Commons App: Decoding the Carbon Footprint of Your Shopping
Ever wondered how much impact your shopping has on the planet? Commons is here to demystify that for you.
This app tracks the carbon emissions from your purchases using advanced carbon algorithms. It's like having a smart, eco-conscious buddy in your pocket! As you make use of Commons, you'll gain insights not only into your spending habits but also into how your choices impact the environment.
Additionally, it assists you in uncovering eco-friendly brands and even rewards you for choosing them during your shopping adventures. It's empowering to see how even small changes can add up to a big difference.
We talk to Sanchali Pal, the founder and CEO of Commons about the inception of this company, and how it grew to help users navigate the complexities of carbon footprints and sustainable shopping, offering a unique blend of technology and ecological responsibility.
🎧 Listen to & watch the episode
🕑 KEY MOMENTS
➜ [04:48] Identifying greenwashing and sustainable brands
➜ [08:52] Marketing strategies and differentiation from other apps
➜ [12:34] Trends in carbon tracking and offsetting
➜ [15:53] Lessons learned and pitfalls to avoid in starting a company
➜ [18:11] Community support and growth opportunities in sustainable tech
👤 INTERVIEW WITH SANCHALI PAL
DJ: How does Commons address the need for sustainable choices and how does the app function?
SP: Initially named Joro, we rebranded to Commons in March. The app connects to your credit and debit cards, allowing you to track the carbon emissions of your purchases, explore sustainable alternatives, and see how your carbon footprint decreases over time. You can also offset your emissions through the app.
DJ: Why should people care about their carbon emissions, especially when big companies contribute significantly to pollution?
SP: The truth is, a significant portion of people, specifically 69% of Americans, are eager to adopt more sustainable shopping habits. They're actively seeking eco-friendly brands and products for the sake of their health, and their children's future, and to align with their values. While the concept of carbon footprint is important, the focus here is on individuals' desire to live sustainably. People are continually searching for authentic sustainable brands and trying to discern between genuine efforts and greenwashing. The Commons app greatly aids in this process by helping users identify genuinely sustainable choices and supporting businesses that are genuinely committed to sustainability, rather than those merely pretending.
The core issue for users downloading the app is their aspiration to shop sustainably in a more informed and confident manner, whether it's purchasing clothes, grocery shopping, or planning trips. They want to ensure their actions are beneficial for themselves and the planet. Addressing your question about responsibility, it's a shared duty. Consumers, companies, and governments each play a crucial role. While companies are key in reducing emissions and governments must enact effective policies, consumers influence 65% of global emissions. We can't just wait for others to act; if we do, we risk missing our climate goals for 2030. Consumers are eager to accelerate change and not simply rely on others.
DJ: Can you elaborate on how Commons helps users identify greenwashing?
SP: Commons provides a vetted directory of sustainable brands, including those with lower emissions and third-party certifications. This transparency enables users to support companies aligning with their values.
DJ: Tell us about the early challenges in starting Commons.
SP: As a solo founder with no prior experience in tech startups, the biggest challenge was learning how to build a consumer tech product. My background in economics, international development, and personal commitment to tracking my carbon footprint led to the creation of Commons.
DJ: How did you initially raise awareness and attract users?
SP: Initially, it was through word of mouth, editorial features, and app store recognition. As we grew, social media, particularly Instagram, became a significant channel for engagement and awareness.
DJ: How does Commons differentiate from other similar apps?
SP: Commons is comprehensive, offering real-time feedback, brand recommendations, and rewards for sustainable purchases, unlike other apps which may focus on specific areas like clothing sustainability or carbon offsetting.
DJ: Can you talk about your experience with investors and the support you've received?
SP: Fundraising has been a learning curve. We invited Rich Pierson, one of the founders of Headspace, James Park, the founder of Fitbit, and Maisie Williams, an actress deeply interested in climate change, to join our project. In our Series A funding, we also garnered support from climate-focused investors like Norrsken, as well as Jay-Z's investment fund, Arrive. The unique strength of our investor group lies in their diverse backgrounds. They've built a variety of companies, contributing to a coalition that brings expertise in technology, climate, social impact, and cultural transformation, enabling us to set new cultural trends.
