As CEO of Verbal+Visual, I’ve always found the push and pull between helping our retail clients grow their e-commerce businesses, and the devastating impact of retail on our climate, an incredibly challenging prospect to tackle. How can we honestly justify the work we do against our values of responsible consumption? It’s the question that keeps me up at night, and drives me to be a more thoughtful human being and leader.
Before I answer this question, I’d like to take a step back and look at human consumption and climate change, and observe how they are intertwined.
As human beings, we have to consume to live. We have to eat, be clothed, and have shelter. We also desire items and/or experiences for entertainment or enjoyment purposes. Consumption is our nature. While we can’t change this fundamental fact of life, we can certainly be much more mindful about how we consume.
Unfortunately for both us and the environment, we’ve been sold magic beans about what we should consume for generations. From diamonds to clothes and everything in between, the impacts of excessive consumption have come home to roost. Mental health outcomes are getting substantially worse, negative environmental impact is nearly beyond repair, and globalization is wreaking economic devastation and inequality, amongst many other side effects.
A hundred plus years ago, people owned just a few pairs of pants, a small handful of tops / dresses, and modest homes. Diamonds were an unneeded commodity, items were locally produced and consumed, and hand me downs & second hand purchases were also the norm. While this was primarily due to a lack of disposable income, the point remains that people lived with far fewer material goods. As a result of smaller human footprints, environmental impacts were evident but extremely mild in flavor when compared to the last three quarters of a century.
What would happen if we paid more attention to what we consume, how we consume, and how those items are disposed of? If the ultimate goal is to live harmoniously and sustainably on this planet, how can we accomplish this goal?
It’s long past time we became more responsible consumers and moved back from fast-fashion to the idea of fewer, better things.
As we all now know without a doubt, climate change is here, it’s real, and it’s getting exponentially worse with each passing day. Forests are burning, rivers are drying up, and ecosystems are evaporating in real-time. The worst part is, not only are we the sole cause of this devastation, we could have prevented all of this from happening at many different points in our recent history.
Given that time is running increasingly short, how can we (humans) coexist with the rest of the world (flora and fauna) in a way that allows all to thrive?
We believe that climate change is the existential problem of our time, and one that we must solve in the next decade or less if we are to avoid complete disaster and, in a doomsday scenario, the elimination of the human race.
What We’re Doing
All of the above is context for the main question I posed at the beginning of this article: as the leader of an e-commerce agency, how can I honestly justify the work we do against Verbal+Visual’s values of responsible consumption?
From my own burrowing into, around, and through this question, our mission has arisen: to shift consumer behavior towards responsible consumption versus the conspicuous consumption model. Towards fewer, better things. Towards a more thoughtful, equitable, and truly sustainable future.
We started our work in this battle in earnest earlier this year by becoming the first e-commerce agency to be Climate Neutral Certified. This means that we invest in clean energy initiatives around the world to offset our own carbon footprint, and take up new initiatives each year to help further our own reduction and prevention of CO2 emissions.
This was a nice start for us, but it doesn’t impact all of the retailers we work with, nor does it scale in a way that will make a sizable dent on climate change. So, we decided to do more. Much, much more.
This CO2 number equates to .1% of the 43 billion tons in global emissions in 2019, the last “normal” full year pre-Covid. This goal is effective as of July 1st, 2021, and ends on June 30th, 2031, and will allow us time to ramp up impact over time in a way that’s achievable for our team as we scale the business.
Given the sheer magnitude of this endeavor, we are spending this first year asking ourselves the hard questions on sustainability, responsibility, and climate change. For instance, what does sustainability really mean? Is there even such a thing as being truly sustainable, or is being responsible a better way to think about environmental impact? How do we measure the emissions from our clients accurately while weighing all factors we can think of? Does our client portfolio share our value system and/or intent? What can we do as individuals to help curb climate change? There are many more questions that are sure to arise, and I do encourage you to ask us the hard questions. With hard questions comes stronger, more impactful pursuits.
We don’t claim to have all of the answers yet, but we are hard at work on this initiative day in and day out. We actively read and share knowledge, we talk about mindful consumption amongst team members, we carefully vet our clients for their values and future intent, and ultimately we put mindshare, energy, and dollars towards this as our primary objective, the reason for our existence of our organization.
In this first year, we are focusing our energies on crafting an accurate measurement system to provide us a baseline for our work. This system will endeavour to account for as much nuance as possible in a purchasing process as it relates to environmental impact. For instance, trying to measure impacts of reductions in return rates would be sure to achieve a positive environmental impact if looked at in a vacuum. But what if the product we’re helping to distribute is considered “fast fashion” and needs a new purchase in short order, versus partnering with the brand whose products last 10+ years and provide complimentary fixes? How do we balance that question and measure CO2 emissions in a way that feels accurate and thoughtful?
These are complex questions and issues that we can and must grapple with if we are to truly realize our goals, and they must be answered in real-time as we grow our business and client engagements.
Ultimately, as we scale our business over the next decade, the size and scope of our clients will increase alongside us, meaning our impact will scale as well.
While we’re all excited for this journey, we know the road will be incredibly challenging. We are open to any and all conversations, collaborations, and thoughts around how we all can achieve the ultimate goal of a harmonious, vibrant, and just world.
We also hope that by putting our environmental impact goals out into the world, we can spark conversation and influence all who work in retail to help solve the greatest challenge of our time.
We will be providing periodic updates on our progress, as well as annual Impact Reports beginning in 2022.
Stay tuned, and thank you for your energy and passion for environmental change.
Anshey Bhatia CEO, Verbal+Visual