💥 #11 - Meet the Brands - Thinking inside the box: How Butternut Box use carbon forecasting to empower their workforce.
Featuring Emma Lindsay, Sustainability Manager at Butternut Box
Butternut Box are on a mission to deliver health and happiness to dogs and their humans all over the world. They broke into the pet food world in 2016 with a new category of meals (fresh) and since then, the company has been on a non-stop, upward journey of growth. Seven years, 650+ employees, one factory and millions of meals later, Butternut Box is proving that big goals and big dreams really can mean big results.
Emma joined Butternut Box in 2021, and as their first Sustainability Manager she has steered their environmental strategy through building a factory, expanding into numerous European markets, becoming B Corp certified in 2022 and setting the foundation for long-term carbon reduction. Emma is also a member of the Following the Footprints team, so we took the chance to sit down and dig into what the brand has achieved over the last few years, how she has built a sustainability strategy for a scaling business and why placing value on projects that bring you joy have benefits for both you and your business.
“I think as brands in the spotlight, we panic that there is so much to measure and it all needs to be certified and public data. It doesn’t have to be complicated. We drive real change and [calculate our own emissions] as a tool to engage internally, and really get the conversations started.“
👉 What does ‘sustainability’ look like at Butternut Box?
Impact is now a foundational pillar of our business, which we split into three sections - Environment, Charity & Squad - to best tackle how we can make less of a negative impact and more of a positive one.
The Environmental section focuses on how we interact with the environment through the lenses of People, Planet and Product. The Planet section covers the environmental impact we have as a business, such as the waste we generate, our water & energy usage, our carbon emissions, impacts like air & noise, as well as our impact on biodiversity & nature. People focuses on all the people we interact with, so our local communities, our suppliers, farmers and our customers. Then the Product section is more economic and focuses on sourcing; how the ingredients are grown, sourced, packaged. As a manufacturing business we have more control over this than other businesses might, so we really do aim to balance profit with purpose.
Unsurprisingly, this section of our strategy is definitely the toughest, and where I’d say I do most of my work. However, not one to stand down from a challenge so for 2023, we’ve set ourselves some pretty ambitious targets: to reduce our Scope 1 and 2 intensity emissions; to reduce the carbon emissions associated with our meals, working across procurement, supply chain and commercial teams; and to work on improving our B Corp commitments, which ties nicely in with charity and squad.
Our Squad section is driven primarily by our People Team. As Butternut grew so quickly, (and not in the traditional growth curve, cheers Covid), our strategy had to align with that. When I started we didn’t have a factory and then, what seems like almost overnight we built one, we onboarded a full team in Doncaster and we expanded into Europe. We really had to build a strategy that was broad and flexible enough to fit a changing business model. We’ve also just published our first ever Gender Pay Gap report which is cool to see too!
Then we have the Charity section, which hand-on-heart brings me and the team so much joy. In the last year we increased our volunteering from 100 to well over 1000 hours, our charitable donations increased by over 400%, we onboarded three new charity partners aaand we donated almost 120,000 meals to dogs in need.
This way of talking about positive impact has been shaped over the last couple of years, and gives each team real ownership over the impacts that they can make.
👉 You say that the [Environmental] Sustainability Pillar has been the hardest part. How did you start this journey and decide what to measure?
I firmly believe that there is a fine balance between the quick wins and the big shifters. But I also firmly believe that sometimes we (sustainability professionals) love to get into the nitty gritty, even when the biggest impacts are right there in front of you.
We can’t ignore the responsibility that the food and manufacturing industries have. In general, we know that we (humans) need to eat less meat and use less power to reduce our contributions to a warming planet. So tackling the energy usage from our factory (Scope 1 & 2 emissions) and understanding the complexity of our meals (and the high meat content) was a fundamental place to start. It’s also been a huge engagement and results driver for our teams to have transparency and ownership over this data.
How do you measure Scope 1 & 2?
We measure our operational power (electricity, gas, water etc) daily and this is converted into carbon emissions using our Excel-based automated tracker. Over the last year, we’ve seen that tracking our carbon intensity daily and sharing the graphs with the teams in the operational and shift meetings has brought a huge amount of engagement and drive to do better. For example, as these teams produce and fulfil everything we do, they know where we can influence, reducing the carbon intensity based on production. It’s their data, so the engagement side comes naturally - for example suggesting where lights can be put on sensors or the belts can be turned off to save energy.
What about Scope 3?
In terms of Scope 3, we measure all 15 categories. Again, we do this all ourselves using the most accurate and available open source data. So the carbon emission factors released by the government for anything like fuel, business travel and through peer reviewed journals for all our ingredient sourcing and packaging. I don’t believe in using spend-based data as a go-to, so we use activity based data based on production volumes, invoices and metre readings. We only use spend data for the items we really don’t have data for e.g. capital goods, office supplies and events. Using our own data when we calculate our life cycle assessment for each product means that we have built a much more accurate representation of the impact of our products.
