Tackling Digital Carbon with Greenpixie’s CEO and Co-Founder, John Ridd

This article is an edited transcript from the podcast – Easy Being Green? Lessons in sustainable business. Listen to the audio version on AnchorSpotify or Apple Podcasts.

In October last year, an email landed in my inbox and the subject line said: “Would you use Google’s new Google Maps carbon calculator?” Intrigued, of course, I clicked the email open to learn that Google Maps had released a new feature that shows you the estimated carbon released by the drive you are planning on taking, which, as the email pointed out, is a move that seems pretty obvious now that it has been made.

This email went on to say, and I quote:

“Using tech to bring awareness, measure, and then reduce carbon is exactly what we’re doing at Greenpixie. We are measuring emissions in new ways beyond traditional, outdated methods, and wanted to know if you’d be interested in adding it to your sustainability reports ahead of the curve, before it becomes mandatory policy and other businesses are left scrambling to catch up.”

This email came from John Ridd, who is the CEO and co-founder of Greenpixie. And John, I have to say it was a very good email, because I was compelled, and I was concerned. As the editor of an online publication that writes about sustainability and sustainable business – yes, we definitely want to be ahead of the curve.

So I thought, yes, please, John, how can you help us?

In the conversations that followed, I learned that digital carbon equals 4 percent of global emissions and it’s increasing year on year. Now, that doesn’t sound like a lot. But it’s actually equivalent to the whole aviation industry.

Although digital carbon makes up this big percentage of global emissions and it’s increasing year on year, it’s not often mentioned within the public domain. I learned, thanks to a report from Greenpixie, that our own website, Earth Collective, is really close to being a low carbon website. Phew! And just a bit of work would need to be done on our heaviest pages to get us over that threshold to be a low carbon website. I also learned that on average, Greenpixie has been able to reduce its partner’s digital footprints by about 50 percent.

When we’ve discussed the topic of digital carbon on Earth Collective and in our socials previously, many in our community have said that it was just something that they’ve never considered before – I mean, what is the carbon footprint of sending or receiving an email?

So naturally, I wanted to learn more and I asked John to be a guest on our podcast – Easy Being Green? Lessons in sustainable business for SMEs. And I was absolutely stoked when he agreed.

John is a self proclaimed techie and like myself, he comes from a digital marketing background and has worked in agency and for tech companies before. And then he stumbled across the issue of digital carbon, which led to the creation of Greenpixie.

I really enjoyed my conversation with John and I hope you will, too.

Tackling Digital Carbon with Greenpixie’s CEO and Co-Founder, John Ridd

Charli: Welcome, John. Thank you so much for being here today.

John: Hi, Charlie. Yeah, great to be here.

Charli: Fantastic. So I wanted to start off with something that I read on your Instagram a few weeks ago, maybe a month or so ago. Greenpixie had asked environmentalist researcher and author, Gerry McGovern, what one thing he would want people to know about digital carbon. And the response was, and I quote:

“The Cloud is on the ground. Digital is physical, electrical. Digital has weight and the impact of digital on the environment is getting heavier every year.”

So that was interesting to me, because I think it can be really difficult for the layperson especially – and myself – to visualise the cloud and the impact on the environment. When we’ve posted in the past about things like this on Earth Collective, especially things like the carbon footprint of one email or one social media post, it’s always met with cries of “oh, this is really interesting. I’ve never considered this before”. So, that’s a very long winded entry into that question, which is going to be my first question to you. For those of us who still lack understanding or trying to understand this space, can you tell us what is digital carbon and why is it something we need to think about?

John: Yeah. So as Gerry put so practically, The Cloud is on the ground. So as you can tell, when someone says Cloud, it’s quite a conceptual kind of image you come up with. The reality is The Cloud is on the ground in data centres, servers, undersea cables. There is a real hard infrastructure that is required to run this digital world that we live in. And digital carbon is the associated carbon emissions that runs the digital world on the ground side of things.

Charli: Got you. So it’s not just fluffy in the air, like mystical fluffy pink clouds – white clouds – actually, there are hard data centres and literal physical elements to it. And that’s why – I got you.

