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Most businesses pledge to do their part in offsetting carbon emissions to save the world from the already worsening climate change. While this is an admirable effort, the merchandising items they produce are often left out of this discussion. Each product is also composed of tons of carbon molecules that are not accounted for. Seth Cysewski, Co-Founder and CEO of Coolperx, shares with Corinna Bellizzi how they address this issue through their climate cost index. He explains how they monitor embodied carbon within each product starting from its development and all the way to the end of its life. Seth emphasizes why corporations and consumers must monitor that goods are maximized and utilized well, not simply added to towering landfills to rot.
About Seth Cysewski
Seth Cysewski is an award-winning entrepreneur and inventor. He has 15 years of experience working with consumer products, marketing solutions, and sustainability. He is also the co-founder and CINO of Coolperx, and host of the Scaling Sustainability podcast. Seth founded Coolperx as the first climate-neutral merchandising company in the world. After years of working in the promotional products industry, he started the company with the goal of transforming the merchandising industry from a toxic environmental polluter to a conscious connector of people and values. Seth works with brands like Amazon, Microsoft, and Google to guide their social and environmental responsibilities through every step of the procurement process.
0:00 – Introduction
1:41 – Storefronts and displays
2:35 – Wasteful industry of trade shows
5:14 – Coolperx’s mission for sustainability
9:46 – Climate Cost Index
13:46 – A product’s embodied carbon
19:59 – The future of measuring and monitoring carbon cost
26:06 – Personal responsibilities in addressing climate change
31:09 – Partnership with Amazon
33:08 – Deposit vs. Withdrawal
35:57 – Conclusion
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Offsetting Carbon Emissions Through Sustainable Merchandising Items With Seth Cysewski
In this episode, I’m going to be joined by Seth Cysewski. He is an award-winning entrepreneur and inventor who has spent many years of his experience working on consumer products, marketing solutions, and sustainability. He is also the Cofounder of Coolperx and hosts a podcast called Scaling Sustainability. Seth founded Coolperx as the first climate-neutral merchandising company in the world. After years of working in the promotional product industry, he started the company with the goal of transforming the field of merchandising from a toxic environmental polluter to a conscious connector of people and values. Seth, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much for having me.
I want to talk about merchandising. Why should we care about what storefronts and displays even look like?
The largest issue of our time and possibly all of humanity’s time in our civilization is the climate crisis. If you start breaking down where all of these emissions are coming from and additionally beyond that, the damage we’re doing to this planet, it all comes from making things. It’s the economy, capitalism and it can be a powerful force for good. At the end of the day, every single product you see in every single store that you purchase has negative externalities and a carbon footprint associated with it. It all matters very much.
I’m heading to Expo East. It’s one of the largest trade shows in the natural products industry. They’ve made several steps over the course of the last few years to make it more eco-friendly, but trade shows are one of the most wasteful industries. I wonder what your thoughts are specifically when it comes to those big events and showcasing or wanting to showcase the companies you work with or even being attracted to the brands that have this showing. What would you advise people to look for if they’re concerned with being more eco-friendly in a space like that?
The industry’s crazy. The reason you’re asking me this question is because we’ve all walked by these tables and we’re like, “I don’t want that,” and they’re trying to give it to you. In the promotional products industry 79% of everything that’s sold and given away. It is up in a landfill almost immediately. It’s a wasteful industry, giving away things that people want and will keep may mean spending less or giving away nothing at all.Promotional products compose 79% of everything sold and given away. Most of these only end up in a landfill almost immediately. Click To Tweet
We’ve even advised clients of ours to not give anything out if their budget doesn’t allow for it and instead spend that on their employees. The people on the floor that represent their brand having them have a good night’s sleep and a good experience is going to reflect better on that company than just giving away any cheap swag that everyone already has a ton of and doesn’t need more of.
You’re pointing to the massive waste of the industry like, “How many squeeze balls or pens do I possibly need?” Even the USB sticks they like to give out and you are like, “I’m not even using these things anymore. Can we just retire them please?”
I think so much should be retired. When you think about it, what they’re trying to do is build relationships with stakeholders. This could be attracting talent, employee retention, or even your customers. You’re trying to build on a brand. When you’re giving things out that people don’t want, you’re damaging the stakeholder relationship versus adding to it. I would like to see a lot less given out, honestly, even though that’s our business.
Talk to me about what Coolperx specifically does because you are at this intersection. You’re working to essentially build smarter plans for companies. It makes sense for us to learn a little bit more about that and perhaps walk us through an example so we can better understand what it is that you do.
