State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Earth Institute Alumni Helped Launch Etsy Carbon Offset Initiative

In February, Etsy — an e-commerce site focused on selling handmade, unique, and vintage items — announced that it will offset 100 percent of the carbon emissions caused by the shipping of its products. In other words, for every pound of carbon that comes out of a delivery truck tailpipe, the company will invest in a project that pulls a pound of carbon from the atmosphere.

Etsy is the first major online retailer to make this kind of commitment, and two Earth Institute graduates helped to launch the initiative. We spoke to M.S. in Sustainability Management (SUMA) alumni Courtney Small and James Ossman about their role in the initiative, how their time at the Earth Institute came in handy, and why this is an important first step toward a greener, healthier planet.

How did you both end up working at Etsy?

courtney small
Courtney Small, an alum of the M.S. in Sustainability Management program, is a sustainability specialist at Etsy. Photo courtesy Courtney Small

James Ossman: Courtney and I both worked at the Earth Institute while also being students in the Master of Science in Sustainability Management program. I joined Etsy straight out of the program. Today I lead our Workplace and Strategic Sourcing teams, with a focus on integrating sustainability into the way Etsy does business.

Courtney Small: James and I reconnected when I met Etsy’s sustainability lead, Chelsea Mozen, at the Business Renewables Center conference, and I joined last June to execute Etsy’s sustainability strategy.

How big is the carbon footprint of online shopping, overall?

CS: Every day, we estimate that shipments from e-commerce orders in the U.S. alone emit around 55,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalent into the atmosphere. Offsetting that amount of emissions daily is equivalent to protecting about 100 square miles of US forests for one year. To give you a sense of scale, that’s enough forest to cover the island of Manhattan more than four times over.

Explain how carbon offsets work?

James Ossman
SUMA alum James Ossman is director of Workplace and Strategic Sourcing at Etsy. Photo courtesy Courtney Small

JO: When you purchase offsets, you invest in carbon emissions reductions that are associated with a project. These projects can support technologies that reduce emissions, protect carbon sinks, or develop renewable energy. The quantity of emissions reductions from these projects is verifiable, making them attractive to investors like us and many others who want to see these projects succeed, and who want to use them as a tool to balance their footprint.

What role did each of you play in getting the offsets implemented?

JO: Balancing the carbon footprint of our shipping has been a goal that we have been working on for many years. I worked with the sustainability team to develop the offset strategy, put together a business case for our leadership, and once approved, to identify and source projects to invest in.

CS: This announcement was a huge milestone for Etsy, as a sustainability initiative being represented across our brand. I worked closely with our research, creative, marketing and communications team to ensure the message resonated with our buyers, sellers, employees and the broader stakeholder community.

What were some of the challenges along the way?

JO: Our leadership was really bought in and everyone working on this initiative viewed this as a way for Etsy to be a leader in our sector and beyond. Our main challenge is that we don’t actually control our shipping and distribution network, so we have fewer levers to reduce emissions. While levers like advocacy and encouraging emissions reductions by our shipping vendors are long-term strategies we plan to take, we also recognized the urgency of the situation and wanted to take full responsibility now. That’s how we landed on offsets.

How did your experience at the Earth Institute help with this, or with your careers in general?

CS: The Earth Institute provided great networking experience — we met each other through EI and now we can collaborate on something that we are really proud of that is moving the needle forward.

JO: The program and my work at the Earth Institute gave me valuable technical and analytical skill sets to explore complex problems and find business-aligned solutions.

Could you give a few examples of Etsy’s offset projects? Do you have a favorite?

CS: We are investing in conservation in Minnesota, wind and solar projects in India, and reducing emissions in the automotive manufacturing process. My favorite is actually the automotive project because it is related to our primary area of impact, which is carbon from the transportation sector.

How much carbon are you expecting these offsets to absorb?

JO:  Annually we estimate we will offset approximately 200,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide—equivalent to more than 42,000 cars being taken off the road each year—within the next few years.

Do you have any advice for other businesses that may want to invest in carbon offsets?

CS: Talk to your customers! Consumers are increasingly interested in feeling good about the purchases they make. This evidence can help make your case.

JO: Engage leadership on the opportunity investing in offsets presents for your company.  Beyond being a strategy to take responsibility for your carbon impacts, it can enhance brand value, engage employees and help to attract investors and customers.

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