Anna Alex is co-founder of Planetly, a company that supports the business community in becoming climate neutral. There she concentrates the know-how of experts in business, environment and technology. We talked to her about what design and branding can do to combat the climate crisis.
Interview: Martin Krautter. Editing: Jan Pfaff.
Ms Alex, as an entrepreneur, you dedicate yourself to a topic that involves averting a climate crisis. Did you have a key experience where you said: “Damn, I have to somehow take care of the important things in life”?
I already realised with my last company, Outfittery, that companies that want to take responsibility for their carbon footprint and become climate neutral have a problem. At that time, I had joined the Leaders for Climate Action initiative and committed myself to knowing my company’s footprint as well as my personal footprint.
But when I set out to find out about this footprint, I didn’t find any tools to help me. My only option was to work with a consultant who came in with an Excel sheet and asked us lots of questions. But that only referred to the financial year that had already ended – I wouldn’t have been able to counteract that at all. At some point he handed me a PDF and said, “This is your carbon footprint now.” And that was it!
I thought to myself, that can’t be it. Everyone is talking about the carbon footprint being the most important metric of the century for humanity, and that companies had huge leverage – so we have to give them the right tools to actually do it! Compared to the depth and accuracy with which I know my marketing metrics and my financial metrics, I asked myself: why aren’t the same systems out there for companies to understand their sustainability metrics? When I couldn’t find the tool out there, I built it myself. And that is now Planetly.
It was actually a failed user experience that made you say, “Well, we can do better than that!”
That brings us exactly to the topic of design. Planetly is a B2B service. Where does design play a specific role in this?
I am a big advocate of design concepts and believe insanely strongly in the power of brands. Our first step was to create a decent branding and design concept. Usually in start-ups that only comes in year three. At most, they do a bit of performance marketing then, because that can be measured. In the start-up world, the whole design issue is almost viewed with a bit of scepticism, precisely because it can’t be measured so well.
Yes, you know someone; “the son of my colleague is studying graphic design”.
Exactly. And for fifty euros, he conjures up a logo. Right from the start, we thought a lot about how we wanted to position ourselves. That goes from the logo to our colours: We use a very, very strong green with a gradient that is very recognisable.
And another aspect that I also include under design and marketing is the way we talk about the climate crisis and climate neutrality. Because this can also be viewed in a very activist way; after all, there are many terrible news and events. But I said: we don’t judge. Because if a company sets out to understand and improve its footprint, that’s exactly right, regardless of where it stands today. You don’t have to be perfect to start now and set out on the path to carbon neutrality.
The idea of “being able to act” is decisive.
Yes, absolutely. And that’s why we at Planetly see ourselves as a solution provider.
What lessons have you learned from your first start-up, Outfittery, that you have taken with you into this completely new field?
I have switched from the business-to-consumer to the business-to-business side, so to speak. The difference is no longer as big as people used to think. At the end of the day, it’s people who make the decision in the companies, who have to operate the tool and deal with it internally. Whereas in the past the demand for B2B solutions was relatively low – they were kind of ugly, didn’t have a good UX, had to be used internally because the IT department decided – it no longer runs along the lines of “we’re rolling this out to all employees now.”
I am completely with you on this, also from my own experiences in “Corporate Germany”.
(laughs) Exactly. The focus in software development today is more and more on user comfort. In fact, a lot of software is now being introduced from the bottom up. Either people start using software in their private lives, then they roll it out in their small team and only after that does it reach the business level.
The other part comes from the fact that people now simply want more flexibility and want to decide for themselves which tools they use to be productive. This requires a much higher level of knowledge about what users want and how I can use UX and UI elements to make my software fun to use.
Is it this responsiveness to individual wishes and customised delivery that you want to implement at Planetly?
On the one hand, it is personalisation. But there is also a second important trend: personal branding. The people behind the brands are becoming increasingly important and now have a greater reach than the brand accounts. Elon Musk, for example, has six times as many followers as Tesla. Similarly, Bill Gates. I compared my own follower numbers on LinkedIn with those of Planetly, where there are twice as many people. We prefer to connect with other people rather than with faceless brand accounts. Of course, that is also a big challenge.