I started promotional products in 2007. It’s been quite a while now. It wasn’t until much later that I matured a little bit, had a daughter, and started thinking about it. You mentioned you’re going to these events and everyone has seen the stuff that they don’t want. There was a time when we looked at the industry as a whole and decided that we needed to do it better. My wife joined me. We started Coolperx to essentially give something better and do it differently. We’re swimming upstream here in the opposite way.
In any industry, I feel like that has an 80% waste rate, yet you have a bunch of problems within it. This is highly commoditized. It’s very wasteful. Our mission is to end promotional waste. We’ve tried to build what we have. We’ve built a much more sustainable, transparent, impact-focused, and driven supply chain so that we can offer our corporate clients better options and help them reach their own sustainability goals while building their stakeholder relationships, essentially helping them keep and bring more value to their brand, which we think is important.
We didn’t introduce you to this specific thing because I don’t like to lead with topics like Amazon, but in the bio that you sent to me for review, I saw that you work with Amazon and Google, big tech companies. I was trying to understand what specifically you might do for them and understand how you’re essentially helping them leave a smaller carbon footprint and even bring it forward so that it’s part of a conversation that we’re having.
Backing up, one of the things I realized when we started thinking about how we can make the greatest impact, this is a unique vehicle that we have this platform to be able to make a large impact with large corporations. Their spending and reach are huge. It’s not that they don’t know better, but there are a lot of different people inside the organizations that are making decisions. It’s hard to integrate sustainability and impact throughout an organization and a culture. For instance, we worked with Google. We curated and built their store back to the office for many thousands of employees in Washington State, and coming back.
We built a store. We curated a gift selection of meaningful, impact-focused gifts from suppliers that have localized supply chains from diverse, ownership in these companies, building gifts and products that are designed to last. By doing it this way and putting together these programs for these large clients, people that don’t want this stuff don’t have to get it. That’s much better for the environment. It’s appreciated. There are a lot of things I don’t want and please don’t send them to me.
I recall days of working exhibitions at different trade shows where it almost felt like you had an allotment of shirts that you had to put in people’s hands. You couldn’t and didn’t want to come home with them because you didn’t want to have to pack it up at the end of the show. That mindset in itself ultimately creates waste on the part of the exhibitors, pushing things out that people don’t necessarily want or need, or giving an excess when it’s not necessarily appreciated. It doesn’t necessarily do what you wanted to do for your brand. I know that you do work specifically in this arena of climate cost. I was hoping you could talk to us about what a climate cost index is. How was it developed and what can we learn from it?
A few years ago, we’re trying to do better. There are all these net-zero pledges being made and everyone’s talking about this. I thought, “We need to do this.” We went off to get a certification. Quickly, I realized that the accounting in carbon is scattered. It’s easy for people to account for the electricity use, but the reality is, and I don’t know how nuanced we want to get, there’s this section of carbon emissions called Scope 3. It’s everything that’s not driving, flying, or electricity. It’s in all the products you use. 70% of most companies are carbon.It's easy for people to account for their electrical use but not carbon emissions. The products you use are generally produced by companies made up of 70% carbon. Click To Tweet
It’s a huge issue. We went to get our certification, no problem, but no one asked us about the products we sell. No one wants to know. We started off by planting trees. I thought that was meaningful in the beginning. Upon further realization, I realized that there wasn’t any transparency in there and we didn’t know what we were doing. We took a twofold approach. The first thing we had to do in order to manage carbon, we had to measure it. We went out looking to see how much carbon is in each of these products. It turns out that information just doesn’t exist. There’s no database for it.
That was the first part of our large challenge. That was how we ended up creating climate cost. It is a carbon index for consumer products. It includes everything from what’s called cradle-to-gate. All the way until it has been produced and delivered to the store, transportation, and end of life because if it ends up in the landfill, you’re not accounting for all of it. We created this whole index based on consumer product categories. We got as refined and detailed as we could. We were running a lot of life cycle assessments on all of these products to figure this out. Essentially, we created a proprietary index that we could use to calculate and manage our own carbon and we built on that.
We found a great partner in Nashville, Tennessee called Clearloop. Our first investment was in 2020. We flew out to a rural area in Tennessee. We invested in a regenerative solar project there where essentially they’re reclaiming carbon by essentially pushing off, fossil fuel-based carbon in the dirtiest parts of the grid. What we’ve been doing is we’ve been measuring the carbon worst-case scenario for every product we sold. On the back end of that, we’ve been reclaiming the carbon from every single product. It’s one of those things where we’re all going to need to do this at some point. We need to know the carbon that’s in everything in order to get it to zero. This was our first step in doing it.
