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The Journal

Three Key Interventions to Reduce IDEO’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions

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5 minute read

In 2019, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) released an updated climate report reiterating how critical the 2020s will be in curbing wide-ranging and destructive climate impacts.

The report outlined that over the next decade, we need to reduce global emissions by 7.6% annually, a daunting reality that has been reiterated in recent IPCC updates. That means reducing our emissions by over half in less than 8 years. This is one of the most critical challenges of our decade, if not century.

As part of IDEO’s Net Zero strategy, we knew we couldn’t just invest in carbon offsets, we also had to do our part in removing emissions from the atmosphere. In many ways, the pandemic accelerated us toward that path. From 2019 to 2020, our emissions were slashed from ~14,500 t CO2e to ~6,400 t CO2e respectively. But we knew we needed to do more, especially with IDEO’s shift to embracing hybrid working models and their unknown travel-based emissions implications.

In 2021, we implemented three interventions to further reduce our carbon footprint. We switched to renewable energy, incentivized reductions in project-based emissions, and made improvements to our responsible retirement portfolio. Some of these efforts were successful, others less so. We’re eager to share what worked and what didn’t.

Intervention 1: Switching to Renewable Energy

There are several options for switching to renewable energy, including purchasing rooftop solar grids, participating in community solar programs, purchasing renewable energy credits (RECs), and more.

In evaluating these approaches, we ran into a few setbacks. Since IDEO doesn’t own any of its buildings and each of our studios consume about as much electricity as a couple of big houses, we optimistically hoped that we might be able to sign up for community solar programs across the board. But we quickly learned that community solar wasn’t available for all of our locations. To make matters more complicated, many of our locations didn’t even have the ability to choose their electricity suppliers.

Our next best bet was to either purchase RECs for our global energy consumption, or opt for location-specific solutions. In pursuit of progress over perfection, we purchased 750 MWhr’s of RECs from Bonneville Environmental Foundation to cover energy consumption across all of IDEO’s locations. This not only reduced our carbon footprint by 360 t CO2e, but also meant that effective January 1, 2021, IDEO switched to renewable energy globally.

Looking ahead to 2022 and beyond, we will continue to evaluate and implement the best renewable energy solutions on a local level. To date, we have switched to renewable energy in two locations:

  • Chicago: We switched our energy supplier from ComEd and enrolled in community solar through Solstice. Solstice also offers a renewable energy program for employees to mitigate energy impacts from working from home. For every employee that signs up for Solstice’s community solar program, Solstice donates $100 toward their nonprofit arm, Solstice Initiative, to make renewable energy accessible for underserved communities.

  • Munich: We switched our energy supply from Stadtwerke München (SWM), Munich's municipal utilities company, to renewable hydropower from Polarstern, a Munich-based renewable energy pioneer and social business promoting the energy transformation in Germany and worldwide.

While it took more time and resources to explore local renewable energy solutions than to purchase RECs, we felt it was important to switch to local alternatives wherever possible.

Intervention 2: Incentivizing Reductions in Project-Based Emissions

“But what about the emissions from our project operations?”

In our journey to Net Zero, this question came up time after time. It turns out, over a third of IDEO’s non-wage-based expenses come from project-based expenses like flights, food, prototyping materials, and research incentives. When we estimated IDEO’s carbon footprint, we saw that a significant fraction of our emissions came from everyday decisions made by project teams.

After some digging, we saw that consulting firms similar to IDEO approach emission-reduction incentives differently. Some impose strict travel guidelines, while others set a steep internal price on carbon. The concept of a carbon tax as an incentive was appealing, but would clients go for it? We decided to find out.

Inspired by 1% for the Planet, we started a pilot that added new language about emissions reductions in all of our statements of work. In addition to our standard language about project-based expenses, we added:

Expense invoices will include an additional 1% of all billable expenses to offset greenhouse gas emissions arising from this work.

