Sanchali Pal Is Putting Climate Action in Your Pocket
Earth’s temperature has risen 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit since the 19th century. It’s an increase that, without a doubt, has been caused by humans. The amount we’re personally responsible for is known as our carbon footprint. And according to the Nature Conservancy, we need to drop the average global footprint from 16 to 2 tons per year by 2050 to keep an already tenuous situation from devolving into further catastrophe.
When I read those numbers, my mind goes blank: Despite their heft, I don’t know the weight of their meaning. I see it—record-breaking wildfires, blizzards, hurricanes, heat waves, floods, droughts—but it’s still hard to contextualize how my carbon footprint plays a role in what many people far more knowledgeable than I consider to be the most important issue of our lifetime.
I care, really I do, but it’s hard to wrap my mind around something so massive. Are my actions even going to move the needle?
I’m far from being alone in thinking this way: It’s actually why we’re in this mess. In spite of a record-high number of Americans (70%) in a 2021 Yale survey reporting that they were “very or somewhat worried about global warming,” a Harvard Business Review article reported that people just aren’t that motivated to address climate change.
Why? Because it requires us to think and act long-term and non-linearly, two things humans aren’t really good at doing. And with most climate-change-related disasters happening somewhere “over there,” the threat feels similarly far away.
“As a result,” HBR reports, “most people are not forced to grapple with the specifics of climate change, but rather can treat it as an abstract concept. And abstract concepts simply don’t motivate people to act as forcefully as specific ones do.”
As a former consultant who worked directly with people affected by the climate crisis, Sanchali Pal knows we don’t have time to wait for people to get it.
“Once I had enough of those conversations, I realized, ‘Oh, shit. The climate crisis is terrible, and it’s affecting real people,” Pal says. “It’s not in the future, it’s happening right now. And I need to do everything I can in the next decade to solve this problem.”
Since having this realization, Pal has taken the abstractness of climate change and made it concrete, measurable, and directly linked to our actions with Commons. Commons (fka Joro) is a free app that allows users to “track, reduce, and offset the emissions of everything you buy.”
Once you link your debit and credit cards to the app, Commons uses a proprietary algorithm (known as “The Carbonizer”) to convert dollars spent into an estimate of kilograms of carbon dioxide equivalent (kg CO2e, ”a common unit of climate impact”). Commons gives you a kg baseline for the week, month, and year, and lets you track how your emissions fare against that budget.
It’s all in service of building what Pal calls “carbon intuition.”
“It’s just like counting your steps or eating calories. We have an intuition for these other currencies—it’s important that we also have an intuition for carbon. My hope is that five years from now, it’s incredibly normalized to know your carbon footprint.”sanchali pal
“It’s just like [counting your] steps, eating calories,” she says. “We have an intuition for these other currencies. It’s important that we also—in this age of climate change—have an intuition for carbon.”
The app’s seamlessness works as a set of training wheels for those of us who care about climate change, but aren’t quite sure where to start.
Knowing the carbon cost of your purchases allows you to know your impact and make decisions based on it. So now I know that this month, my biggest carbon drivers were taking Lyfts (a $79 ride to and from Williamsburg, Brooklyn emitted 56 kg CO2e) and ordering in from Seamless (an order from my favorite local Thai restaurant cost $44 and 18 kg CO2e).
“My hope is that in five years from now, it’s incredibly normalized to know your carbon footprint, and to know where it comes from,” Pal says. “Right now, if I told someone, ‘Your average carbon footprint per day is 55 kilograms of CO2,’ no one would know what that meant. But I think in five years from now, it’ll be just as normal as 10,000 steps.”
At the end of the month, Commons tallies up your emissions and offers the opportunity to go net zero by paying to support “meaningful carbon removal.” That could look like using kelp to store carbon or powering regenerative agricultural practices. I was surprised to learn how relatively affordable it would be for me to offset 1,596 kg CO2e, my month’s worth of emissions: just $40.