John: Yeah, definitely. The data itself moves like magic, it seems, but there are these servers that make this magic happen, and that’s what we like to bring attention to.

Charli: Fantastic. So tell me a bit about you, John. How did you get involved in digital carbon and in the sector? And can you give us a bit of an insight into what inspired you to co-found Greenpixie? And with Greenpixie, it’s a two part question, really. What inspired you to co-found Greenpixie? And the second part is, what problem are you trying to solve with Greenpixie?

John: So at Greenpixie, we’re quite a mix of mindsets. Largely, we come from tech backgrounds. Myself, I come from digital marketing, worked for a number of agencies. I’ve worked with a number of tech companies. And you could say I’m kind of run-of-the-mill techie and we kind of stumbled across the sustainability space through this issue of digital carbon.

One of my friends who’s sustainability nuts gave me a message and said, do you know that websites have a carbon footprint? And it really made me think, yeah, that does sound weird. But then I kind of thought about it a little bit more and kind of made that connection. And that kind of paired with my knowledge of the tech space and working with developers, I knew that digital carbon could be measured at scale and potentially reduced at scale as well.

So during lockdown, when we were at a workspace which was actually still open, and there was a small group of us where we did a hackathon to talk about digital carbon and this idea that you can measure the carbon of a website and, yeah, that’s when Greenpixie was born, the name and everything started there. And we’ve come a long way since and attracted some really interesting people to a sustainability challenge, which I don’t think is entirely orthodox, talking openly.

I wasn’t born an environmentalist, but I’m becoming one. And I think it’s really important or a good sign for the climate crisis and sustainability in general, that new mindsets, such as more nerdy techy people, are now putting their minds to finding solutions in the space.

Charli: Absolutely. I think that’s brilliant. I have interviewed and spoken to a number of startup founders who have come from completely different backgrounds. Some people come into the world of sustainability because they just want to save the planet. And that’s brilliant, absolutely brilliant. But what I love is when someone comes in with a completely different frame of mind, like an engineer. Did you call yourself a techie?

John: Digital marketing techie, really.

Charli: But the thing is that the world needs this. You can’t really start a business now without considering the planet. Would you agree?

John: Yeah, absolutely. I’d say everyone involved in the team wants to make a positive change in the world, but we also like big problems and big solutions, like developers just want to have a big problem to solve and there’s no bigger problem than the climate crisis. So that is the mindset we kind of take. And it’s taken us through quite a journey.

But I think having a higher goal above profits is a very important motivator for people in general. And I think our generation and the generation that is coming care more about purpose than purely profit. So I think it’s good for business. It’s good for business because it keeps people motivated and it keeps people who are working in a startup happy and doing good things in the world.

Charli: That’s so true. There are some studies that have come out recently, multiple of them, talking about the younger generations coming through. And one of the considerations to joining a business – and we know we’re in a bit of a rough time at the moment in terms of trying to find talent. Good people are few and far between, mainly because lots of people are starting their own businesses. They don’t want to work for everybody else! But you have to have that to attract good talent. Young people want companies that care.

John: Yeah, absolutely. I do see the business opportunity in the space, but yeah, it’s just better for everyone when you have a kind of higher goal. Everyone works – I’ve never seen this kind of people working together to such a high level. And exactly what you said.

I think if you’re going to be a forward thinking, successful business, sustainability has to be at the centre of that. Not just an afterthought plastered on. Or potentially sustainability could be swapped out for perhaps another higher order goal. But I think that’s the trend. There’s something more than just profit and I think we’re realising that now.

Charli: Excellent. So Greenpixie’s website notes that the environmental impact of digital carbon now matches the entire aviation industry, which is mind blowing. Now you don’t have to name and shame, but can you tell us perhaps about the biggest industry offenders or conversely, who’s doing it right, who’s actually thinking about digital carbon in a positive way?

