Episode 8: Unpacking the climate neutrality movement: Michel Gelobter of Cooler
Michel Gelobter, founder of Cooler, is one of the country's leading experts on carbon neutrality. In this podcast we learn why planting trees is not enough, how carbon removal trumps offsetting, and how brands can do better by doing good
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Michel Gelobter has been pushing to raise awareness about carbon emissions and its impact on global warming and driving solutions for ways that companies can mitigate their carbon footprints for well over a decade. Kristin Hostetter, editor-in-chief of Outside Business Journal, sat down with Gelobter to learn why planting trees is not enough and how the outdoor industry can drive real change towards a cooler planet.
Read the transcript: Michel Gelobter of Cooler
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Hey everybody. I’m Kristin Hostetter. Welcome to another episode of Straight Talk. We’re recording this on Earth Day 2021, and we have a very special guest with us today, Michael Gelobter. Hi, Michael, how are you?
Hi Kristin. It’s great to see you and to be here.
Yeah, it’s good to see you too. Correct me if I’ve got any of this info wrong, and you’re very humble, so just take it. But Michael is one of our country’s pioneers when it comes to carbon footprinting. He’s been doing this work for almost two decades long before it was invoked to do so and that’s why he brings a unique perspective to a very complicated process. In 2020, he launched his company Cooler, which is a technology-based solution to helping companies achieve their climate commitments.
Did I get that right?
Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. We actually try to help companies make more money by fighting climate change.
Good point. Very good point. All right. So first question, tell us how you got into this work. How did you come to it?
Oh, yeah I’m a little bit of an odd bird in the sense that I’ve always known what I wanted to do with my life, which was to work on social justice and somewhere in my early twenties, I figured out that environment was the place I would do that.
And have started working on climate change in 1985, actually and was blessed to work in the early days of the environmental justice movement and the climate justice movement. And then I really, in about 2006, I ran an organization that really was successfully got a big climate law passed in California and in 14 Northeastern states and I said to myself, okay, that’s as far as we’re going to get for a while, what else can we do? And I, and I said I think people change the world in two ways. They vote and they shop and voting as we’ve all found out is very important, but very slow for achieving change.
And so I started exploring ways to make shopping part of the solution to global warming.
That’s a great segue into Cooler, right? So tell us about Cooler and how it works and why it’s unique.
What Cooler does is it delivers the carbon footprint of any product or service that you buy anywhere in the world.
And we do that almost instantly using software. A lot of people are like how can you do that? We use a very environmentally conservative method. We’re always sure that we’re never under calculating the footprint. And then we get companies to use that technology to either join their consumers or on their own neutralize the footprint of that product. And they do that really in two ways, one, they don’t use offsets. We actually take a share of what they sell or they ask consumers to join them. If the margins are small in their business they ask consumers to opt in and they bought, we actually helped them buy permits away from polluters. We go to markets where polluters are already regulated, where they’re already emissions, permits to emit. And we squeezed the cap by using consumer dollars against those polluters and buying permits and retiring them, which has lots of additional impacts like generates jobs. The money is spent creating renewable energy.
It goes to states it’s super regulated, super well-documented. And the second way is we give the state, the companies, the footprint of their products and what they can go up, how they can go up their supply chain. So instead of taking years to figure out where the carbon comes from, we tell them pretty clearly where it’s coming from upfront.
They can take action on neutralization upfront, and all of our customers also then start going up their supply chain to drive carbon out.
Wow. That’s a lot, there’s a lot there. So let’s try to unpack this, but first of all, I think. We’re seeing this a lot in the news, right? We report on it in Outside Business Journal all the time.
So many companies are now, publishing carbon neutrality goals. We’re going to be carbon neutral by 20 25 or 2030. What’s the biggest lever that they can pull in order to get there in an authentic way?
Yeah. It really depends. I would say there are two big categories of companies, right?