That’s the equivalent of rolling back 4,011 miles on the average car’s odometer, according to the Environmental Protections Agency.
I’m starting to get it now.
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A Collective for Climate Change
Getting people to understand their impact and change their habits is major—especially given how hard it is to get people motivated in the first place.
Yet there are arguably bigger levers that need to be pulled to turn back the doomsday clock climate change has set into motion. Governments—especially those of the big three polluters: the U.S., China, and Russia—have to do more than pay lip service to capping the hundreds of gigatons of carbon they produce. Same goes for businesses.
But the fact that we’re still in this mess shows these entities don’t really feel incentivized to do what needs to be done. That’s where Pal sees Commons’ potential power.
“Yeah, we need policy. Yeah, we need business. But are they going to move fast enough? Probably not.” Pal says.
Change has happened, though, when consumers take collective action. We’ve already seen it happen in the rise of plant-based meat alternatives, Pal offers.
“In just a few years, we see Americans eating like 19% less beef than we were before,” she says, “just because consumer tastes and preferences have changed.”
We need that same push to happen for more businesses to take meaningful action against climate change, notes Bryan Schreier of Sequoia Capital.
“Many major, consumer-driven companies started making company-level commitments to being net zero, or even 10x net zero,” he says. “Is it because the CEOs and board members of these companies just felt like they should spend some money to do something good for the world? Absolutely not. The reason they did it was because their customers demanded it. They started to see that if they were not climate-focused and sustainability-focused businesses, it would become a competitive disadvantage.”
Commons hopes to stoke customer demand for climate action by educating and empowering its users. Its arrival is timely. People have gone from being inconvenienced by climate change to feeling so afraid of it that this fear now has a name: climate anxiety. (Google searches of the term have gone up 565% between 2020-2021.)
Pal and Commons speak to people’s capacity for change instead of their fears. The app assumes users already know what is at stake. Instead of focusing on language that portends our demise, it offers concrete actions you can take and helpful, judgment-free resources in support of living a net-zero life. (This approach could also help with climate anxiety; the American Psychological Association recommends taking action to combat the feelings of helplessness that climate anxiety can bring on.)
“The war on climate change is being fought through this force of calmness,” Schreier says of Pal. “The anxiety is a good thing, because it makes people interested in making a difference, but they deserve calm. And honestly, I think that’s what she’s trying to bring to her users. ”
An Environmentalist in Waiting
In many ways, Commons is the right tool created at the right time, and one that could only come from someone with Pal’s specific experiences and drives.
Growing up in Newton, Massachusetts, Pal didn’t identify as an environmentalist—even though she dressed up as conservationist and Silent Spring author Rachel Carson for Halloween in elementary school. (She also dressed up as Diana Ross one year—luckily for the fight against climate change, she followed Rachel’s lead.)
Environmentalists were card-carrying members of the Sierra Club who liked camping and could identify trees, she thought, and she was “more concerned about poverty and access to water.”
Pal saw the impact of both firsthand during her family’s annual trips to visit loved ones back in her parents’ home of New Delhi. That was on her mind when, at 15, she heard MIT professor Amy Smith on the radio discussing how a lack of access to clean water was the number one killer of children under the age of 5 years old.
“I heard that and I was like, ‘Wow, mom. This is a problem for so many people we see when we go back to India. How do we make this better? What can we do?’”
Pal’s mother suggested she write an email to Smith asking if she could work with her—and made her follow up when the professor didn’t respond. The third time was the charm, and Pal spent her summer with Smith building a sun-powered oven. “We need to create tools that make people’s lives better and easier,” she remembers thinking.
That internship helped soften the blow when Pal’s parents announced that the family would be moving back to India to be closer to family after Pal’s grandfather passed away.
“Poverty has to do with climate change. Inequality has to do with climate change. Injustice between the developing world and the developed world has to do with climate change.”sanchali pal
“I was very annoyed because I was going into my senior year in high school,” she says. “But it ended up being amazing and changed my life trajectory quite a bit. It made impact a non-negotiable for me in my career.”
