In the first of a Company Director series chronicling how some organisations are walking the walk on climate transition, we explore Canva’s roadmap to become fully powered by renewable energy and net zero emissions by 2023.

    The spectre of catastrophic Queensland and NSW flooding was an obvious example underscoring the urgency of Adams’ message: “The scientific consensus cannot be any clearer. Climate change is the biggest threat to global stability, security, and life on Earth that we’ve ever seen.”

    Although the challenge may seem overwhelming, being a “force for good” was all but compulsory for 21st-century businesses if they wanted to claim to be part of a balanced and sustainable society, according to the billionaire founder, clearly alarmed by incrementalism and inaction. “It infuriates me when people say that our actions or the actions of our country, aren’t going to affect climate change... As one of the world’s fastest-growing technology companies, we’re used to setting crazy big goals and figuring out what we need to do to achieve them.”

    In October 2021, Canva became the first Australian company to sign the global Climate Pledge, joining a group of 300 organisations including PepsiCo and global logistics giant Maersk, committed to achieving net zero by 2040, 10 years ahead of the Paris Agreement. “Our contribution to this challenge will actually see Canva reach net zero by next year, but we don’t plan to stop at net zero,” said Adams. “We have set ambitious targets to go beyond net zero and start regenerating and replenishing the environment.”

    The company’s sustainability model hinges on an inverse pyramid, with offsets of emissions deliberately deprioritised at the very bottom, emissions reduction the necessary middle and removal of carbon emissions the top priority.

    Conceding Canva doesn’t have all the answers, Adams was not shy about the public commitment. “With any problem worth solving, you must always undertake a lot of learning to do it — and you’re inevitably going to need to change and adapt as you figure it out.”

    To Canva’s leadership, the focus is clear — remove fossil fuels, electrify as much as possible and move over to renewable energy as quickly as possible.

    True zero

    Removing usage of emitting technologies is where companies and directors can have the biggest impact because it moves organisations closer to what Canva calls “true zero”: the point where your systems and processes are not emitting any carbon at all. So, how does a software services company deliver on this when one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gases worldwide is electricity production? Adams said the solution is a massive uptake of renewables.

    “Getting onto renewable energy is a critical step in tackling climate change. Once we have the right renewable energy infrastructure in place, we can then begin at electrifying a bunch of other emitting technologies, such as transport.”

    A purchase power agreement allowed its Sydney office to become the first Canva HQ (it has others in Manila and San Francisco), to be completely powered by renewables in 2021. The terms of the agreement mean that the office secures its electricity directly from a solar farm in western NSW, guaranteeing that Canva is paying for and directly adding to the grid the exact amount of electricity that it is consuming.

    “The agreement makes sure that the renewable energy is going into the grid and is being additive, allowing the renewable energy company to increase their capacity and increase their infrastructure,” said Adams.

    Pushed on how the company was dealing with emissions from remote workers, Adams flagged that the company doesn’t have quite the right measurements so it is overcompensating, distributing the renewable energy power purchase agreement across Canva’s remote workforce. “We put in an [electricity usage] figure that we know is over for people that are working at home, and then offset that ourselves,” he said. “But we’re working towards actually measuring that.”

    Supply chain reductions

    Its reduction program, the second tier of its inverted period, covers Canva’s suppliers, with Adams singling out Amazon Web Services (AWS) as instrumental in its footprint activities, given the largest proportion of Canva’s electricity consumption comes from its IT infrastructure. “As a cloud computing company, providing our service to our customers and storing their data incurs a lot of server costs. Working with databases, running search engines, serving up everyone’s content.”

    Adams says Canva’s close collaboration with AWS allowed it to move all of its services to renewable energy and develop a carbon footprint calculator tool to monitor how much energy its servers are consuming, what percentage of that is renewable energy and the emissions reductions the company has achieved.

    Canva says its international data was certified as carbon neutral as of 2020. The initiative produced a cascading effect throughout the company’s supply chains across its digital infrastructure providers, physical printing services and amenities providers. “Once you start on this journey of decarbonisation, it’s a ripple effect that has you talking to partners and working with them to reduce their emissions, helping them to level up their game.”

    Real data for real offsets

    To properly execute an offsets program, Adams said you need regular, reliable data. Canva has moved away from annual evaluations by external consultants, instead preferring an always-on data stream monitoring day-to-day emissions.

    “This really helps us to figure out not only the amount that we need to offset, but also the reductions we are seeing through the processes we’re approving and efficiencies we’re introducing. Once you have that data about your carbon emissions, reductions become a bit of a creative exercise.”

    Virtuous cycle

    Canva wants to elevate “force for good” beyond cliche, using it as a key value proposition in the war for talent. “A fantastic amount of people at Canva care deeply about the environment and being a force for good helps us attract some of the brightest minds in the world because they want to be working at a company that is not only tackling exciting product challenges, but doing so in a way that is a clear, positive impact on the planet.”

    Adams noted the company received 240,000 job applications in the past year, a number he fully expects to grow. “It’s a virtuous cycle between being a force for good and building a great company.”

    Grassroots values

    Force for good wasn’t an ethos for the founding team at the outset, but rather manifested as the company’s revealed values after recruiting like- minded people early on.

    “It wasn’t until about four years in that we actually sat down and said, ‘OK, the team has grown quite a bit now, we’re about 100 people. How do we make sure everyone is making the right decisions, incorporating the right thinking into what it is that they do?’” explained Adams. “We interviewed each of the people in the company — understood why they had joined us, what drove them, what they really appreciated in their teammates — and synthesised that down into the values we have today. It really was an evolving process.”

    Asked whether Canva’s workplace is a force for overall societal good, Adams said the founders are confident, quoting a co-founder as saying that working at a startup is even better than getting a university degree. “He [Obrecht] was strongly of the belief that coming to work at a startup... gives you such a diversity of thinking, it gives you exposure to the real world, and it requires you to adapt and grow so rapidly that you pick up so many things that you wouldn’t pick up through a traditional five year degree.”

    Big picture

    Goal-setting is fundamental to the potential for Australian individuals, companies and its government institutions to drive change, said Adams. “Australia is a very fortunate country with an amazing economy, and that is a great foundation. The next stage of Australia’s economy should be in a world that’s adequately dealing with climate change. There are untold innovation opportunities ahead for companies that embrace decarbonisation.”

    Adams admonished Australians for selling ourselves short. “If we had just looked at the impact we could have on Australia when we were building Canva, we would probably be a company about 100th the size of what we are now.”

    The size of the goals should not be the impediment, but rather the motivator. “I’m very confident that a big audacious goal brings out the best in people. We find solutions to things… For the past nine years, we’ve built our business on looking at really huge challenges and finding the opportunity in them. There is no bigger challenge at the moment than climate change.”

    The impact of Australians as participants in a developed economy could be huge because committing to achieving net zero encourages many other industries to follow suit. Adams is optimistic that Australia could be a major player on the world stage. “We can truly lead the way in both technology and corporate governance as to how to achieve that. Those effects will be felt around the world. It’s not just about eliminating the one per cent of carbon emissions that Australia actually uses. It’s the effect we can have on everyone else around the world — setting the model for how it can be done.”

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