Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
It goes without saying that you can’t manage what you can’t measure. Olivia Pedersen, founder and CEO of Sustaio, is leveraging her design expertise to create a platform that helps you reduce your household's carbon footprint. In this fireside chat, Olivia highlights ways we can leverage individual action and systems thinking to scale positive climate impact.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
Reflecting on the importance of individual action, Olivia describes how Sustaio can serve as an easy-to-tool that everyone can use in their daily lives.
What inspired you to create Sustaio?
I come from a design background—I’m a graphic designer and I dabbled a little in physical product design when I worked in the athletic and outdoor industry. The whole point of this industry is to get people outside, but it’s ultimately impacting our environment. That experience made me wonder how we can encourage companies to do better while helping consumers learn about sustainability and become more educated so they can be their own activation agent in any pillar of their life.
I decided to leave the outdoor industry and go back to school to get my masters in sustainable design. Through my thesis research, I became obsessed in figuring out my holistic footprint (eg., water, carbon, waste, material health). Looking at all these factors that go into living more sustainably was really difficult. It took a whole master’s thesis research project to wrap my head around it. It may be difficult for people who aren’t researching this full-time to even scratch the surface of this topic.
I wanted to create a platform that could help the everyday individual contribute to the climate crisis and provide them with a tool to make better decisions in their lifestyle—a tool that would help them live more sustainably, reduce their carbon footprint, and save water.
During my thesis research in 2019, I was looking at digital products people were using and seeing all these great data products that help enhance our quality of life (eg., strava for fitness, noom for health, mint for finances, etc). I realized there weren't any products available specific to climate. This inspired me to start Sustaio.
How does Sustaio work?
Sustaio is a completely free platform where you can earn cash in Sustaio credits (similar to a credit cards reward program). You sign up and create your account where you’ll receive a sign-up bonus ($10 worth of free credits). You enter your utility information, so we can pull a historical range and present data on your utility use. This data allows us to calculate a historical baseline of your carbon footprint of your home and how much electricity, natural gas and water you use month over month.
Our big push of innovation at Sustaio is developing a customizable carbon accounting algorithm that quantifies your personal footprint using your local data (no national averages), while utilizing real-time data to validate the emissions that are being reduced. We’ve implemented a very robust algorithm to track the carbon savings of your reductions in energy or water use. When we look at your utility bill, we’ll calculate how much emissions you saved each month. The conversion factor to emissions is very localized to where you live and the climate you live in. Depending on whether a user is able to be more efficient in their usage, they’ll receive Sustaio credits worth $0.03 each for every kilogram of CO2 equivalent they reduce that month.
We also show you different ways you can be more sustainable by recommending energy upgrades, products or habits you can adopt into your life. In return, they allow you to earn credits by reducing your utility consumption through efficiencies. You can go to the rewards marketplace and redeem Sustaio credits for amazing free or discounted products offered by our brand partners who have a sustainable and/or social mission or product in place.
How is Sustaio helping consumers take action on the planet?
We’re focused on helping the consumer better connect with their energy usage and manage it to be more efficient. Running an energy and water efficient household is an amazing area in a person's life for them to make a dent in their carbon footprint. However, it’s often overlooked.
We’re also helping renewable energy companies as well as government energy platforms get their products, services, and rebates into people’s hands. There are all these climate initiatives and rebates out there. People tend to not know about them or have a hard time taking advantage of them because there are a lot of steps involved in receiving them. Sustaio can ultimately be a middleman to help get more energy efficient appliances in people’s hands and help them get rebates.
As a whole, we’re trying to build a fluency of sustainability and how it works on a granular and actionable level day to day. If you fly or drive a lot, making your home more energy efficient is a perfect area to reduce emissions. On Sustaio, you can start to understand the carbon cycle of your own lifestyle.
As a designer, what have you learned from building Sustaio and trying to nudge people to take meaningful action?
Sustaio is ultimately a human behavior tool that is helping you make better habits in your home.
I’ve spent three years in R&D in addition to my masters research. I looked at apps that are already on the market, but in parallel universes (eg., Strava, Headspace). Here’s three major things that I’ve learned: 1) make onboarding easy with low friction; 2) make it fun and visually appealing while you’re in the app; 3) people need real incentives. Altruism dies fast when the realities of day to day necessities take center stage. Sustaio has chosen to give those real incentives through actual money saving AND earnings.
I’ve read many books on building for behavior change including the book Hooked, which talks about how to build apps in a way that keeps that product top of mind and integrates it into someone's daily activities. It raised questions like, “how can you integrate variable rewards to keep users engaged?” With Sustaio, not only can you check in every month to see how many Sustaio credits you earned that month, but with our marketplace, users have access to exclusive discounts on different brand partners that offer niche sustainable products that people can learn about.
You also have to figure out what’s going to keep users around and what triggers them externally to keep using the product. Luckily with climate change and the high cost of energy, there are very strong external triggers for people to come back to use the product.
How do you vet your partners to ensure it aligns with your values and mission?
I personally audit them and make sure their product is contributing to building a more sustainable quality of life by including environmental and/or social impacts into their business operations. The training from my masters taught me how to assess products and business, identify sustainable frameworks, and implement them into the day to day of operations to ensure positive, sustained impact. Every company does this in their own unique way, so I vet each company by seeing what certifications they have and talk to the founders, CEO or CSO to see what their mission, vision, values and daily practices are.
How is Sustaio helping other stakeholders like utility companies?
I feel that Sustaio helps them in many ways. We can help them manage peak load better and help them hit their reduction targets. Utilities have regulatory pressures to reduce the amount of emissions they’re creating on the grid. They need to do infrastructure projects and massive overhauls, but Sustaio is a great way to help the end of the line. We’re helping utilities by helping their residential end users become more efficient at home.
Lastly, why did you decide to focus on individual action?
I wanted to focus on creating a product that helps to build a strong foundation for a more sustainable lifestyle. That means better financial health, energy economy out of your home, etc. With Sustaio, we are making the economic case for how living more sustainably, and consuming less and more efficiently can also help you save a bunch of money.
I’m obsessed with systems thinking, human behavior, and helping people understand the world around them to enhance their quality of life. Yes, corporations are the lead in making sure the climate crisis is fixed, but they’ve been treated as non-human entities for over half a century since the Industrial Revolution.
We need to start humanizing corporations, because they are ultimately made up of people working in a system. If people know how to implement sustainable frameworks within their personal lifestyles, then they would have the familiarity and foundation needed to make tangible impact that can be incorporated into their daily practices at work.
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