At Square Roots, we’ve always tried to run our network of indoor farms for the good of people, planet and profits. With Earth Day here, it’s a good opportunity to talk more specifically about the "planet" part of that triple-bottom-line. Said another way, what exactly is Square Roots doing in the face of the climate crisis?
First, let’s take a step back. Indoor farming companies in general make a lot of similar claims about environmental sustainability. Most CEA growers will talk about using less water and land than conventional field farms, as well as having shorter supply chains, reducing the need for transport. Those are all good talking points, indicating that as a sector we are all hoping for a more sustainable food system. But, frankly, there’s not a lot of hard data or specific targets being mentioned. Indeed, the recent Global CEA Census report warns of an industry "susceptible to excessive greenwashing." We need to do better.
Square Roots recently completed a project with Watershed, an independent third party, to measure our scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions (in accordance with the GHG Protocol standards), This meant we could actually quantify the CO₂e footprint across our entire operations, and then start developing a specific plan for reduction that’s aligned with the goals of the Paris Agreement to halve carbon emissions by 2030.
Watershed ran a pretty extensive analysis, but the headline is that our net corporate emissions for 2021 were 4,747 tonnes of CO₂e. While this is a reasonably low number in absolute terms (the world collectively emits around 50 billion tonnes of CO₂e each year), it’s still the equivalent of about 2,000 round trips across the country in a family sedan. We’d like to get that to zero.
When you dig into the details, the largest segment of our emissions, at 47%, was the actual construction projects to build new farms (scope 3). That was followed by electricity consumption (scope 2) at 21%. The next largest buckets were delivery at 6%, consumables at 4.7%, packaging at 3%, and refrigerants used for cooling our growing areas and storing harvested product at 3% (all scope 1 or 3).
As the saying goes, once you’ve measured it you can then start improving it. And we’re already taking steps here - tackling the biggest areas first.
To make an immediate impact, for our upcoming farm construction projects in 2022, we’re now working closely with our good friends at Via Chicago Architects + Diseñadores to source climate-smart building materials, such as carbon-sequestering concrete for our foundation pads, while rethinking our reference designs to use less steel (which has a particularly heavy CO₂e load during its manufacturing).
Meanwhile, the pathway to reducing emissions related to our energy consumption is more obvious - i.e. to power our farms with onsite renewables. Here we're thankful to our forward-thinking strategic partner Gordon Food Service, who are now working to bring online a solar array with additional battery storage capability which will power our latest farm, located on their distribution center in Springfield, OH.
Then, looking at emissions connected to delivery, we recently announced a new partnership with URB-E, initially in NYC, to deliver our produce to over 100 local grocery stores utilizing their fleet of pedal-powered electric vehicles. Obviously the URB-E solution isn’t going to work for every Square Roots location (NYC is a pretty unique market given its density - almost all of our retail partners in the city are within 5 miles of the farm, so it's easy to get to everyone by bike). But this does start the ball rolling on our aim for zero emissions delivery, everywhere, eventually.
These initiatives are just the tip of the (melting) iceberg. Thanks to the data from Watershed, we’re now able to look at every aspect of our business through the lens of environmental sustainability and systematically make decisions that result in quantified CO₂e reductions. These ongoing efforts will be measured under the watchful eye of Nora Nagle, Square Roots' VP Finance, who is now essentially responsible for our "carbon budget" in addition to the "dollar budget" more typically associated with finance departments. This will ensure that "sustainability" is held to the same rigorous standards of goal-setting, measurement and reporting as other areas of our business, such as "revenue". In short, Square Roots will be a greenwash-free zone.
It is not over-dramatizing to state that this work is of existential importance. The climate crisis is real, and we all need to do our part - now. This is just the beginning of our journey. But if you’ve got any thoughts, ideas or want to get involved, please reach out.