Building for Net Zero

Are you a product person? Do you capitalise on the net zero opportunity and take meaningful climate action at work?  

I recently interviewed Dan O’Connell who heads up Product for Net Zero, and our discussion covered the internet’s carbon footprint, building digital infrastructure that’s fit for the future, and the cost and brand benefits of adopting a net zero mindset.

What’s Product for Net Zero’s elevator pitch?

Product for Net Zero is climate training for digital product teams. We train product people to capitalise on the net zero opportunity and take meaningful climate action at work.

Where did the concept come from and what’s fuelled it?

When we use product language, we often talk about what the problem that we're trying to solve is.  Well, the climate crisis is as big as any problem gets, but in my experience, people in tech and product don't think about the climate crisis when they turn up to work every day.  Approaches to product and technology have existed in a vacuum without really thinking about their environmental consequences.  For instance, the internet's got a massive carbon footprint, it's approximately 5% of global emissions.  That’s bigger than the airline industry, and it’s growing.  This isn't sustainable if we want to maintain a liveable planet, so the internet needs to get cleaner - and quickly.  

Product for Net Zero exists to try and raise awareness of this issue and get product people bringing climate awareness into their work.  Not enough people see the link between the climate crisis and their work as product designers or developers, and we aim to bridge that gap by showing how to clean up the internet through their products.

John Doerr, a well known Silicon Valley investor who invested in Alphabet and Slack, has described sustainability and climate science as the new computer science.  So, if you're someone who likes solving problems and making things, it's a massively exciting space for you to be in.  At a business level, you can deliver amazing impact for your business through reduced emissions and lower costs, and on a personal level do something positive in the world that isn’t just about making money, healing the planet we’ve degraded in the process - we want to help people do all of this.

As individuals, should we not be more concerned with reducing meat and fossil fuels consumption, rather than focusing on the footprint of the internet?  

The energy consumption and emissions from network infrastructure and personal devices is forecasted to keep growing, at a time when we need to be halving carbon emissions by 2030.  The internet is dirty - it's the biggest coal fired machine that humans have ever built.  And those of us that work in the internet, digital or product have a responsibility to clean that up in the same way that people who work in energy, travel or consumer goods have a responsibility to make sure that the products and services they offer are sustainable.

Also, products make people do things, whether that’s buying things or having certain behaviours. The outcomes that products generate can be outcomes for good, or they can be outcomes for not so good.  Take Amazon for example.  Their tech stack has a significant footprint and they are clearing it up by moving to renewable energy powered data centres and so on. But, the footprint of their business model and products is actually enormous, as a result of the over consumption they encourage.  Just stop and think about the carbon footprint of next day delivery, and so on.  So coming back to the question, the size of the problem is vast when you consider most businesses are executing digitally now.

The internet's got a massive carbon footprint, it's approximately 5% of global emissions. That’s bigger than the airline industry, and it’s growing.

What’s the upside to a business taking a net zero approach to its products?

Let’s start with the downsides - the worse climate change gets, the higher the risk for your business model, infrastructure and supply chain.  By failing to transition, there's also significant stakeholder risk.  Are customers going to want to buy from you?  Are your investors going to want to invest in you?  Are your people going to want to work with you?    

But looking at the upsides, you get to take a leadership position on climate, set net zero targets, be an advocate for climate action, and clean up your supply chain.  There’s a lot of research out there suggesting that the businesses who take a leadership position perform better.  There are also employer brand benefits, because people want to work in places where they feel like their role has purpose. There’s a fantastic paper from the World Economic Forum and Boston Consulting Group, called Winning the Race to Net Zero: The CEO Guide to Climate Advantage, which talks about all the advantages from a company leadership perspective.

This is also about getting your business ready for the future. We’re moving into a new era of clean energy now, and if your business is built on the era of fossil fuels, you don’t have a business that’s ready for the future.  Asim Hussain, who's a green, sustainable technology advocate at Microsoft, talks about how sustainable software’, or “green product,” is better for users because they're quicker, they use less data, they run faster and are cheaper to run. They're also more resilient, and they perform from a conversion, optimisation and search perspective.  You achieve these business benefits by creating sustainable, low energy, "green products".