When I ask for a specific example, why don’t we take one of your top-selling items and look at what its carbon cost is and how you recapture it at the end? First of all, it inspires my curiosity. I want to know, and I think that my audience will as well.
Let’s do a backpack. We carry a backpack from an amazing vendor that reclaims plastic from oceans. They create this amazing recycled canvas and backpack. We have to look at this backpack. I can tell you that backpacks of these materials and makeup generally, and what we are doing is we’re looking at a worst-case scenario, there are about 40 kilograms of carbon per backpack. This exact vendor is a little bit less. That 40 kilogram includes everything and all the way until we deliver this. What we would do is, first of all, start by making sure that we’re giving people a product that they want.
We would go ahead and propose this backpack. The company buys a bunch of backpacks. We sold over 1,000 of these last year. We ended up looking at how much carbon is in all of that. We have a number at the end of the day. Let’s say, 40,000 kilograms. It’s 40 metric tons. On the back end, we will then invest in a regenerative solar project that will offset that much carbon. Essentially it is looking at dirt parts of the dirtiest parts of the US grid, where they’re running like peaker plants from natural gas and coal. We’re building solar projects right in the middle there.
Essentially, it’s pushing them offline. It’s making them obsolete, then we can go ahead. It’s 100% transparent. We can track it. All of our clients, can go visit this and see the sheep roaming the solar fields and the regenerative projects. Always trying to reduce our carbon footprint first, and that may mean buying nothing, but the reality is there are very few products out there that have no carbon in them. Whatever is left, we’re going to go ahead and make sure that, we have offset it with what we understand to be the most transparent and important way to offset that we found.
When I think about this big picture, I think of somebody who doesn’t necessarily know how these calculations are driven and who might have a basic understanding of life sciences, who would say, “You’re talking about how many carbon molecules are in the backpack itself.” What you’re talking about is the expense of the carbon equivalent of emissions that have gone into the atmosphere to create it.
We’re not talking about the actual physical weight or molecules. That’s important. It’s all the externalities and carbon externalities from the supply chain. We could look upstream. Everywhere from the extraction of the raw materials to there’s transportation to production, then there’s production assembly and there’s shipping, every step along the way. If you have a backpack, let’s say this is made in China, and maybe a rural area that’s powered 100% by coal, your carbon intensity is going to be a lot more. Even though that backpack may only weigh so much, it has used countless amounts and pounds or kilograms of carbon that’s gone into the atmosphere as they’re trying to make, sew, or ship this material.
This is what an LCA or Life Cycle Assessment is. The reason we had to create climate cost is that it’s hard. It’s not easy. Every single product category, place, or manufacturer has a different supply chain. They all have different energy grids. It’s complicated. This is the reason we couldn’t just find it and why we decided to take a category approach. My philosophy has always been, “Assumed the worst, prove otherwise.”
We would love all of our suppliers to show up and be like, “Here’s our backpack. Here’s exactly where it came from. Here’s how they were powered.” The reality is that we’re not there yet. We’re not even close. This is all of what we call embodied carbon. All of the carbon that was used in making that backpack is now associated with it.
I have to say that in preparation for going to this big trade show, understanding I was going to do most of my time on my feet, walking the floor, going from the hotel to the trade show floor and back again, all of that, and planning to walk it. I bought myself a pair of sneakers that probably don’t go with any of the outfits that I will wear, simply because they have advertised on the tongue of the shoe the carbon equivalent waste that was created in their production. It’s a partnership between Adidas and Allbirds. They claim 2.9 kilos, which sounds low to me.
Maybe that’s a skeptic going, “Are you including everything? Is it possible to create a sneaker set for only this much?” I wonder then what my standard running shoes are and what the carbon cost of those might be. The question I have that relates to this is simply at what point do we expect to see mandatory labeling or even common labeling on these things so that we can make better decisions as consumers that are at least more mindful of what we are supporting with the spend of our dollars?
We’re not going to be able to reach any of the targets we have for 2030 or 2050, none of this reality-wise, without a carbon tax at some point. We’re going to have to pay for the carbon that we have ignored for so long. That’s a little bit of a political issue and a legislation issue. The movement is strong now. This is the biggest economic opportunity for this transition of our lifetimes. Within 5 years or at the latest 10 years, it’ll be commonplace.