DJ: What carbon tracking and offsetting trends do you see, and how does Commons plan to capitalize on them?
SP: We observe significant shifts in consumer behavior towards sustainable choices, like secondhand shopping, electric vehicles, and renewable energy adoption. Commons aims to support these shifts through our app.
DJ: What future developments are you excited about for Commons?
SP: I'm eager to expand our rewards program and provide more guidance for sustainable lifestyle choices, including buying decisions and home greening.
DJ: Do you have advice for aspiring entrepreneurs in clean tech or sustainability and are there any communities or platforms that have been particularly helpful in your journey??
SP: Finding investors who believe in the problem you're solving is crucial. Also, having a support network of peers and maintaining perseverance is key to success. Platforms like Climatebase and various founder groups have been instrumental in networking and recruiting.
📝 EPISODE TRANSCRIPT
Dunya** ((00:01:00)) - - Her name is Sanchali Pal. She's the founder and CEO of comments, an app that tracks the carbon emissions from your purchases using advanced carbon algorithms. So it's like having a smart, eco conscious body in your pocket. So as you use commons, you'll see not just where your money goes, but also how your choices affect the environment. Join me in the conversation with Sanchali to explore the influence we as consumers have on the planet. Find out how the app works and discover some of the fresh, eco friendly shopping trends. That's Anjali notice amongst the app's users and for me personally, it's pretty amazing to see how even our small shopping tweaks can make a big eco difference. So let's get into it. Hello and welcome to the Green New Perspective podcast. How do you feel being here?
Sanchali** ((00:01:54)) - - It's wonderful to be here. Thank you for having me.
Dunya** ((00:01:56)) - - Can you tell us a bit more about who you are and give me a brief overview of Commons when it was founded, what problem it aims to solve, and how the app works? Sure.
Sanchali** ((00:02:07)) - - Thank you so much for having me. I'm Sanchali, I'm the founder and CEO of Commons, and I started the company about four years ago. We launched the app in early 2020 to help people make more sustainable spending choices, and to make it easier to spend your money in a way that's more sustainable. The app allows you to connect your credit and debit cards, and you can automatically see the emissions behind everything you buy. You can get recommendations for sustainable brands or alternatives you might be interested in, and you can see your footprint lower over time. And if you choose, you can offset your footprint as well through the app.
Dunya** ((00:02:40)) - - So when we talk about the personal carbon offsetting, some of the reactions tend to be negative because companies are actually the biggest polluters. So why should we care about what we do as individuals in that space?
Sanchali** ((00:02:52)) - - I think the reality is that most people actually care a lot. Research shows that 69% of Americans want to shop more sustainably, and they're looking for sustainable brands and sustainable products to buy from, for their own health, for their children, just because they they want to align with their values.
Sanchali** ((00:03:08)) - - So I think thinking about the concept of carbon footprint, put that aside. But thinking more about how do people want to live their lives? People do want to shop more sustainably. People are always looking for sustainable brands and trying to understand what's greenwashing and what's not. And Commons really helps people make those decisions of which of my choices are actually more sustainable. Where am I supporting companies that are actually doing the right thing, versus supporting companies that are greenwashing or not making their operations sustainable enough? And how can I use my dollars to support the companies I really believe in? That's really the core user problem we find among people who are downloading the app is they're already trying to shop more sustainably, but they want to do it in a way that's more rigorous, or that they feel more confident in and it can be anything from, you know, I'm buying new clothes to I'm thinking about what to shop for at the grocery store. I'm planning a trip. How do I make sure that I'm doing that in a way that's better for me and better for the planet? But I think to your question, you know, who's responsibility is it? Is it the consumer's responsibility as a company's responsibility? It's everyone's responsibility.
Sanchali** ((00:04:08)) - - In the end, of course, companies have a huge role to play in lowering emissions, and governments also have to pass meaningful policy. But in the end, consumers also influence 65% of global emissions. So we don't have to sit around and wait for other people to take action. If we do that, you know, we might not hit our climate targets. We have just seven years to get make it to our 2030 climate targets. So if we just sit around and wait, we might not make it in time. And consumers are not content to just wait for other people to take action. You know, we want to be able to move things more quickly in the direction that we want them to, to be in.