John: This is still very new concept that companies are now realising needs to be taken into consideration. So at the moment I think the awareness is out there. So I can name and shame. But as you probably expect, it’s tech companies who have largely software operations or just producing any hard tech or anything like that, do have the highest carbon footprint relative to their operations. And that’s who we’re kind of trying to reach out to in the next stage of the business, so they can kind of measure the digital carbon footprint and solve it. When it comes to kind of any business, the one thing we can all kind of measure and see is websites. So you could estimate your carbon footprint of your website on the calculator we have on our website greenpixie.com. And with that, it’s a mixed batch, really. I’d say it doesn’t come from a place of malice, but normally if there is a website that hasn’t taken account best coding practices, then that’s when you kind of come across some carbon footprint issues. So that’s the kind of trend that we’re seeing. There’s quite funny ones that I could put out. So the COP26 website is one of the worst. And that’s probably not because they wanted it to be environmentally damaging, but just the lack of awareness and knowledge of the fact that digital has a footprint as well.

Charli: Well, that’s… embarrassing!

John: Yes, it is. And there was a bit of a glaring omission on the fact that digital carbon wasn’t mentioned at COP26, which also kind of shows that the main movement in the space and the powers that be are a little bit slow to innovate and see this huge issue. I don’t think it takes, it doesn’t take background to realise. I think this digital trend is going to go in one direction in ten years, five years, there’s going to be potentially exponentially more digital kind of operations to deal with. If you think we add them, if the Metaverse is going to be as successful as Mark wants it to be, then that will have a huge digital carbon footprint as well. So we need to be at the cutting edge and be able to raise awareness.

Charli: Now, did you manage to talk to COP26 about this? Did they give you any response?

John: No. So we did actually have someone, some presence there. And we have been talking with people who are around that area and some regulators, and they are kind of now realising that it is an issue. It’s going to be a big thing. And it’s just yeah, I think there’s one thing that we know, especially at the top level, things will be pretty slow, but I think we’re going to be confident this is going to be a huge trend over the next few years.

Charli: Excellent. So you’re jumping on it right at the right time?

John: Yeah, I hope so. As a startup. Yeah.

Charli: So another trend I think that is a good timing for you, and we actually published an article on this, some research that was done recently, which is that working from home and hybrid working can have a positive impact on your carbon footprint. Do you think that’s true? And do you think that’s something that employers should take into consideration now that people are starting to go back to the office?

John: Yeah. So moving over to a more digital way of working can have a carbon footprint reduction. Of course, when it comes down to heavy travel, if you’re driving into work or anything like that. But it needs to have the awareness. Just because you are moving and working remotely, it doesn’t mean that your carbon footprint goes to zero and everything’s in the clear. It’s important to basically be aware of what it’s changed to and especially when it comes to certain situations. So even though we can do video calls and as we’re doing now is, I think a worthwhile change. And we’re kind of techies. We’re not anti-tech. It’s great that we can talk to each other face to face while being all these miles away. But having the awareness of what that impact is then allows us to perhaps take measures to act in the most conscious, digital, carbon conscious way.

What we’re really focusing on at the moment is, because it’s so close to the start of the issue, is measuring and awareness as the first step you can kind of have. And I know a lot of your audience are SMEs. And although you’re not a huge corporation, so your carbon footprint may be smaller in comparison, the way you can really contribute to this fight against the climate crisis is to have a sustainability facing brand and raise awareness, because through that awareness comes pressure and momentum to overall change and that’s how we feel as a company as well.

Charli: Excellent. That’s brilliant. It is interesting, isn’t it, because you’re in London and I’m in the southwest of England. It’s about a five hour train ride to get to London and goodness knows what up the M5 because the traffic’s so horrendous. So, it’s amazing we can do this video call, but we have become much more reliant on video calling. This is not something I ever did five years ago – Zoom. What was Zoom?

John: Yeah, it’s crazy to think because Skype was around for so long and you’d be at University and you just wouldn’t really use it, it just wasn’t in the culture. But now it is. And the trajectory that we need to be aware of is – we’re getting more and more digital. Our digital lives are now becoming 50 percent of our real life in a lot of ways.

So as there’s been a world movement towards sustainability awareness, then it needs to be a digital world awareness, which that’s why at Greenpixie, we’re trying to be one of the pioneers in that space.