The way we look at nutrition now, carbon will be regulated, but even beforehand, just like with your Adidas and Allbirds shoe right there, it’s starting to mean something. As everyone becomes more aware, it used to be one of those things where climate change was something that people talked about and you heard about, and now everyone’s feeling it. With that, it’s going to become that pressure. We’ll start seeing it within the next decades.
I’m hopeful and remain skeptical for the simple reason that I see things like the Lego issue a press release that they’re going to start producing their Legos out of hemp plastic or a more sustainable plastic of some sort. Years go by and nothing happens, or in the case of Adidas, with that partnership with Allbirds, it was one shoe that is no longer available on their site that I then had to find from a seller in my state, at least as close to home as possible for me on eBay to get the shoe.
It’s a one-off and an effort to get a little press, and marketing, and then it’s back to business as usual. My concern is that there may be some other economic pressures that take part as well when we think about things like, for instance, proposals to make GMOs mandatory labeling. They get shuttled under the carpet. The answer is no because big food doesn’t like having to label its products as containing GMOs. I’m hoping it would be nice to see it in 5 or 10 years. It feels like we go 2 steps forward, 1 step back, then 2 steps back, then 1 step forward and we’re back exactly where we started.
I feel you there. It’s exciting to get up every day in and try to make a big impact. You have to be a certain amount of optimist for that and to keep pushing forward. From where we are many years previously to where we are now, we’ve made a lot of progress. I’m also a realist too. I don’t expect everyone to do things because it’s good. What we offer is a no-brainer, but there’s a lot of business as usual out there. That’s just the reality. Try to balance that.
When we think of ourselves as consumers when we admit that we are consuming a product, we’re buying a product to then use, we’re at least confronting part of the problem because in some cases, it’s as simple as we want to buy the cheapest thing possible. The cheapest thing possible will never have paid a fair price for the impact that they’ve had on the environment or on the people that built them. We essentially, in that case, are borrowing from the future using resources of the past like a lot of fossil fuels for example.
We’re not using resources from the present as with those solar farms that you’re working to fund. We have to get real with the fact that buying an outfit for $20 is probably something of the past and that we need to consider that we’re bringing products into our home, be it the clothing we wear, the jewelry we buy, the cars we drive, all of these elements essentially have to be made for quality in a way that we might not presently be used to where we can instill things like a repair economy as opposed to something that’s a disposable economy.
Patagonia has done a lot for that in the apparel space with their worn wear, trying to de-stigmatize consumer practices because you go in to shop for an item that you might want at a Patagonia store and they’ll have a used but in good repair item right next to the new one in the same category. That in itself is a monumental shift. You can criticize Patagonia for producing products from petrochemicals, but they do tend to last. They’re producing products that can be repaired, passed down, and then used again.
Ultimately, the overall carbon cost for something like that is going to be less than something that you wear four times on average, and then ends up in the donation pile to Goodwill that then ends up in our landfill. We all need to be thinking about the purchases we make, even though it’s bigger than personal responsibility, this whole climate mess. We got here by building businesses using extractive principles that didn’t take into account the environmental costs of the products that were being created from plastic toys, clothing, and cars to whatever.
I may be on a bit of a soapbox but I know you and I are birds of a feather. I too consider the long-term cost of something that I want to buy for a promotional item for the brands that I’m supporting to the point where I chose to go with a local company using organic cotton that was cut-stitched and made here in the United States and printed with algae ink and the development of the Örlö Nutrition brand. That was harder. It costs a lot more. Let’s talk 4 to 5 times as much as it would have to do a standard t-shirt.
I’m happy to get on the soapbox with you. I want to point out this carbon thing. I’m super passionate about it. Carbon is waste and a lot of plastic is waste. What you’re talking about is a circular economy, which is the way we’ve lived up until the industrial revolution. Everything goes back around. We have to get rid of all of that. Beyond the carbon externalities and negative externalities when you buy something that’s cheap, there are human rights issues. There are additional issues with the way people have been doing it in order to get to the lowest calm denominator and commoditize some of these things.
I don’t want to place blame on America. This isn’t an American issue. Everyone has different cultures and they become used to different things. There is something about the saying, “By nice or by twice.” People would be surprised if they spent a little bit more each time, and ended up with something that lasted a lot longer. You start looking at sustainability from the design standpoint. It’s not designed to be tossed away or single-use. These things like Patagonia are designed to be used for a long time. They’ll help repair them and keep them in circulation. We have to get there because we have no choice.