Dunya** ((00:04:43)) - - And how does the app help the consumers to see what's greenwashing and what's not?
Sanchali** ((00:04:48)) - - So if you download the app, you can start to see, for instance, a directory of brands that have been vetted by Commons as more sustainable. This includes companies that are just actually lower emissions.
Sanchali** ((00:04:59)) - - So thrift stores or public transport, if you're charging an EV vehicle, if you're using composting services, these are all the types of services that we need to move towards a greener economy. And they're measurably lower emissions than alternatives. So you can start to see the list of what are those companies I could buy from if I'm looking for something. You can also see companies that have been climate neutral certified by the non-profit Climate Neutral. So have an independent third party certification that they've measured, reduced and offset all of their emissions. And we're continuing to add to that database. We now have over 50,000 brands that people can buy from and recognize lower emissions across the United States and Canada, and we're always adding to that list.
Dunya** ((00:05:38)) - - So you're basically providing a transparent description of the companies so that consumers can decide if they want to shop there or not.
Sanchali** ((00:05:46)) - - Exactly. And we only right now we're only featuring companies that have met those criteria. So you can search for a company. And if it's not in that database, that means it hasn't met those criteria.
Dunya** ((00:05:55)) - - That's great. Great to hear. So can you tell me about the early days of commerce? So what were some of the biggest challenges in getting the company off the ground?
Sanchali** ((00:06:03)) - - Getting started? I'm a solo founder. I have also never started a company before. I've never even really worked in tech before. I did work at Tesla briefly. Yeah, there's a lot of learning curves. Building a consumer tech product for the first time. My background is in economics and an international development. I was living and working in Ethiopia and in India before starting the company, where I was working on agriculture and energy issues on the ground, and that was part of what made me so passionate about addressing the climate crisis. So I came back to the US and I went to business school thinking about how could I scale up solutions to the climate crisis. And one of the ideas that just wouldn't go away was carbon tracking, because it was something I had been doing in my own life for several years for the. For six years, I had been tracking my own carbon footprint in an Excel spreadsheet, and I used that to lower my emissions by about 30% and save about $300 a month.
Sanchali** ((00:06:59)) - - So I had this already. I had built this carbon intuition myself that I was applying in my life, starting to include carbon in my decision making, and I realized there's no tool for this yet for people to do this easily. It's so difficult. I have to do it manually. I have to do all the research myself. It takes a lot of time. What if it could be as easy as, you know, managing your finances or logging your workout? It should be just as easy as that to manage the sustainability of your lifestyle. But in the early days, originally I had started on this as a research project when I was in grad school with some other grad students, but ended up founding the company officially by myself. And there was definitely a period of I don't know about like 8 or 10 months where it was just me working on it. I was also working a side job to pay for my rent and my groceries, and trying to build a prototype and test with users and pitch to investors, and it was very difficult in those early days.
Dunya** ((00:07:51)) - - What was the vision you have for the company.
Sanchali** ((00:07:54)) - - Has, I think, been pretty consistent throughout from when we started to now, which is to make it easy for people to make sustainable spending choices or choices that are better for them and better for the earth. I really through this process myself, I found that I was buying fewer things. I didn't need the things I was buying, I was buying higher quality things that were better for my health or better for my lifestyle. And it should be easy to start to build that carbon intuition into our lives just to be able to think about, you know, if I'm buying clothes, how do I buy clothes that are better for me and for the earth? Um, but it is so hard because consumers don't have access to that information in an easy way. It's not easy for us to see and understand the carbon economy that we're transacting in every day. It's invisible. It's sort of lying underneath the spending choices that we're making. But the reality is, if you're spending money, you're making a climate choice, and most people are spending money 2 to 3 times a day.
Dunya** ((00:08:45)) - - And how did you go about building awareness and getting the initial users? So what marketing strategy did you find to work?