So you don’t use any partners to help you calculate your emissions?
No, I found that industry partners are closed source so it can be tricky to know where the data comes from and the calculations can be wildly different. It’s worth calling out here that when I talk about automated trackers, we just use Excel, so we don’t use any software or external help. The same for our LCAs, all built in Excel. For people with low sustainability budgets, I don’t see money as the main blocker here; anyone can get started with Scope 1 & 2 using the government factors. I admit, it helps that I love this sort of thing, but by doing it all ourselves, we have a strong grasp on our data.
One thing I do love is my Pleo business card. We have this set up so that every payment has a toggle to assign it with a mode of transport and a location category (domestic, international etc). We then ask every employee to note what and where their journey relates to, whether that is a train from Kings Cross to our factory or a flight to a supplier. This means that assigning carbon factors and accurate mileage is calculated way in advance of working out (Scope 3) business travel emissions.
👉 So now you have the data, how do you use it?
I have a Masters in Climate Change, specifically on the science-policy interface and modelling, so I actively choose to spend my time on these topics. I’ve done some really fun projects with the commercial team to forecast our future emissions based on our recipe split. We cross reference our life cycle assessment (LCA) data with the volume that we are projected to ship to work out our forecasted emission data. Integrating finance teams in sustainability is incredibly important; every transaction should have a carbon value and that is exactly why we have associated a carbon number to every product that we plan to sell.
Have you seen any benefits from involving teams in carbon forecasting?
Giving people the data and transparency shows that I am not just plucking numbers out of thin air. This drives its own engagement, especially when people can see the direct carbon impact e.g. when we change a recipe. From our carbon forecasting we have a lifetime of data that enables us to shift how we do business in a much more material way.
From internal surveys, people think that their job has more potential to influence the environment than squad or charity. I wasn’t expecting this but delighted that people really feel that. Knowing that people feel their jobs can influence what Butternut Box does, and realising that people feel empowered and upskilled with the tools they have to actually change what they are doing, is such a win. It brings me so much joy to see this come to life, I love it!
I think as brands in the spotlight, we panic that there is so much to measure and it all needs to be certified and public data. It doesn’t have to be complicated. We calculate our own emissions because we’re using this to drive significant internal changes. It’s my opinion that because we aren’t “claiming” anything, we don’t need to get our carbon footprint or product’s LCAs verified. Instead, we drive real change and use it as a tool to engage internally and get the conversations started.
👉 It sounds like you have created a culture of engagement around climate issues at Butternut Box. How have you got teams to join the conversation and feel like they can make a difference?
It doesn’t have to be overly complicated. All new starters receive training, and I try and make sure that this is in person where possible. Doing this completely changes things because when I am physically there, in front of them, on day two of their new job; they realise I know what I’m talking about, what Butternut stands for, they can get involved in the conversation and feel that their voice is heard from the very start.
My aim of the training is not to overcomplicate all of the science behind the climate crisis but to empower people so that they have the confidence to talk about it themselves. The second slide in my training is the climate stripes and I give everyone the opportunity to join the conversation - what do they think this represents, where do they think this impacts etc.
At the end of the day, we engage people by making the conversation accessible and at whatever their knowledge and interest level is, so I try to summarise very simply - the world is heating up really fast and we need to do something about it. For the rest of the session people suddenly feel like they know what we are talking about. Training is an important first step to hammer home how much this means. I have seen how people then have the confidence to come back and speak to me about it later on, days & weeks down the line. I think empowering people by giving them the data and making them feel like they have a voice is so important. It doesn’t cost money, anyone can do it, and everyone should.
How did you change the culture that already existed?
Coming into any business and telling people they need to change how they do business is tricky. Everybody will agree that the environment needs saving and that human rights are important, and nobody will disagree that [a sustainability leader's] job is important. But when it comes up against external risks, financial pressures or lower stock resilience in the supply chain, the environment suddenly drops down the pecking order. I don’t think this will fundamentally change across all businesses anytime soon, but knowing this, adapting to these changes and still pushing for a more sustainable future than we have now is key.
Every business is different and at Butternut Box it was a lot of trial & error. It was hard but from my previous experience working in the aviation industry I had some knowledge on how to interact and influence in this way. What worked for me was to get myself in meetings, get myself into conversations. The only reason people care is because I was there every week on a Monday morning ready to talk about carbon. At Butternut it didn’t happen overnight but now it is absolutely second nature to everything we do.