There are companies that are direct emitters of large amounts of CO2, like gasoline companies, Coalfire coal companies, cement companies, and companies that make equipment like buses and trucks and cars that emit a lot of CO2. Those people have to just wean themselves from fossil fuels. Right? General motors is saying all their vehicles are going to be electric by 20, 30.
Great step. China’s saying all the vehicles they’re going to sell are electric. So basically there are direct emitters. And then there’s everybody else. And the director mentors are really diverse. They’re all trying to do many, are trying to do something, but many are hiding out trying to avoid regulation.
And that’s there’s a fight on to and that’s what we’re the laws make a difference. The reality is though that a lot of consumer-facing companies and a lot of companies we’re most familiar with whether it’s general mills or, Microsoft they’re never really going to be regulated for carbon.
They aren’t directly big emitters. Their emissions comes from the fact that they depend on other people. Power companies, for example, the cell of energy that might be clean or not. So for those companies, they’re really two ways they can flex. The first is by lobbying and by being politically active and many of them are now doing that.
And the second one is by taking action to engage their consumers and to engage their community, to drive more renewable energy into the grid. And that’s really where our technology comes into play. And that, that applies a lot to outdoor companies, which is of course who we’re focused on too. We’re seeing so many companies, push their consumers.
Patagonia is famous for it to get involved in policy and and drive change through, through their platforms and, and the reality is, people only get to go to the voting booth at most, once a year maybe in a year where there’s a primary twice a year, but they shop every day.
Believe me, the more we can have that preference by consumers show up in the day to day shopping legislators and policy makers and polluters are going to hear that and they’re going to go, oh shit. Because at the end of the day, all of us individually are willing to pay a lot more, to stop global warming than a fossil fuel company.
They make their money off global warming, right? So if we kick a few cents of our money towards stopping them, that has huge leverage. And when they see that coming, they’re going to act faster also.
Okay. So when we’re talking about outdoor brands in general, the gamut of outdoor brands, what are the top three to five contributors to their carbon footprint?
Yeah, absolutely. And you and I have done a lot of work on this. We ran these wonderful zero impact competitions for three years in the late two thousands on backpacks, I think boots and sleeping bags. I would say one of the things that’s happened. Since then is reuse.
I don’t know if you remember when, a lot outdoor companies, I won’t name any specific ones, but had legendary lifetime warranties that all of us backpacks Chris was abused, mercilessly oh my Sierra designs back as a rip. Okay. We’ll fix it. Those are a little less common than they used to be.
Companies like Trove, for example, that’s working with REI and Patagonia are in gendering reuse. And you can start thinking about and I can go on and on about how much I love this model, but, if you can buy a Patagonia fleece for 30% less, and it’s basically just as good as new, because they never break. That, and it’s, re-certified by a great company like Trove, that’s a huge impact. So not making something right is very valuable. Reuse is the number one thing we can do. And frankly, we want to buy the Patagonia brand. Patagonia can make almost as much money off of that reuse and not have to have a supply chain at all.
So that’s a wonderful innovation. I think the second one is to adjust the materials and the production systems and everything else. And that’s really where we’re Cooler comes in is we help them understand that we help them take action first, but as you, and I know from the zero impact competition things like recycled materials, recycled pet has it’s just like recycled aluminum has a 90% lower carbon footprint in the manufacturing.
Thinking about end of use making your products. So they, in fact can be remanufactured and reuse as Nike has done for some shoes and other things like that. And then going up your supply chain and greening it, the most single most important thing a company can do is to make sure that everybody in their supply chain is using as much renewable energy as possible.
Yeah. And for those of you who who might not know. Michel was referring to something called the zero impact challenge, which we worked on together back in 2008 where we issued this is when I was at backpacker magazine and we issued a competition or a challenge to outdoor companies to produce a new product with the lowest possible carbon footprint.
And it was fascinating. We had, five or six brands submit products in each of those three categories, footwear, backpacks and sleeping bags and then we analyzed the carbon footprint of those those products. You can still find those articles on backpacker.com .
And it was really a great sort of jumping off point for at least my understanding of all this.