Inspired by the solar cooker she made the previous summer, Pal spent her first summer in India working at a nonprofit where she spoke to people who didn’t have access to clean energy or water. These conversations in New Delhi’s slums were her first experiences in doing user research, and would inform her early career and eventual startup.
After graduating from Princeton with a B.A. in economics, Pal worked in international development as a consultant at Dalberg, a global consulting firm. Soon climate began intersecting with her work. A conference on climate she was supposed to run in Bangalore was canceled due to terrible flooding. Her job took her to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia during the worst drought in a generation.
During her conversations with devastated farmers in Ethiopia’s countryside, it clicked for her. She was an environmentalist. Had been all along.
“Poverty has to do with climate change. Inequality has to do with climate change. Injustice between the developing world and the developed world has to do with climate change,” she says now. “That’s why I’m an environmentalist—because I care about the effect of the environment on all of our other quality of life indicators.”
That realization led to Pal’s aforementioned “Oh, shit” moment and her desire to do everything she could to help halt climate change’s march. She decided to get her MBA at Harvard Business School to learn how to scale up underfunded initiatives in the climate community.
The Journey to Commons
Business school was a “mini boot camp” for Pal. And it was where she realized one of her habits could actually be a business.
When Pal was a college student at Princeton, she saw Food, Inc., a 2008 documentary on corporate farming. If I’m more intentional about my demand, she wondered, does that matter?
As a manager at one of Princeton’s dining halls, she discovered that adding more vegetarian options to the menu could offset the emissions cost of one meat dish. “And that, over the course of a year, is like taking hundreds of cars off the road,” Pal explains.
Intrigued, Pal started tracking her own carbon footprint. Becoming a vegan would be hard, but cutting meat meals from 12 meals a week to two was the equivalent of taking half a car off the road every year—and that mattered. Also, and perhaps most importantly, cutting down her meat consumption was something Pal could actually see herself sticking to.
But like with any good habit, her new diet led to other carbon-reducing practices. Pal started walking and biking more, and created a carbon budget to offset the emissions toll of flying for work.
“I reduced my footprint by about 30% over the course of four or five years,” she says.
What was once a private habit became a topic of conversation during her first year at B-school when classmates asked about her weekdays-only vegetarian diet.
“I thought people would think I was weird, but a lot of people were like, ‘Oh, I want to do that,’” Pal says. “That was when I started thinking, maybe this could be for more than just me.”
“I thought people would think I was weird, but a lot of people were like, ‘Oh, I want to do that.’ That was when I started thinking, maybe this could be for more than just me.”sanchali pal
She started working on the idea for what would become Commons with other graduate students, including an MIT PhD student whose research focused on carbon footprints. Pal was self-conscious about her lack of experience in climate and data collection, and wanted to work with people who could fill in those gaps.
“I had been tracking my carbon footprint in Excel spreadsheets, but that’s way too much to ask anyone else to do,” she says. “So I needed to figure out, where is there an automated data feed we can tap into to show someone their footprint?”
When Pal graduated from Harvard, she had made a decision. Instead of going to work for Tesla like she had the previous summer, she would give herself six months to see if she could make Commons happen. The MIT student decided to stay on as well, and became her co-founder.
But it quickly became clear that it would take longer than six months to suss out if Commons could work or not. Pal was living in student housing and working 80 hour weeks—60 on Commons and 20 working for her entrepreneurship professor and Commons’ first investor Shikar Ghosh to pay the bills.
“She was one of the smartest students—articulate, understated, and committed to using business to make the world better,” Ghosh explains. “I was impressed enough to write a case about Commons and hire her as my research assistant the following year.”
Pal was all in on Commons, but her co-founder’s PhD program made it impossible for her to commit fully to the company; the two would eventually part ways. It was a blow for Pal, but her mentor knew she didn’t really need a co-founder.
