What are we doing to respect the planet, its biodiversity and the resources in it? I recently spoke with jane burston who runs a social enterprise that provides a more ethical and effective way for companies and individuals to offset their unavoidable emissions.
Jane who spent a few years working in strategy consulting, before becoming a freelance consultant, helping social enterprises and not-for-profits with business planning and market testing.
Before starting her company, she also took a sabbatical year to work in Africa, managing a sustainable technology charity in Zambia.
Check out the full interview, hope you enjoy it and reminds you to keep green!
Hi Jane, welcome to YHP, how are you doing today?
Before we dive into the interview, can you do a brief introduction about yourself and your background so that the YHP readers can get to know you better?
I’m a co-Founder and Director of Carbon Retirement, a social enterprise that provides a more ethical and effective way for companies and individuals to offset their unavoidable emissions.
I spent a few years working in strategy consulting, before becoming a freelance consultant, helping social enterprises and not-for-profits with business planning and market testing.
What does ‘green’ mean to you?
I prefer the word ‘sustainable’ – and what I’d mean by that is living, or doing business, in a way that respects the planet, its biodiversity and resources. We don’t own nature and natural resources – but we do have a responsibility to preserve them for future generations.
So explain to us exactly what carbon retirement does?
Carbon Retirement is transforming carbon offsetting into something that genuinely makes a difference. We give people power to reduce emissions in a simple, transparent, effective way – and in doing so we help them to take responsibility for their unavoidable emissions.
We force industrial companies to pollute less buy buying the permits they need and permanently removing them from the system. So rather than buying permits and continuing to pollute, these companies have to reduce their emissions.
We’ve won quite a few awards for our approach and have been called “the world’s first truly ethical carbon offsetting company”, which is nice! Our clients range from small NGOs to FTSE100 companies, as well as individuals who offset flights and home energy via our website. Recently the Committee on Climate Change offset with us, which is great as they are body of the top UK economists and climate change scientists, so having them as a client is a great way to raise awareness of our approach at the highest levels.
We also produce research into the offsetting and emissions trading markets to make them more transparent and effective. Our last piece of research, which was published by the BBC, found that only 28p in every £1 spent on offsetting projects get to the project the money was intended to fund!
What role do you do play in the company?
I’m a Director, so I set the company strategy, and decide what research we should do and which campaigns would be most effective. I act as a primary contact for a lot of our clients and I also help to raise awareness of what Carbon Retirement does, for example by speaking at conferences.
What made you decide to start a company like this, what is the inspiration behind it?
The idea came out of a conversation with a former colleague about how much money was being spent on carbon offsetting, even though most of the evidence from NGOs and academics was that it wasn’t working very well in reducing emissions or supporting sustainable development in developing countries. We were sure there must be a better way to focus all that goodwill – and cash – so that it would make a bigger difference, and it turned out there was!
How did you raise finance to start the business?
We raised a small amount of money from friends, and then just went for it! Since then we’ve had a grant from Unltd, a charity that funds social enterprises, a grant from The Funding Network, a charity that matches philanthropists with small organisations doing good work, and more recently we have raised finance from business angels to help up scale up.
what would you say was the most difficult thing you encountered whilst starting your business?
The biggest challenge was communicating how the service works more widely than environmental organisations. Many of our initial customers already knew about carbon markets and carbon offsetting, and therefore understood why Carbon Retirement is a robust approach. To take the service to a wider audience, we needed simple and fun communications, so we developed an animation which explains how we work. It’s on our website if you want to have a look (www.carbonretirement.com)
How does your company advice european industrials to pollute less?
Rather than advising them – we force them! We buy up the ‘pollution permits’ they need so that they can’t be used. As there are a fixed number of permits, it means the industrial companies need to reduce their emissions instead of buying the permits and carrying on polluting. Many industrial companies have a lot of projects they could implement or processes they could adapt to reduce emissions. What we do makes them start doing this sooner rather than later!
Can small businesses compete with large corporations when it comes to Green products?
Definitely. Small businesses have the ability to adapt quickly to a changing landscape for doing business – and historically new markets have always been opened up by small businesses.
Going back a bit, where you always involved in entrepreneurship as a child or is it something you picked along the way?
Not as a child, but while I was in strategy consulting, I took a sabbatical year to work in Africa, managing a sustainable technology charity in Zambia. I think that was what got me well and truly bitten by the enterprise bug; since then I knew for sure I wanted to set up my own business.
Are you getting any support from any Green organizations or from the legislation?
Not directly. There is an increasing amount of green regulation and schemes to encourage businesses to reduce their emissions, so that is good news for us as it helps our clients, who are usually CSR Managers in large organisations, to get profile and budget for their projects, as it’s something Boards and CEOs are starting to pay attention to.
I want to move into your experience as an entrepreneur and I’m sure you have tons to share. What do you think is the most important lesson that you learned as an entrepreneur?
Bring yourself to your work. It's hard to bring your values to bear on everything that you do - it takes extra energy and time, which is what people always wish they had more of - but it's worth it. It gives you the satisfaction that you are not only forging a path in your chosen sector but that you're doing it in a way you'll always be proud of.
What did you want to be when you were younger? Is there a connection to what you are doing now?
I think I wanted to be a professional swimmer – I remember always wanting to swim the channel. So no connection there! Apart from possibly a love of being in nature. I’ve always been concerned about the environment – I was the ‘Green Officer’ at University and spent a lot of time making life-size cardboard cut-outs of The Wombles to encourage people to recycle!
I believe that most green businesses are always looking for opportunities to become more sustainable, whether it is by introducing more green features into the business or by taking up initiatives such as tree planting. Can you share with us some of your plans to make Carbon retirement a more sustainable company?
We build environmental and social practices into the way we work - we cycle to meetings wherever possible and otherwise use public transport, we very rarely print anything, we source office equipment carefully to ensure that we are buying the most environmentally friendly products available, from the most ethical retailers, lots of small things that add up!
Happily for us, these practices line neatly up with our strategy of keeping overheads low, and enable us to build our brand by practicing what we preach.
What advices do you have for entrepreneurs who are planning to start an environmental-friendly business?
Take time to consult with your potential clients as you develop your idea – people in this sector are very generous with their time and you’ll end up with not only a better offering but you’ll have made some allies along the way.