Is there anything where you say that is in trouble in many companies, where design could actually help?
Climate protection must be thought of holistically. For products in particular, this includes the design phase. In the future, we will not only look at the emissions of the product I am manufacturing, but also at the emissions of the product I am designing. And how can I design it to be more climate-friendly and environmentally friendly? For example, electronic products: what materials were used? What stand-by functions are there? How is it actually used? This is a central part of a holistic climate protection strategy.
So, would simulation techniques also be needed in the design process to predict the environmental impact? Is that still a vision for the future?
Some of our clients actually ask for it. With our software you can make forecasts and also simulations, so to speak. And there are also some other companies that deal with this topic. I think this will become an important element in the whole design or architecture phase over the next few years.
Then there is the negative example of greenwashing, meaning that companies only superficially pretend to be environmentally conscious. How serious are the people who turn to you and want to use your tool?
You have to be careful not to judge too quickly. Because at the end of the day, it’s important that all companies set out on the path to becoming climate neutral and don’t just do it when they feel they’re already perfect. I always look at three points to understand how serious companies are:
First, what standard a carbon footprint has been calculated on: The most important standard is the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, which is an accounting standard like in financial accounting. If it is calculated based on this standard, then it is not possible to cheat that much.
Secondly, how much transparency the company gives about the footprint and to what extent this is also broken down into the different activities of the company. From this I can see how deep the company has gone into the supply chain.
And the third point is whether the company has also published reduction targets. Because we all have to understand that we cannot just compensate and continue with “business as usual”: we all have to reduce.
“We all have to understand that we cannot just compensate and continue with ‘business as usual’: we all have to reduce.”
— Anna Alex
Ideally, the reductions and targets have even been done according to Science Based Targets, an initiative that checks them for their scientificity – that’s sort of the gold standard in reduction targets. If a company has done that, I already know they are very, very serious.
I always like to call these companies Carbon Heroes. They include the Economist, Hello Fresh, Home24, Kienbaum, and a few others that are really tackling the issue in a very good and sound way.
Let’s move on to the personal sphere: you must be a sustainability expert among your acquaintances by now. If a friend asks you: “Hey, I want to do something about the climate crisis, I want to reduce my carbon footprint”, what do you advise in such a situation?
Companies have a much bigger impact than individuals. I think we have made the mistake for decades of putting the responsibility for the climate crisis on the shoulders of the consumers. We can’t just say “they have to choose the sustainable products, otherwise the companies won’t move at all”: it is incredibly difficult for individuals to determine what is really sustainable. When I go to the supermarket, of course I know that oat milk is more sustainable than other milk. But, for example, conventional farming and products from conventional farming are better from a climate perspective than fruit and vegetables from organic farming, which again has to do with farming methods etc. In other words, it’s incredibly complex.
Of course, you can stop eating meat, of course you can switch to green energy. The biggest lever that individuals have is to get their companies and employers to be more sustainable. And you can do that by, for example, raising your hand at the next All Hands Meeting and asking, “What is our carbon footprint, anyway?” Or “What is our climate protection strategy? Do we somehow have an internal Green Group? – And if not, I’d like to set it up now and push the issue forward!” That is actually one of the biggest levers that each and every individual has.
“The biggest lever that individuals have is to get their companies and employers to be more sustainable.”
— Anna Alex
We thank Anna Alex for the interview.
German Design and Brand Congress “Change – new horizons”
Under the motto “Change – new horizons”, experts and decision makers from science, politics and business will come together on 11 November at the interdisciplinary German Branding and Design Congress 2021 at the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart. The focus will be on the effective implementation of branding and design concepts and how these can contribute positively to the topic of sustainability. Moderator Dr. Ines Marbach will lead through an exciting programme with presentations from BioNTech, Ecosia, Shift and Siemens Mobility, among others.
Registration deadline is 5 November 2021 In addition to on-site participation, the event can also be attended virtually via live stream.
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