Charli: So interesting. You touched on a little bit there about our audience being small, medium sized enterprises, small businesses, and you gave them a little bit of advice there about what to do – raising awareness. What other things can small businesses do to reduce their digital carbon footprint? Or is it the most important thing to just be talking about this and to be understanding what your website has in terms of the effects?

John: I’d say sharing the awareness is probably the most effective thing you could potentially do, because if you think of people listening, then maybe ten people take action or ten companies or a big company will take action. However, there are kind of no-brainer steps, because at Greenpixie, we kind of look for these no-brainer steps and for example, you could optimise your website to run as efficiently as possible when it comes to its carbon footprint. And a lot of the time you don’t have to compromise the design. So that’s a no-brainer because you get the same kind of result, but for less carbon used.

Charli: Wow.

John: And one thing I was actually talking this morning and this is kind of news to me, with this kind of video quality that we’re on at the moment, with Google Meets you can actually, if you take it off the highest quality over to the mid quality, and it’s really not that noticeable in differences, that can actually reduce the carbon footprint of the calls by up to 70 percent.

Charli: That much?!

John: Yeah, exactly.

Charli: Oh, my gosh. And that’s such a simple thing to do.

John: Exactly. And it doesn’t mean we have to start going backwards when it comes to embracing new technology. That’s why I’d say it’s a nice compromise that we like to promote, would be doing that where appropriate, what we don’t want to do as tech people is be like, oh, yeah, just don’t use technology at all. That’s not how we think. But because technology is so great, there are all these easy things that you can do.

Charli: Well, it’s not achievable to not use technology. This is where the world has come to. And that’s why it’s so great that businesses like Greenpixie are looking for solutions to enable what’s already happening in the world to do it in a better way. So I think that’s brilliant because we’re a website, it’s a content machine. Everything we do is online. And I remember when I first started speaking to Greenpixie and I was like, oh, God! And you very kindly had a look at our website and gave us a report. And we actually were not too bad. I was very proud of ourselves, but we still want to do better. But it was quite scary. And I think the first thing was in my mind was – as a digital company, how are we going to navigate this challenge?

John: Yeah, exactly. Awareness is the key. I think there seems to be – when you are an outwardly facing brand when it comes to socials. In person, you can have your own environmental ideals. And we found that websites was just that the medium that you didn’t really consider the effects it was having. So, yeah, what we do provide – so you can use the website calculator on our site to give you an estimation. And then if you want to really dig in and see how much carbon your website produces in a year, then we can run that through Google Analytics and then produce you a nice report that you can share with anyone at the company. And yeah, from that, we can kind of provide you with an awareness badge or low carbon website badge, which can then, as I said before, share the word, which could then promote more active change from other companies. That’s what we love doing at Greenpixie is spreading awareness and using tech in order to give accurate representations of how much carbon has been used in tech.

Charli: Brilliant. We want to get that badge.

John: I think you may be able to get that badge. We’ll talk after the call.

Charli: Fantastic. So we touched a little bit on this in terms of Greenpixie itself. And the last question I’m going to ask you, not now, but later is about whether there is such a thing as a sustainable business, kind of what this podcast is all about, what we’re exploring, of course. So Greenpixie itself, do you consider Greenpixie to be a sustainable business? I mean, you touched on that, and I think I know what the answer is. And if you do, what measures have you put in place or are you looking to put in place what’s important to you for Greenpixie itself to be a sustainable business?

John: So as I said, a lot of the people involved. So with techies by nature it’s a learning process as we go. For example, for the real world stuff, we’re doing a talk in Paris. And then our first reaction was just like, oh yeah, we could drive. And then it’s just like, no way. We need to – the most efficient way we get there is the Eurostar. So what we’ve started is kind of – that’s at the top of our conversation now, when maybe another company that wouldn’t be so high up the conversation. So we’re learning the real world sustainability by engaging in our own digital sustainability.

And when it comes to digital sustainability, we take pride in our website, for one, is really fast. So it means that the carbon footprint is low. We have our green service set up in Ireland, which is a really good step to make. And when it comes to a little bit more technical stuff, when we use some of the more advanced computing, we really try to minimise that where possible. And we also try to use the providers which provide the best sustainability packages.