For a project with $100,000 in expenses, we would add a $1,000 fee to fund carbon offsets. From our preliminary estimates, this would sufficiently cover the emissions from our projects and allow us to purchase ever higher quality emissions over time.

While promising in theory, the execution has been difficult. Of the 33 statements of work signed over the past 6 months, only 4 of them included the 1% fee. In some cases, clients objected to paying for IDEO’s carbon offsets and the language was negotiated out of the contract. In other cases, the language was never included to begin with. Many IDEOers were apprehensive about broaching the topic with clients.

Despite the slow start, we are continuing this pilot so that we can gather more data and design an informed approach to reducing project-based emissions.

Intervention 3: Improving Our Responsible Retirement Portfolio

While IDEO will continue to vote with its dollars to reduce our emissions, many of those dollars have their own environmental and social implications. With ESG frameworks and ratings agencies scrambling to answer calls to action from BlackRock and beyond, there are a dizzying number of ways to evaluate responsible investments.

Our third intervention involved scrutinizing our existing 401(k) portfolio. Alongside Fossil Free Funds, a non-profit that grades investments using a variety of social and environmental considerations, we evaluated IDEO’s existing 401(k) and came up with a system—or score—for each of the available funds in our portfolio. We then supplemented this analysis with data from Morningstar Sustainability Rating to provide another perspective on how our investments were, or were not, meeting environmental, social, and governance challenges.

Perhaps not surprisingly, many funds in IDEO’s 401(k) were poorly rated. Our portfolio, like most, is dominated by index and mutual funds that track the market. Since the Fortune 500 account for over a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, and only 11% of these organizations are hitting their emissions goals, our portfolio wasn’t tracking in accordance with the climate commitments we’d set.

Our Talent team sprung into action. Together with our Empower Retirement administrators, they identified new funds that we could add to our investment mix. In addition to the Vanguard Social Index Fund that was already in our portfolio, we added two new funds: Calvert Balanced Fund (R6) and Calvert Short Duration Income Fund (R6).

A year later, about 1% of IDEO’s $140m 401(k) assets are in these ESG funds. While this is certainly a move in the right direction, we are continuing to explore how we can improve our responsible retirement portfolio even further.

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More than anything, these three interventions have highlighted an intrinsic dilemma of reducing emissions at scale: distributed behavior change is challenging and incremental. We’re still grappling with questions like: Are we focused on the right things? How might we design better incentives that accelerate emission reduction? How might we incentivize our partners to change alongside us?

But this is a design challenge that cannot wait to be solved. We’d love to learn alongside others and hear how others are tackling behavior change within their firms. Please share your reflections, questions, and insights by getting in touch here!

This article is part of a series detailing IDEO’s journey to becoming Net Zero, the lessons we’ve learned, and our continued commitments to addressing climate change.

  • Dean Malmgren

    Partner, IDEO Chicago
    Dean is an engineer and entrepreneur with a restless passion for improving people’s lives through next generation products, services and systems. I bring a human-centric lens to the craft of data science and I am actively working to reduce the carbon footprint of IDEO and the work we deliver for our clients.
  • Michelle Santana

    Senior Finance Lead, IDEO Chicago
  • Nazlican Goksu

    Principal Designer, IDEO San Francisco
    Nazlican is a Design Researcher particularly interested in systemic challenges, especially those that involve urban design. She finds inspiration from cities and public randomness. Born and raised in Turkey, she now calls 4 different cities “home.”
  • Tom Cohlmia

    Design Lead, IDEO Chicago
    I love learning how things are made - from manufacturing processes to handmade crafts to organizations and cultures.
  • Uvini Lokuge

    Senior Design Lead, IDEO San Francisco
    Uvini is a business designer energized by envisioning innovative futures and bringing them to life with actionable strategies and tangible experiments. At IDEO, she focuses on designing and bringing to market the future products, experiences, and systems for a circular future.
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