“The business required a deep understanding of user motivations. It did not need exceptional technology at its inception,” Ghosh explains. “Sanchali had the passion and skill to get through the first phase on her own. She could bring in partners to work with her after she figured out the business model and product requirements.”
“I did not believe him,” Pal says now. Plus, it was hard to stay positive after pitching Commons to investors and getting 9.5 rejections (there was one maybe).
“I heard from them that this could never be a business,” she recalls now, before sharing some of the feedback she got in those pitch meetings. “‘You’re not gonna make any money.’ ‘No one wants to do this.’ ‘Why do people want to download it? Because they care? That’s a terrible reason!’ And that was just so disheartening.”
“I heard in pitch meetings that this could never be a business: ‘You’re not gonna make any money.’ ‘No one wants to do this.’ ‘Why do people want to download it? Because they care? That’s a terrible reason!’ And that was just so disheartening.”sanchali pal
With her initial deadline approaching quickly, Pal flew out to California for Thanksgiving feeling defeated. (Her parents had since moved back to the States.)
When it was her time to share what she was grateful for that year, Pal burst into tears. She was grateful for the opportunity to work on Commons, she explained to her family through tears, but it wasn’t working. Instead of saying “There’s always banking,” Pal’s parents and relatives encouraged her to not give up on Commons.
Her family helped her realize that “external validation from investors wasn’t the most critical piece,” she explains. “I should be worried about the people I’m building it for. That was my reason to keep going.”
Pal returned to Boston energized. No longer stymied by what she once felt she lacked, she followed Ghosh’s advice and started building the initial prototype for Commons. She also reached out to a number of West Coast investors, including Bryan Schreier of Sequoia Capital. It was the match both of them had been waiting for. For the last three years, Sequoia had been looking for opportunities to invest in climate-change focused companies.
“There are some fights that are incredibly important to humanity but are hard to build a scalable business around,” Schreier explains. He thinks companies that can do both are important to “winning a war where the cards really are stacked against us.”
Investing in the company was both a mission and founder fit for the firm, Schreier explains. “Sanchali is clearly on a mission for humanity,” he says. “When I first met her, you could tell that there was nothing that was going to get in her way.”
By August 2019, Pal had closed Commons’ pre-seed round of funding and moved to California to build her company out even further with the help of Sequoia’s Company Design Program.
The company’s user base has grown to include activist Dejah Powell of the Sunrise Movement, MIT Sloan’s director of sustainability Jason Jay, and Nicole Shanahan and her husband, Google co-founder Sergey Brin. The pair have decided to offset their annual emissions by 10x, this year working with Commons to ensure that they are supporting efforts that experts have vetted for long-term, meaningful impact. “I work with Commons because I believe everyone can take climate action and together, all our efforts can—and do—add up to meaningful progress in addressing the climate crisis,” Shanahan says.
That belief is backed up by data: In 2021, Commons helped their community lower their emissions by 21% through offsets and by changing the way they spend. (The average user saved $3,300.)
“The impact that our active users are having… if everyone in the U.S. did that, we would have an impact equal to taking all the cars off the road and shutting down 40% of coal plants in the country.”sanchali pal
“The impact that our active users are having… if everyone in the U.S. did that,” Pal says, “we would have an impact equal to taking all the cars off the road and shutting down 40% of coal plants in the country.”
It’s encouraging considering where we are now in the climate change battle, and something that makes Pal hopeful about the future she’s working toward—one where “we don’t need Commons to track our emissions anymore, because we all have zero emissions.” she says. And it’s a future that she hopes Commons and its community will have a hand in bringing forth.
“Climate change is absolutely a systemic problem, and that’s why we need policy and business solutions,” she says. “But systems are very much made up of people. And that’s the part that gets me really excited about what we’re building.
“When we get tens of thousands of people,” Pal continues, “hundreds of thousands of people, tens of millions of people to take climate action together, that’s when we really have massive impact.”