Sanchali** ((00:08:52)) - - Well, in the early days it was very much word of mouth. It was early users telling other users about the product. We also got some boosts from some editorial features and press that we got. The App Store featured us after the first year or so, which was really helpful in terms of getting recognition and better access to the app. But now that we're a little bit bigger and we're starting to think more explicitly about growth and marketing, organic social has become a really important channel. Um, Instagram in particular is a place where people are really talking about climate and sustainability. Every day, people are looking for tips on how to live more sustainably, or information and data on what companies are doing when it comes to sustainability. So Instagram has been a place where we've gotten to share a lot of great content and connect with folks.
Dunya** ((00:09:37)) - - And how do you differentiate from another similar apps? Maybe not the same, but the one that comes to my my Mind is good for you for clothing as well.
Dunya** ((00:09:46)) - - You mentioned sustainability in in fashion. There are, I believe, doing a rating of fashion brands and then suggesting the ones that are sustainable to the consumers as well. So how do you differentiate from apps like the one that I mentioned?
Sanchali** ((00:10:01)) - - I think there's lots of great apps out there for helping people with very specific sustainability goals they have. So for instance, Good on You is a great tool that I use to for if you're looking for sustainability, ethical and animal ratings for clothing in particular, but it's very focused on clothing and it doesn't. Also, it's not connected to your own spending patterns, but it can be a great resource. And wherever possible, we're trying to include publicly available ratings within hours so that we don't include Good on you today. We do include other publicly available ratings, which are just very helpful for consumers to be able to see. There are other apps that help you offset your footprint as well, but often they don't help you understand how to lower your emissions or how to live more sustainably, in addition to how to offset.
Sanchali** ((00:10:41)) - - So I think what's really unique about Commons is it's here, one place to go. If you want to spend your money more sustainably, you get the real time personal feedback on how you're doing. You get recommendations, you can discover brands, and now you can also earn rewards when you shop more sustainably, which is exciting. So we just rolled out rewards a few months ago. We're actually for the sustainable purchases you make on a connected card. You can actually earn cash back, or you can use those rewards for offsets.
Dunya** ((00:11:06)) - - And you you mentioned getting investors. And as far as I know, you brought some of the high profile investors. So can you talk more about that?
Sanchali** ((00:11:14)) - - Yeah, we've I mean I think fundraising has been one of the things that I've learned the most about in this journal. We've now raised our pre-seed, our seed and our series A in our pre-seed. We were lucky to get into Sequoia's accelerator and join that. We also raised a little bit of capital from angel investors and our seed round Sequoia let our seed.
Sanchali** ((00:11:33)) - - And we also brought in, um, some investors who are more sort of like cultural icons or who have built companies similar to ours in the past. So we tried to bring on people that we'd really want to learn from if we're building a consumer company. So we brought on one of the founders of headspace. Richard Pearson, the founder of Fitbit, James Park, as well as Maisie Williams, who's an actress and is very passionate about climate. And then in our series A, we were able to also bring on some climate investors, including Nordson as well as Jay-Z's fund arrive. Um, and I think what's really powerful about investors is that they all come in with different experiences and having built different kinds of companies, and what we've tried to do is build a coalition of investors who together has experience in technology and climate and social impact, and also in just changing culture and building new cultural trends. And what are.
Dunya** ((00:12:24)) - - Some of the latest trends you're seeing in the carbon tracking and offsetting space, and how do you think Commons is going to position itself to make some progress and development out of them?
Sanchali** ((00:12:34)) - - Well, one of the types of trends we keep an eye on very closely is consumer spending and how consumer spending is changing, especially because we have spending data.
Sanchali** ((00:12:42)) - - So you can look at aggregate to see how are people spending differently. And very exciting to see that last year, in 2022, our users were reducing their emissions by about 20% on average with the app and saving about $200 a month. So really significant improvements. And most of that was coming from some really key shifts in behavior that are happening. People are starting to buy more second hand. It's a really big trend. That's one of the biggest trends in shopping. We're seeing, not only in clothing, also in furniture. It's a really big trend. Also, people are shifting more towards electric vehicles and towards public transport in a way that we haven't seen since Covid, since the year before, we saw significantly more users taking public transit and taking it more frequently, many more users charging electric vehicles and much fewer gasoline purchases. Even though the price of gasoline has gone up, the overall spending on gasoline has gone down in the last couple of years among our users, which is pretty exciting. Renewable energy at home.