There are companies out there that are specializing now and finding new homes for your clothing, building them into new things, and doing the same with your waste that may not be recycled in your local municipality. Sometimes that means that you have to make a small investment and buy a box for a credit that will ultimately, hopefully back in your pocket in some way. There is a cost to being alive in this world. Those are things that I personally champion. It’s good to consider even the things that end up in your recycle bin as part of that waste footprint because even the product that is recycled has to go through additional processing. There’s a carbon cost to that. It has to be transported.
A lot of the time, what you put in that recycle bin simply isn’t recycled. We need to confront that reality and be honest with ourselves. If we can reduce the things we are exiting our home in any bin, we’re doing better. That could mean that you’re doing things like donating to a local charity that you know puts the goods into the hands of people that need them or even just putting the items that you’re done with that you no longer want up for sale or in free cycle programs on your local Facebook group. These things are available to us.
I would encourage people to do a little research and think about the imprint that they want to leave. I also love what you’re doing with Coolperx. From an accountability standpoint, being able to give people something quantifiable to grab hold of was a lot of very hard work. I may need to look at that a little bit more deeply myself and the business dealings that I have. I also have a question that relates though. Given that you’re working with Amazon and given that they have different sustainability credentials that they recognize for products sold on their site, I wondered if you were working with them to create some certification that might be offered there since so many people shop on Amazon.
The short answer is no. The long answer is that we would love to. They’re a large organization. Like a lot of organizations, and I don’t may necessarily want to speak to them specifically, they’re not as integrated across teams as you would want them to be. There are a lot of silos. That could be a challenge for a lot of our clients. The larger they get, the more that becomes a challenge. Although I was happy to see that they were bringing some aspect of it in as a huge industry leader in eCommerce. They have the ability to make a big change and lead there. I would like to see them continue to do more.
They’re addressing a lot of their excess packaging concerns, but there are deep problems in the way things are run as status quo within any large organization. Steering a big ship doesn’t turn as quickly.
That’s a perfect analogy and that’s what we’ve seen time and time again. We always try to celebrate the little wins, bring what we can, and help that way. We love seeing when progress is made, for sure.Always try to celebrate little wins and bring what you can to help. People love to see progress being made. Click To Tweet
I’ve enjoyed this conversation and before we wrap, I like to ask all of my guests a question. I would like to know if there’s a question that I haven’t asked that you wish I had, what might it be? If you have one, you could ask and answer it or you could share what your closing thoughts would be, the things that you want people to walk away remembering from our conversation.
I talked a lot of technical stuff, about carbon and we do the same with plastic too. This is for anyone that works at any business, whether you’re a business leader, a purchaser, or just a recipient because you’re an employee. It seems so seemingly innocuous like promotional products, but yet they are a waste driver. This is true too with our personal relationships. You have these interactions with people. They could be family, friends, or employers and this goes always. These are different stakeholders in our life and our world. Anytime we have an interaction with someone else, whether we’re a brand having an interaction or someone individually, I look at it as if it’s a bank.
You can either make a deposit or a withdrawal. I want people to think about what their interactions are. This could be writing a birthday card to someone. If you’re getting gifts that you don’t want, speak up. Tell them. You have the opportunity to get something better and to build better relationships with your employer, then, especially for business leaders with your employees. You’re building a brand. it’s important that you think about all your stakeholder and your stakeholder relationship. Ask yourself, are you making a deposit or a withdrawal? That’s what I would leave with.
You’ve given us a lot to think about. Thank you so much for joining me.
Thank you. I appreciate it.
As we wrap up the show, I want to invite all of you to visit Coolperx.com. You can go ahead and review what they’re doing specifically right there. You can also send me an email note to Hello@CareMoreBeBetter.com and I will be sure to respond and get any questions that you have to him as well. For anyone that’s wanting to do a deep dive into reducing their impact through the consumer products they buy for personal use, you can explore a couple of episodes that I have created in the past.
One is that I interviewed Caroline Priebe, who is at the Center for Garment Manufacturing, responsible for garment manufacturing, as well as another few along those lines. If you want to sign up for our email newsletter, you can be the first to receive notice of new episodes, as well as a simple guide to help unleash your inner activism. It’s completely free and comes with our first email. We only send one out a week. I promise you will not be bombarded. Thank you readers now and always for being a part of this show and this community because together, we can do so much more. We can care more and be better. We can even reduce our waste and regenerate Earth. Thank you.