But we’re not perfect. I think that’s probably a theme you’re into – and we were probably quite, very far from perfect when we started. And it’s funny how the sustainability culture does leak into the rest of your life, myself included.

I don’t think you’re born an environmentalist or you don’t have to be. It’s kind of something you can learn and pick up and you can embrace as a company. And I think you work better, higher purpose. I think it’s just the way modern business is going to run.

Charli: I completely agree. And the most important thing is to be mindful of it. And like you say, have it top of mind. It’s like we always say, that first stone you unturn, even on a professional or personal level. When you first start going, oh my gosh, just plastic everywhere. And you start reducing your plastic and suddenly you think about more things. I’m like, what about my food waste? Or what about my car? Or what about my website? What about my travel? It just happens and you’ve got it that’s in there and you suddenly start looking for the more eco-friendly version of everything that you do. You can’t go back. Once you’ve seen it, you can’t unsee it.

John: Yeah, it’s there for me as well. It’s top of mind and it’s something that can be learned. It’s funny how much you do consider it with everything you do. And yeah, it’s something we would like to promote as a company, but also it’s kind of the other side of it is sometimes if you’ve got to be pragmatic or potentially give yourself a break if there is some kind of areas where you haven’t quite worked on yet, because progressive improvement’s what’s important. I think moving over the middle of society, over a little bit towards sustainability will have a massive impact, for example. So you don’t want to discourage people to try and be level ten sustainability, when they can be level one or two and then still do a good job.

Charli: So true. Every little bit helps. That was a nice segue, because you’re talking a little bit about yourself on a personal level. So on a personal or a professional level, what is it that gets you out of bed in the morning? What drives you every day?

John: Yeah, it’s a good question. I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, and for me, it’s a combination of wanting to make effective change in the world, in whatever I kind of do. I’ve always gone about business, about things in a kind of different way, because I think it’s kind of like almost like creative process for me. How can we approach these different challenges? What can we do? And there’s quite a big kind of scoop of I want to prove that my way can work and it can improve things and you can do things differently. That’s why it gets me up in the morning. Is that kind of that attitude of just like I’m going to find my own way. Let’s see if I can make it work. If I fail doing it, so be it. At least I’m doing it my own way.

And since I started doing Greenpixie, I get real purpose out of, like, leading the team. So in position of CEO, I kind of grew into that leadership position, because bringing out the potential of people is really fulfilling. And it’s being part of a kind of group of people who are doing something different, ambitious, great work. It’s great culture. That’s what gets you out of bed in the morning and keeps me up at night as well.

Charli: It’s often the same thing, isn’t it?

John: Yeah, exactly.

Charli: That’s fantastic. I just have a question I haven’t thought to ask you, but I’m going to ask you now. Why is it called Greenpixie? Where did that come from?

John: So Greenpixie. When we were doing this hackathon at the beginning, when we kind of had this idea of measuring websites, we kind of brainstorming ideas, and we wanted ‘green’ to be in it. Just because we were first moving into the space and we wanted to be obvious, we saw the brand, that it was a kind of eco company. And then the Pixie came from something like pixels. It was like pixels. Or we wanted it to be like a, I think we went down the route of thinking about like, woods, like, do Nymphs, do Pixies live in the woods? We’re like Greenpixie! Let’s do it. And then if you – maybe I can be persuaded to show you what the original logo and website looks like, it was thrown together in a hackathon, it’s like, what can you put together bare bones to kind of start testing it out? And yeah, the Greenpixie v1, it wasn’t too bad, but I think we look a bit more style than we did back then.

Charli: Brilliant. I’ve never been to a hackathon. So you’re teaching me a little bit about what happens.

John: Hackathons are great. Yeah, that’s what we bring. Is that kind of I think it can be maybe something that can be learned on the sustainability side, because what a hackathon does is solving a problem in a short amount of time in a group of people. So I think a sustainability hackathon could be good, actually. Maybe we can do a little joint sustainability hackathon, see how we get on.

