math balances out. The number of tons that you emitted equals the number of tons that you offset.

JJ: That's an excellent description. I really appreciate you sharing that with the audience. You talk about different ways to get those credits and that there are also organizations or entities that presumably sell these credits. How do those credits get verified so that the brands can essentially execute a plan to offset their carbon emission with the credits?

Caitlin: A carbon credit can be generated from lots of different projects from lots of different places around the world. You want to be very careful about how you purchase carbon credits. What Climate Neutral helps its brands to do is to think critically about what quality carbon offsets are. We have a standard that we review once a year with experts and we're trying to drive towards the highest quality carbon credits. A big part of high-quality carbon is verification -- third party verification. There are organizations such as the Verified Carbon Standard, Gold Standard, and others, whose work is specifically to ensure that if you purchased a metric ton of carbon from afforestation, that in fact trees were planted, they weren't going to be planted unless you spent that money on that offset, and that those trees are going to remain in place and sequester carbon for a set duration. We rely on other organizations to verify carbon credits and we only accept verified carbon credits into our program.

JJ: Got it. Moving down this process the brands follow through, what are some of the things that brands have to do in order to get certified by Climate Neutral?

Bella: Good question. It’s that three-step process to measure, offset, and reduce our carbon footprint so that you can reach zero net carbon emissions. The first thing a brand does with us is they measure their complete organizational carbon footprint. Then they offset 100% of that footprint. We measure footprints from the previous year, so when you're offsetting your emissions, those are emissions that are already in the atmosphere, so there's nothing you can do to reduce that number. However, going forward, it's critically important that brands emit less carbon in the first place. We have a reduction requirement, and we ask that our brands commit to two meaningful reduction measures that they then have to report on publicly and that's the last step. Once a brand has done those three things, they achieve our label and that whole process only takes about three months of someone’s time, just part time.

JJ: The last step you talked about was interesting. If I understand correctly, you're also asking brands to think about how to reduce carbon emission almost on a continuous basis, not just asking them to follow through on finding the highest quality verified carbon credits to offset their emissions. Is that a correct understanding?

Caitlin: Yes. In addition to offsetting 100% of the footprint, we also require our brands to commit to reduction measures. The difference between offsetting and reducing is that an offset is outside your supply chain, and a reduction measure is from within your supply chain, it's an operational adjustment to minimize carbon.

JJ: Got it. If I’m a brand, I would need to be able to, for example, reduce the carbon emission from my business operations or manufacturer from the totality of my operation next year while continuing to do the offsetting? I'm just trying to get a clearer picture of the reduction because I think that's great for brands to think about that are being asked to think about that.

Caitlin:  Yes, absolutely it's both. You're never going to be able to reduce your footprint to zero in today, just like the way that systems work today. I wish we could produce products with zero carbon, but it's impossible. There is no way to ship things across oceans. At this point, you can't get on an airplane without emitting carbon, there are just lots of things that we haven't solved yet. You're always going to accrue a carbon footprint no matter how much you work to reduce it, so you have to be doing both. After the year has closed, you look back and you say we did everything we could to reduce, and that's critically important and what you should start from. However, you have a carbon footprint that remains, and you must offset that, which is what we believe. We think it's the minimum for climate responsibility. It's paying for your carbon emissions and it's an investment that you make in climate solutions that are available today.

JJ: In terms of looking at the emissions or having brands to really get an assessment of their entire carbon footprint, are you asking brands to look at all scopes of emission and for the audience, say there are three scopes. For scopes one, two, and three, is that the case here that you're asking brands to look at all three levels?

Bella: Yes, that's right. We look at scopes one, two, and three, or to put it in consumer terms, we call that cradle to customer.

JJ: Scope one is cradle, direct emissions, and then scope three are indirect emissions.

Bella: Your scope one is your most direct emissions. It's fuels that you combust directly. Once you get into scope two, it's electricity that you purchase and scope three is your supply chain.

All of your material emissions, manufacturing, shipping, business travel, employee commuting, that's where we find the bulk of emissions so it's really important that companies look at and take responsibility for scope three. It's something we try to remind consumers to really interrogate the Climate Neutral pledges that they see because not everyone looks at scope three. We find that it's over 95% of most of our brands' footprints.

JJ: Very interesting. Another question on getting the brands started. There are always early adopters or forward-thinking brands that really want to do this. There are also brands or companies with multiple brands. Who do you usually work with or who initiates outreach in those organizations to Climate Neutral or talk to you about how they do this better or how they do this differently using the methodology and framework and process that your organization set out?

Caitlin: Our contacts at the organization really vary. We can work with anybody from a sustainability coordinator to the manager of operations to someone on the executive team. It really depends on the makeup of the organization and how they're thinking about sustainability. Some organizations consider sustainability as a marketing function, so we'll work with their VP of Marketing for example. Others have it really ingrained within the operations and have it aligned with their supply chain team or their purchasing and procurement teams. Other folks think of it more as a financial issue to work on so it isn’t one solid contact that we're always working with, it really does depend on the organization.

What we're seeing that's exciting is that a lot of larger companies are allowing and asking their employees to come together and form green teams within the organization, which is a very mishmash of folks across the company that are passionate about sustainability and want to help their company move forward in the direction of lessening their climate impacts. That's a trend that Bella and I have been seeing over the past six months or so of these green teams together. It could be someone in accounting and somebody in HR that are just passionate about sustainability and are teaming up in addition to their regular workload in helping to move the company forward in sustainability. That's something we're excited about because we do think that employees are going to begin leaning on their companies and their employers more often in asking them what they're doing on climate, especially during the interviewing process as more Gen Z working professionals enter the workforce, etc. That's a trend that we're definitely starting to see is more of these volunteer advocacy groups within the organizations.

JJ: That makes a lot of sense. Last question: for brands or partners who are interested to follow what you do or learn more about what you do, where can they find you and reach out to you guys?

Bella: For anyone that's interested in getting their brands certified, learning more about how it works or looking to help advocate to get more folks on board, you can visit From there, we have tons of different resources and if you scroll to the bottom of the website, all of our social media accounts are there. We encourage you to follow us and keep up to date. Check out to learn more and get involved.

JJ: Thank you so much Isabella and Caitlin for talking to us about Climate Neutral. I learned a lot just from this episode myself. For the audience, if you want to learn more about podcasts and other information provided by the Understory, you can check out our website and join our slack community. Isabella and Caitlin, it was an honor to have you on our podcast. Thank you so much for your work and we look forward to seeing the amazing impacts from Climate Neutral.

Bella and Caitlin: Thank you so much for having us.

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