One thing we do really well is celebrate the little wins. For example, recently a buyer started sourcing quinoa from a UK farmer rather than from further afield - a huge carbon saving and supporting a smaller, and more local supplier too. When wins like this happen then we shout about it - we give them kudos, a coffee voucher, we make sure the senior leaders and co-founders know too. Celebrating these small wins lead to big action over time, and a real shifting in culture. I love that.
👉 You were the first dedicated sustainability role at Butternut Box. Can you give us an insight into how your role evolved since joining Butternut Box?
When I joined the team as Butternut’s first Sustainability Manager, it was up to me and the team to shape the role to what the business needed. For a lot of people in a sustainability position their role doesn’t often match their job description, this can be tricky but it has also given me so much freedom to get to do what I am good at, and improve what I’m not. What brings me joy is also what the business needs, so it’s a win-win. Fast-forward two years and the role has grown arms and legs; sustainability is so integrated within the business, within every decision. As a result my role has moved to sit within the Strategy Department to reflect how sustainability sits across all departments and give me more insight into what the business wants and needs. This shows the longevity of how Butternut will continue to incorporate impact within the business model.
👉 You talk a lot about the joy your get from your role. Are there any specific projects that spring to mind?
If you work in sustainability, you have to be able to see joy. Otherwise it can be a pretty relentless sector to be in. I just recently completed a materiality assessment which I’d say has brought me the most joy from any project I’ve worked on to date. I mean, how amazing is it that it was my job to spend three months writing a report about how everyone at Butternut Box wants to save the planet and do right for the people in it too! I felt like the conversations were really honest about what people care about, what matters to them and what they want the business to focus on. It gave me a real insight into people’s mindsets, and what makes them tick. The data and analysis that came out of it is so black & white too; As a business we now have the stats to say what is important and what matters, we have to do something about it.
One thing I would recommend for everyone is to do the projects that bring you joy. There are parts of any job we have to do like due diligence and legal etc, but we also need projects where we work to our strengths. I get joy from seeing other people who are engaged in the mission and I loved this project so much because I got to bounce off other people’s energy. People don’t often get the opportunity to just sit and contemplate topics around climate change, human rights or animal welfare; we gave them that chance. They were asking lots of questions, like how we prioritise, so it was definitely a two-way exchange. People got to see why I love my job so much!
Let’s dig into how you carried out the materiality assessment, can you walk us through your process?
I worked with a consultant called Rozanne Davis from Our Legacy Consulting and she is honestly the most amazing woman! She helped me to map stakeholders against the sphere of influence and impact within the business and target each in the most effective way. I ended up speaking to over 120 people through a series of online surveys, group workshops, phone calls and 1-2-1s. It was well over 100 hours and my notes alone from the sessions were over 6000 words but wow, the sessions were super interactive, and the energy in the room was electric. We have people in the business who are so incredibly passionate and this project really gave them an opportunity to speak. The results have defined what we are going to be focussing on in our long-term strategy, a clear list of priorities and actions from stakeholders, as well as celebrating all the amazing things the team already does.
👉 What’s next for Butternut Box?
I have been using the materiality assessment to help shape Butternut’s 5-year plan for the team to continue on their environmental journey and to work towards the UK’s 2050 Net Zero goal. 2023 is set to be a huge year for the business, and that applies to sustainability too. We’re releasing our very first annual impact report in the next few weeks, we’re working on our specific carbon reduction goals and we’re continuing to get sustainability front and centre of our sphere of influence.
For me, this interview is a bit bittersweet as I’m actually moving on from Butternut Box, but it’s been a really lovely way to recap how far we’ve come. I hope this helps others who have been in the same position as me, to build resilience, to have the confidence to make change, to get themselves into the hard conversations, the inspiring sessions and into the driver seat for positive impact. Our roles are huge, daunting and at times a little (very) overwhelming, but there is nowhere else I’d rather be. I hope that this inspires and motivates others to do the same. Thanks for having me!
💥 Recommended Resources From Emma 💥
Book: Climate Positive Business by David Jaber - A must for anyone in the field, super concise and gives a nice overview on lots of different, relevant topics.
Book: Less is More by Jason Hickle - Very interesting book (with actions!) on how we need to move away from a consumerism economy, and define what “growth” is.
Book: How Bad are Bananas by Mike Berners-Lee - Gives great comparisons to use when talking about volumes of carbon - making carbon relatable!
Paper: Poore and Nemecek (2018). Reducing food’s environmental impacts through producers and consumers - An open source, hugely credible paper that contains emissions you can use to begin to calculate your products footprint if you work in the food space.
Website: Annual Carbon Emission Factors (UK Government) - An absolute must for calculating your own carbon emissions (Scope 1, 2 and business travel), and knowing that the factors you use are accurate.
Website: Netregs - A great source of info to keep up to date with legislation and changes. Its guidance is applicable for Scotland and Northern Ireland, but a great place to start.