Sanchali** ((00:13:35)) - - I think this is a big one, not necessarily installation of solar, which can be a big expense in the current economy, but more uptick in community solar and in renewable energy programs through utility providers, which is also showing that homes are starting to move on that electrification process. We are going.
Dunya** ((00:13:52)) - - To publish an episode with a company that is actually providing homeowners with more sustainable solutions, like you mentioned, because there is a market that is developing really fast. What future product development are you most excited about right now for, let's say, 2024? One of the.
Sanchali** ((00:14:10)) - - Things I'm most excited about is to build on our very early rewards program. This has been just a promotion we've been running since September of 2023, but we've seen lots of interest in these rewards people enrolling and actually shifting their behavior as a result of them. Um, so we're excited to be able to expand on those, and we're starting to think about how can we make them more fun and engaging and actually help people go beyond maybe even what they're buying, but actually into greening their lifestyle at home as well? So that's something I'm really excited about on our roadmap.
Sanchali** ((00:14:42)) - - And and hopefully also providing more guidance to folks as they're thinking about upcoming spending choices. Um, what we do super well is help you analyze your past spending choices and then use that to inform your future. But if you're thinking about, you know, I'm I need to buy a pair of jeans or I need to buy a vacuum cleaner or something. You know, we all need to replace things in our lives or sometimes upgrade things in our lives, and we're trying our best to start to get into how do we give people the right content so that they can make those choices in the easiest way possible?
Dunya** ((00:15:12)) - - Do you plan to include something about the repairs?
Sanchali** ((00:15:15)) - - Yeah, repairs are such an important one because when you're thinking about buying something, you know, actually there's other options. If you can repair something, you have, um, you can borrow from someone, you can shop secondhand before you buy something new. So we're definitely trying to include that sort of in the, um, decision making. We have a lot of content right now on mending, especially for clothing, but also for fixing other things in your home, which can be a great cost saver as well.
Dunya** ((00:15:40)) - - Well, to people who want to start their own startups or companies, not just from from carbon tracking space, but all over clean tech. Can you share some of the lessons you've learned and some of the pitfalls to avoid?
Sanchali** ((00:15:53)) - - Definitely. I mean, one of the lessons that I've learned is when you're well, I think from an investor perspective, when you're going out to find the right investors for you, it's really important to be pitching investors who already believe in the problem you're solving, so that all you have to convince them on is that your solution is the right one. It's very, very hard to convince an investor that your problem matters if they don't already know enough about it to believe it exists. So I think I found that with my first funding round that I, I actually spoke to a partner at Sequoia. I emailed him cold because I saw something he had written that said that he believed that consumers needed more information about climate, and there was going to be a new wave of climate companies.
Sanchali** ((00:16:33)) - - And this was back in 2019 that he had written us. So it was before clean tech was really a big thing again. And when I saw that, I was like, here's someone who I don't even know, if, you know, I didn't know at the time of Sequoia invested even that the Angel stage. But I was like. I should go talk to this person because he clearly already believes in my problem, and I could at least learn something from how he's thinking about the problem space. Um, and I think that's a really that has always been a really successful way of connecting with investors, is knowing that they already care about the problem you're solving, whether that's, you know, something in health and fitness or in consumer or B2B, finding those people who are already thinking about your problem is a really big step up to being able to build a successful investor relationship. And I think also that from a founder perspective, especially being a solar founder, it can be really hard having people around you and your life to support you.
Sanchali** ((00:17:26)) - - Super important, whether that's your friends or family or partner. Um, also having other founders who are just 1 or 2 steps ahead of you who can tell you the path that they went on, that's helped me so much. You know, just saying someone saying, I've been through this before and it's okay, you'll get through it. Here's how I did is really, really beneficial. And then just perseverance is like the only predictor of success. I feel like it's the people who are continuing to work on it and continuing to learn and adjust their approach are the ones who are still working on their companies.
Dunya** ((00:17:54)) - - Have you maybe been a part of some communities in sustainability or clean tech that have helped you on your way? Um, some of our previous guests have shared some slack channels, discord channels, LinkedIn channels, some platforms, hubs for connecting people in cleantech.