They stepped up, they did some astonishing stuff. They really took it seriously. It was really cool.
Yeah, they really did. In your opinion today Are our brands calculating their carbon footprint print correctly? Cause you hear a lot about some big companies really underestimating their carbon footprint. So how do you know how do we know the answer to that?
Yeah, I would say things are getting better that way. But fundamentally the field is dominated by a more limited approach to footprinting called process analysis, which is a kind of an engineering slash bean counting approach.
Let’s be specific about where this came from and where that came from. But the reality is there’s an impenetrable veil, one or two steps up the supply chain beyond which people just don’t really know. And and that method is really vital once you know where to go looking. But a lot of times they don’t even know where in their supply chain to look for the heavy duty for the carbon in the supply chain, hint, it’s in the energy, mostly in the electricity, that’s it like at least you often half of the footprint is the energy that’s used to make the stuff all the way from the chemicals to the.
Fabrics to the stitching and the assembling. And it’s not in the shipping by the way. I often like to say, it’s the stuff stupid, right? The footprint of a shoe is not in the shipping of the shoe. It’s in the shoe, the shipping’s like just one or 2%. And it’s great to intervene on that. So I’d say the other approach, which is one we use, which is economic is far more comprehensive and it’s proven to be what’s called boundaryless, which is the captures the whole footprint of a product.
It tends to be a little less specific on each slice, but it’s a very good roadmap to then go look at the slices and to drive those down. So I would say that footprints and companies like Amazon and Walmart are using that method internally now on a lot of their products. I think smaller companies are still in the bean counting or engineering mode, which feels more tangible, but it’s often a lot less accurate.
So if I’m hearing you correctly it seems like the biggest lever that companies can pull in order to reduce their carbon footprint is to really look at the energy that they are using to manufacture, which of course is the hardest lever to pull. Cause it’s so big, like converting factories to green energy. Is that correct?
Yeah . That’s that is it absolutely and, I don’t know that it’s such a hard lever anymore. Honestly. What’s happening is for example, they can accelerate compliance. A lot of countries have signed treaties that have said we’re going to go a hundred percent renewable pretty soon.
So for example, one of our customers at Cooler PMW Components, it takes a couple trips a year to Taiwan, and they now take the pie charts we’ve given them on those trips and they go to factories and they say, Hey, Looks like this is where our footprint’s coming from. What can you do about this?
And that’s the beginning of a conversation now. Can they alone swap that factory into renewable energy? Cause I’m sure that factory makes stuff for lots of people. Maybe not. Look, apple and Facebook and Google have set an example in China and other countries of building actually giant solar facilities.
I don’t see why the outdoor industry can’t start pooling resources and helping to accelerate the construction of solar, which by the way, sometimes can make them more money through buying cooperatives and other things to help those factories convert as well. But I think everybody in a lot of these countries, people are looking for solutions.
If their customers, meaning outdoor manufacturers start demanding it, they’ll get creative and do something to.
Yeah, for sure. Okay. I want to circle back to something we talked about at the beginning here. We’re hearing and reading and learning a lot about companies that are planting trees as a way to offset their carbon.
We’re gonna plant two trees for every product sold or, we’re gonna plant two trees for every product shipped or whatever. But you believe there’s a better way than tree planting, right?
Absolutely. Yeah, absolutely. Look, tree planting is great. It’s good for the planet.
It does not really stop global warming in any way, shape or form. First of all, there’s a lot of bad tree planting, meaning planting in places that are highly vulnerable to wildfires, which unfortunately are increasing, who to thought that the rainforest in Washington state could be subject to to to wildfires.
But the reality is 2 million acres of offsets burned in Oregon last summer, 2 , things that we thought were securing carbon. At the higher end of the market, you got to look at things that are creating social institutions that create like a hundred years of certainty.
Meaning oftentimes people are attaching revenue flows, income flows to local communities in the tropics and other places that ensure that those communities will protect and not cut down those trees, but they have alternative means of livelihood and things that will guarantee the land encroachment doesn’t take those forests out, but even a hundred years is not enough.
