There are plenty of apps out there that help people calculate and lower their carbon footprints, but the reality is that most of these apps receive little use — they’re just not that compelling and useful. But a new one, made by startup Oroeco, is trying to make a carbon footprint app that’s more effective and user-friendly, by using behavioral science and focusing on personal spending.
The app, which will be launched next week on Earth Day, will tap into financial data from Mint.com to figure out the emissions of a variety of goods and services bought by its users, from groceries to clothing. If you haven’t used Mint before, it’s an addictive app that enables people to track and manage their spending by pooling information from all their financial accounts, including credit cards, loans and investments.
The company was founded in 2012 by Ian Monroe, a Stanford University energy and climate lecturer, who has worked on developing life cycle analyses of biofuels and other goods. The name Oroeco combines “oro,” or gold,” with “eco” that denotes both ecology and economics. When the app launches next week it’ll be web-only, but Monroe says they’ll launch a mobile app shortly after.
Some of the emissions data from Oroeco may surprise you. For example, while it would seem like fruit and vegetables shipped in from South America to North America would have a larger carbon footprint than food grown domestically, the miles traveled of your food are actually less of a contributor to carbon emissions than how the food is grown — both the frequency and the amount of fertilizer used.
Similarly, while most people know that beef comes with far more emissions than fruits and vegetables, many could be surprised that grass-fed beef (a healthier option) emits more carbon than grain-fed beef, because grass-fed cows typically take longer to reach the ideal weight, so they spend more time roaming the field and belching out methane, a potent greenhouse gas (digesting grass also produces more methane than digesting corn). As Ian Monroe, founder and CEO of Oroeco and a lecturer on energy and climate at Stanford University, explains it: “They are happier and healthier cows, but they also have a larger impact on the climate.”
The Oroeco app will not only generate emissions data but will also publish the data on users’ Facebook pages and show how they stack up against their friends, and their neighbors. There will be prizes, such as a Nest smart thermostat (or maybe even a Tesla electric car down the road!) to reward those who, for example, get the most of their friends to sign up to use Oroeco. The company also will offer emissions-reduction tips to its users.
The compare-and-compete strategy will seem familiar to those who have followed energy software company Opower’s rise. Opower, which went public earlier this month on the New York Stock Exchange, uses analytics to create reports (online and in print) showing electricity customers their energy use and how that compares with their neighbors’ every month, followed by recommendations to conserve electricity. While it’s not the first to do so, Opower demonstrates the success of using behavior analytics to convince users to conform to social norms.
Oroeco is doing the same by tying emissions with spending. The startup is relying on life cycle analyses of things that Americans buy from UC Berkeley’s CoolClimate research group to calculate the carbon footprint. The numbers reflect general estimates — and averages — of the emissions from producing and disposing of a category of products, rather than numbers specific to a manufacturer’s goods. The company plans to add more manufacturer-specific data in the future.
Oroeco plans to make money in three ways. The initial revenue stream will come from selling carbon offsets, which will come from a nonprofit, Impact Carbon, that uses the proceeds to buy and distribute fuel-efficient cook stoves in African countries such as Kenya.
The startup then plans to launch a service that will charge between $2 to $3 a month to provide emissions data of a user’s investment portfolio. It’s working with Trucost, which tracks the environmental impact of about 5,000 companies, to launch the service this summer, Monroe said. A third source of revenue will come from selling advertising to companies that could help people reduce their carbon footprint, such as solar panel installers.
One of the big challenges for Oroeco will be to sustain its users’ interest in monitoring and reducing their carbon footprint. Unlike what Opower does for utility customers, Oroeco won’t nudge people to check on their emissions via monthly notifications. Getting people to care about problems they can’t see visually — the increasing emissions tied to their actions — is tough. But the growing public awareness of the impact of climate change should spark more interest in using tools that help people make better decisions.