Sanchali** ((00:18:11)) - - Yeah, I definitely think I mean, the climate tech community has grown so much in the last four years that I've been working on the company, which has been amazing.
Sanchali** ((00:18:17)) - - I've definitely found a lot of support from the different networks that have popped up on their recruiting front. We use Climate Base and Terra dos job boards to post and to connect with potential candidates. Also, I'm still on mic and it's a great place to meet people and to learn and to see the sort of what conversations people are having on slack, and also to learn from their newsletter. Um, and I find the Climate Tech VC newsletter super helpful, as well as getting a pulse on what's going on in this space. But I've also been able to benefit a lot from founder groups. So I have a really wonderful founder coaching group, peer coaching group of other climate founders here in the Bay area, and we meet every few weeks, and we have a facilitator and coach, and we actually connected through MKR through the MC community, which has been incredibly helpful having other founders who are in a similar space in a similar stage.
Dunya** ((00:19:06)) - - We can share all the links below in the description of the video, so that people can join, or at least check out the groups that you mentioned.
Dunya** ((00:19:13)) - - So where do you see innovation and growth opportunities in the sustainable tech? Since you're following the community pretty closely.
Sanchali** ((00:19:20)) - - In sustainability more broadly, let's.
Dunya** ((00:19:22)) - - Do sustainability more broadly since you're communicating with consumers mostly.
Sanchali** ((00:19:27)) - - I mean, I think that there's so much opportunity in consumer goods for new next gen materials and next gen business models and circular business models are really promising and also really appealing, especially to Gen Z and millennials. Um, so like Rewear lines repurpose lines from brands where they're reselling their same products a second or third time. It's also great for the brand because they get to keep that revenue in house multiple times, which I think is really exciting. Also, new materials and new ways of producing, whether that's producing from natural materials or producing in new, more local and more bespoke ways rather than mass production. Moving away from sort of like the fast fashion approaches to more local and bespoke models, I'm really excited to see that happening. And then also lots of great innovation on the web based side. Um, I think a lot of folks are starting to become a flexitarian of some kind, whether that means, you know, not eating red meat or not eating meat at lunch or eating meat only when they go out of the house, there's all these different models of plant forward diets that I think are really exciting, and I think there's going to be a lot more emphasis on plant forward cooking for people at home.
Dunya** ((00:20:41)) - - So you mentioned that you're active on social media. Where can people find comments, can introduce to what you're doing, um, download the app and all the rest? Well, where they can.
Sanchali** ((00:20:51)) - - You can find us on the iOS or Android App store or Play Store, search for Commons. You can also find us on our website, The Commons, or on Instagram at the Commons.
Dunya** ((00:21:03)) - - Daughter and do you have any parting words of wisdom or leading a purpose during startup?
Sanchali** ((00:21:08)) - - The most important thing is that you're passionate about it. If you care about it and you're trying to solve this problem for people you care about and can identify, I think you're on the right path for me. Whenever I'm feeling disheartened or confused, I book some user interviews and I talked to users, and that really helps me ground in why I'm doing what I'm doing. Um, so I think for purpose driven founders, that's sort of a secret weapon for us, is that you can always go and honestly, for any kind of founder, but especially if you feel really passionate about the problem you're solving, if you feel like you can always go to someone who's facing this problem, and it will renew your motivation and your sense of purpose, that can be a.
Sanchali** ((00:21:46)) - - Very renewable resource for your own energy.
Dunya** ((00:21:50)) - - Well thank you sir. This has been a wonderful conversation and I wish you all the best in your future.
Sanchali** ((00:21:55)) - - Thank you so much. It's been really fun to chat with you.
Dunya** ((00:22:06)) - - So this is the end of another episode of the Green Perspective podcast. If you want to learn more about how your shopping habits can become more sustainable, or how you can reduce your carbon footprint while doing it, you can download the Commons app in the description of this video, and also you'll find there the info about our sponsor, New Perspective, a Boston based marketing agency working with clean tech clients only. So discover how a sponsor is actually helping clean tech clients to become a more visible and more successful. And if you want to help us, don't forget to subscribe to our channel on your favorite streaming platform. And of course, Lila's comments reviews give us feedback. We love that. So until next time. Bye!
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