The half-life of CO2 in the atmosphere is somewhere between three and 500 years. The half-life. There’s no way we can guarantee a tree is going to stand for a hundred years. By planting trees, you can try to create a pulse that pulls a little bit more out right now, but give us more time to reduce CO2, but that’s the best you can hope for.
There are alternative ways we think that are far more secure.
Just a quick question on tree planting, because again, you see all this, buy a product from us we’ll plant a tree. When you plant a tree, for a tree to actually grow to the point where it is pulling carbon out of the air, how long does that take?
Look, it starts right away. If you have the tree in the ground, two, three, four, five years, it’s good. And it gets to it depends on the species, depends on the region, but once you’re three, five years in you’re sucking in a, a fair amount per tree, but each tree is not permanently keeping as much as one would hope.
A tree is unlikely to offset very much of any given individual product. But it preserves land, it doesn’t preserve wildlife, all that other kind of stuff. The hard truth, that I hate to say, and I will only say once on this call, cause I often want to cry when I say it is things like the boreal forest will not be here in 70 years.
That’s a big swath of the great north, right? And you know what? It can’t move in the timeframe. The temperatures are moving. It takes 500 years to move into a forest ecosystem. At least we’re looking at 50 to 70 years in which those places will become dry and burnable. And so the security of those kinds of bets is in question all over the world.
It’s tough to acknowledge that it’s hard because we want, we hope you plant a tree. It’ll be there for awhile, less and less true, sadly. We see it every summer, right?
So what’s the solution, what’s the alternative to tree planting? You have a better way.
Yeah. Absolutely. There’s a whole field around what’s called carbon removal and we do almost the most immediate form of removal possible.
We do not use offsets in our neutralization. Companies that work with us, use our calculation. We use our calculation and then we go buy an equivalent amount of permits away from polluters. We literally go into the same markets that are their auctions every quarter in California, in four in Quebec and 14 Northeastern states.
And then your European markets as well. We have qualified ourselves as if we were a smokestack. We say, Hey, we want to buy some permits too, because our consumers are companies that serve consumers or want to take care of their emissions. And we buy those permits and we retire them, which makes it, which lowers the boom on all the polluters in that region.
And actually in that very quarter, they can reduce less. They can emit less because we’ve reduced the amount of permits available to them. Plus the money then gets recycled by the states and by the governments into investments in mass transit and renewables, it also reduces pollution, other forms of pollutant pollution around those power plants with great environmental justice, benefits and health benefits and generates jobs.
So we think of that as the most immediate way to go. There are some other newer experimental things that are coming online, but you can take a lot of action today that way.
And when you buy an emissions permit, how long does that last? Do you have to re up that every year or every so many, few years, or is it permanent?
We buy a ton of CO2 NEC in, in June when the next auction is, and we retire that permit. That’s a ton of CO2 gone. It’s never going to get admitted. And we avoided it.
It’s not a cycle and every new product you make, we buy a permit for it. We’ve taken that carbon out of the atmosphere by stopping a polluter.
And of course it has, and if enough consumers do it, we estimate you could generate $15 billion a year in consumer spending into those markets. And you could threaten some of those markets. And I don’t know what they’ll, the people running those markets want to stop global warming like everybody else, but I can’t wait for the headline, 10 million consumers try to shut down the Northeast pollution market. That’ll be a fun day.
Oh, I’ll write that story. Another another thing that when you and I have talked in the past, you’ve introduced this interesting concept to me and I want to give you a chance to talk about it. Additionality. And how that factors into offsets and visualizing carbon. Can you explain what additionality is?
Absolutely. So one of the things you want to do when you’re, so there’s another whole nother category of offsetting involving technological interventions of various sorts, like buildings. Let’s say that the outdoor industry were to pool some resources and build a lot of solar energy in Vietnam or in Taiwan or other places.