Charli: We’d have to find a new name for it. Something catchy.

John: We’ll come to that. I’ll come back to that one later.

Charli: Brilliant. So for green Pixie, now we know where the name comes from. Which by the way, I think it’s also – do you know that magic cloud that we were talking about? Pixies are a bit magic. I really like the name. What’s next?

John: Yeah, that’s great. And glad you picked up on the magic. That’s actually quite at the top of our brand. Like – measuring magic, fixing like magic. So I’m glad that came across. So what’s next is we have a super secret project, product we’re going to be building which will kind of expand us past websites and allow us to service some of these bigger tech companies in their footprint. And that is really exciting. So we can kind of have the biggest effect possible on measuring and eventually reducing this issue of digital carbon that we’ve been obsessed with over the last seven or eight months.

Charli: Wow. Well, I’ll be watching you with close eyes. So final question for today is the one we ask all of our podcast guests is: do you think there is such a thing as a truly sustainable business yet?

John: I think you should aspire to be one, but if you fall a bit short, then you’re a lot further along the line than you would be otherwise. So I think there’s having a big goal setting. I think having that as an ideal to work for is definitely something we should go towards. But you have to balance against some other realities, like profitability or whichever space you’re into. It’s a combination of being a rational optimist I guess is the way to put it. But I like the idea of an idea like a complete sustainability company to kind of aim for.

Charli: Before we finish, is there anything else you’d like listeners to know? Anything you’d like to say?

John: I’d say for me personally speaking on this startup journey, if you do have kind of entrepreneurial ambitions, maybe you’re going to start a startup, potentially consider the sustainability space, because I genuinely believe that we’re at a turning point where it is attracting new mindsets. And I think rather than going for your typical software or fintech or “where the money is”, I think by going after a startup in the sustainability space, there’s big business opportunities along with doing positive for the world and my experience has been it’s been very fulfilling, so I guess that’s where I’ll end on.

Charli: That’s brilliant. Thank you so much, John. It’s been an absolute pleasure talking to you. Thank you so much for your time.

John: Thanks, Charli.

Thanks so much for listening to today’s episode. You could probably tell that I really enjoyed talking to John and I hope you really enjoyed listening to our chats. You’ve been listening to episode 2 of Easy Being Green? Lessons in Sustainable Business for SMEs and I’ve been talking with John Ridd, CEO and Cofounder of Greenpixie.

Greenpixie is at the forefront of the next big climate conversation – digital sustainability. Despite accounting for over 4 percent of global carbon emissions, almost all businesses are unable to account for the footprint of their websites, applications, video calls, emails, cloud computing and other digital carbon. Greenpixie is here to change that.

The first step towards accounting for your digital carbon is running a Digital Carbon Report. We’ve had one done at Earth Collective. It was very easy, quick and painless, and it was great to find out where we’re at in terms of the digital carbon of our website. The report is comprehensive, easy to understand and plugs straight into your ESG reporting, offering detailed analysis of your website’s emissions as well as steps you can take to reduce them without compromising – and this is really important, especially when you’re an online publisher – without compromising design or functionality. Also included in the report is a Greenpixie certification badge as well as a free consultation with one of Greenpixie’s team about how they can measure your wider digital operations such as email and video conferencing.

Get a 30% discount code on a digital carbon report from Greenpixie at greenpixie.com with the code EARTHCO30.

To find out more about Greenpixie, head to www.greenpixie.com, or follow them on Instagram at @greenpixiehq.

This podcast episode is also available as a written article on WeAreEarthCollective.com. Connect with Charli by following Earth Collective at @weareearthco on all social media channels.

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Charli Ferrand Higgins

After a decade working for global and boutique PR and Marketing agencies in Sydney, with clients that included some of the biggest consumer brands in the world, Charli returned to her homeland of the UK in 2017 and decided the time had come to use her professional skills and experience for good. She has since split her time between supporting passionate, purpose-driven small and medium-sized businesses to grow through conscious content marketing, managing and editing the planet-positive content hub Earth Collective (weareearthcollective.com), and hosting the podcast Easy Being Green? Lessons in sustainable business for SMEs.

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