If your business is built on the era of fossil fuels, you don’t have a business that's ready for the future.

When you start working with a product team and their business, how do you win their hearts and minds, and get them into a net zero mindset?

This depends on the business.  The fact the world is collapsing all around us, and there’s been reports of 70 degrees above average heat waves in the arctic this winter, doesn't appear to be a motivator for some people.  I think they’re crazy, but they've obviously got other priorities.  Trying to get colleagues and management teams to take this seriously, through moralising and telling people to do something about it,  - because it's the right thing to do, or because it's something that you deeply care about - is not always the best way to win an argument.  It can push people away.  So, it's about understanding where the business is coming from and what the priorities of its stakeholders are, and then framing the argument based on those priorities and what the business and its people care about - this is the best way to win hearts and minds.  

Luckily, the bank of evidence for action, - regardless of whether you're talking to a designer, the CEO, or the General Counsel of a business - is becoming strong and supports putting together arguments that people will care about.  For Business Directors, that might be legal arguments or recognition that the law is continuously changing, and you have responsibilities to report and comply with.  For the Head of Brand, it's also important for brand perception, and for the cost conscious CFO then arguments for optimising the cost of your cloud set up are supported by optimising for climate.  And for Product Managers, you've got this whole set of customers who care about this issue.  If you implement some of this stuff at a product level, you're going to have a faster product, you're going to have a more secure product, and you're going to have a product that's better for your users.  

Ultimately it's about understanding who we’re talking to, and framing the argument in terms that they understand, and the things that they care about. And also, guess what - this is great for preserving the world for your children to live in.

When you’ve been training businesses on the net zero approach, has there been a common light-bulb moment in the room?

There's an increasing set of tactics and frameworks for sustainable IT.  There’s Tom Greenwood's book, Designing for Sustainability, for example.  All of this stuff is great, but sometimes you have to understand “why am I actually doing this?”  One of the things that we find really useful to do for product people is explain how a digital product has a carbon footprint, where it comes from, and the principles behind change.  For example, we cover how a website generates carbon emissions,  and the different levers you can pull as a product team to change that.  Understanding how the system behind your product works and generates emissions then unlocks a new perspective.  You start to see product people saying “okay, now I understand how I can play with variables like page size, hosting location or user device” and actually putting it into practice.

If you're a climate conscious product person and you're looking for your next role, what are the types of questions you should be asking your prospective employer?

It's simple.  Have you got a net zero target, and is it aligned with science?  Starting at the corporate level is a good indicator because if a business hasn't got a net zero target, then that tells you how serious they are about climate impact.  You can see this through their sustainability policy, or check their alignment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.  Start there and work your way down the organisation to see what you find in their approach.  I don't think we're yet at the point where we've developed a standardised set of net zero or sustainable OKRs at a product level for businesses.  I think that's where we need to get to as an industry, but we're not there yet.

In terms of the impact that you hope Product for Net Zero can have at an industry level, what's the goal for you?

We just want to raise awareness.  We haven’t set a goal, but ultimately we want to get as many people as possible bringing a net zero approach into their product team stand-ups every day.

You can find out more about Product for Net Zero at

What’s inspired me recently...

After my chat with Dan, I jetted off for a few nights of camping in the south west of England.  With some prescribed peace and quiet on the horizon, our discussion inspired me to improve my own climate literacy, and find out what’s actually happening out there to combat the challenges our planet is facing.  Turns out, quite a lot actually.  I read Bianca Nogrady’s Wired Guide ‘Climate Change: How We Can Get to Carbon Zero', and if you needed a beacon of hope, this is it.  Did you know that all the means we need for an endless supply of renewable energy are already at our fingertips?  It's cheaper, faster and limitless.  Our biggest problem is actually storing what we create for use another day - and there’s already solutions at play for this too.  I learnt this, amongst a tonne of other things.  Well worth a read if you’re looking for something that outlines all the problems, and the solutions too!

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Glen Duncan

30th June