They make a lot of goods and services. Those that will be a huge, that would reduce their footprint. Absolutely. It would not be a good offset because both of those countries are signatories to an international treaty that says they’re already going to build more renewables. So you’re accelerating that action, but it’s not considered additional means.
Would it, if you had not spent your money there would it have happened anyway? And that number that the availability of additionality for offsets is shrinking. Because there’s more and more regulation and more and more international agreements. So if there’s already an agreement to take a country, a hundred percent renewable, You spending money on that is not an offset.
It is a contribution to speeding that achievement. It’s a great thing, but it’s not considered an offset. A good example of an additional offset that’s still very good is for example replacing wood-burning stoves in developing nations with more efficient ones, you can make. Households wood-burning so 99%, more efficient, 95%, more efficient in a really trackable and monitorable way, which reduces lung cancer at homes and all kinds of other things reduces the amount of time a woman has to walk to get wood for her stove, lot of great stuff to be done there, but those opportunities are dwindling as well.
To summarize that, I think, correct me if I’m wrong. If you, as a consumer or as a company are looking to buy offsets, you want to make sure that they pass that additionality test by making sure that action would not have happened.
It’s not, that actually has to not be on anybody’s official roadmap yet.
It’s gotta be something that no one’s thought of. Or isn’t, there’s no capital flowing to it in any significant way. If you find something like that, good stuff, that’s why trees still count because they’re not part of the regulatory roadmap. But of course they’re not as permanent as we’d like either.
Gotcha. It’s complicated. Isn’t it?
It can be, looking at our own backyards, squeezing polluters today. That’s a really simple thing to do. It doesn’t feel always intuitive. It’s not as hot as showing a picture of a tree, but there’s lots of great pictures involved, like healthier communities and more jobs and solar stuff like that.
Yeah. Good. Okay. I know you’re really interested in climate justice and social justice. And so I want to turn to that for a little bit in, in this way. Because, even though it shouldn’t be, talking about climate change, In climate change mitigation is, can be very divisive, right in general.
So what actions do you think we can take to welcome more people, particularly people from marginalized communities who bear the biggest brunt of climate impact into the climate movement, what actions can we take to do that?
Yeah. You know what I’d say is, there, interestingly enough, they’re already in the climate movement in the, probably the single most important way.
And that’s as voters. There isn’t a state, a local legislator, a state legislator, or national federal legislator who votes for climate policy, whose margin of victory isn’t based on voters of color. If you are representing an all white district, the odds are very high that you are voting against climate policy, no matter where you are.
So part of it is that the philanthropic community hasn’t really recognized that. And there’s been so little resource, only 1% of all climate philanthropy has gone to communities of color, despite the fact that they’re really the voice of voters of record on this issue at a policy level. We’re lucky at Cooler, I’m feeling really blessed because about a third of our customers are in the Southeastern United States, a group called Black Folks Camp Too, beyond the Bayou.
We’re I’m actually stunned that our, that we are so geographically balanced. As a matter of fact, the Southeast is overrepresented in our customer base, which is really exciting for us. I think the outdoor industry faces a particular different set of challenges, which is, is the groups like Outdoor Afro and others work on, which is how do you get more participation by communities of color in the outdoors.
And there’s a lot of history there that I’d love to share also about just the opportunities for sure.
So Michael, where do you see the intersection between communities of color and climate advocacy or climate change?
Yeah. I think the other place besides the voting stuff I talked about earlier for the outdoor industry in particular is, the efforts that I think a lot of outdoor companies are engaged in groups like Outdoor Afro are engaged in to bring people of color back to nature, to bring people of color in safe ways and engaged ways to wilderness and outdoor experiences. Black people have all people of color in general have been part of the outdoors in the United States forever from native communities to Latino communities, to African-American communities. Unfortunately like almost like the civil war Memorial problem national parks were often founded by folks who the national park systems. For example, the first state park system in New York state was built by Robert Moses who explicitly built the bridges too low for public buses to go under so that you couldn’t take a public bus to a state park. So there was a lot of racism starting in the 1850s and 1860s built into access to nature.
And I’ve experienced it personally as a backpacker I’ve had people want, I’ve been a national Sierra club trip leader. I’ve actually had people warn me when my, I took my infants backpacking that at high altitude, you wouldn’t be able to see hypoxia because they were too dark to see them turning purple.
If you could believe that kind of bullshit, like I’ve had people stop me on the trail and tell me that. What are you doing up here? Your kid could be hypoxic and you wouldn’t even be able to tell. So there is a lot of, there is a fear and frankly, even civil rights movements, a lot of the churches in the Northeast used to go to parks on Sundays after church that’s where they would protest as they say it. Guess what? We’re in a park it’s Sunday and they’d be chased out by racists in the Northeast and Detroit. That’s how a lot of black mayors got elected initially off, off of those organizing struggles around natural spaces. So the outdoor industry is I think taking steps to address that both in the diversity of its advertising and its outreach.
And I think there has to be just a lot of education about how everybody belongs in the outdoors and it, and guess what it wasn’t pioneered by white folks. It was pioneered by everybody and just like everything else in this country, it got polarized. And over an 80 year period from the late 1870s to the present, or at least to the early two thousands it turned into this territory.
That was kinda it for some reason white when in fact it never was really, and we just have to be aware that we all belong there. And we have to do what we can, you have to stand up as an ally to fight for that sometimes as well.
Yeah, absolutely. I couldn’t agree more. Okay. Last question. A lot of people believe that their personal actions, their personal day-to-day actions, rejecting that plastic bottle or not taking that straw or that coffee cup don’t have an impact on climate change or climate mitigation. Are they right?
No, not at all. I think first of all, the most important thing I’ve seen is just the modeling in my own life with my own kids and with people around me.
I’m not a Saint by any means. Like my sons will not take plastic straws at all anymore anywhere. And that’s great, I think that’s because it not only reflects a direct impact in terms of the reduct reduction in plastics, but a mindset that companies and manufacturers have to think about and start to serve.
The reality is there are higher leverage things to do than rejecting straws. And they asked me about that all the time. You know what we’re we’re about a cooler, for example, is taking some of your money or getting manufacturers to take some of the money they make from you and pitting it directly against polluters, using it to directly squeeze emissions out of the atmosphere.
That’s a very high leverage intervention. There are others out there. I would say, look at the stories behind the actions you’re trying to take and look for the ones that link your personal action to a political outcome. So even if it feels meaningless to reject a plastic bag in a certain geography, it can make a huge difference in getting an ordinance passed.
So that those bags that get taken off the market entirely. So look for high leverage things that tie your individual action to things that really screws to the worst of the polluters. And I think that’s where the real opportunity is.
Yeah, for sure. And you’re ahead of me on the on the, your son’s rejecting plastic straws.
I caught my son coming home yesterday with a Dunkin donuts, plastic cup and straw, and he knew he was in trouble. He actually tried to get it like in the garbage before I saw it. So good for you for breaking through
Michel, it’s been really great talking with you. Thank you for all those insights. I learned a lot here and hope we can talk again soon.
For sure. It’s always, it’s been such great working with you over the last decade and in this new position. That’s awesome. Let’s keep communicating and keep driving change.
Thank you. And thank you everybody for tuning into this episode of Straight Talk. We’ve got lots more conversations like this so check us out wherever you get your podcasts.
The outdoor industry is full of fascinating people doing bold things, whether it’s in sustainability, diversity, equity, and inclusion, specialty retail, activism, marketing, or brand building.
And here at Straight Talk, we dive straight in. This episode was produced by me, Kristin Hostetter. Our executive producer is Jeff Moore. Our executive audio engineer is John Barcklay. Our associate producer is Ashish Threstha . Our production assistant is Louisa Albanese. Please subscribe today to the Straight Talk podcast, write us a review, and of course stay up on the latest outdoor industry news at Outside Business Journal dot com.