As I get ready to send Live By out into the world I wanted to write about our journey together so far (that is, the company and I) and to outline what Live By is, how it works and what it intends to be.
But how do you sum up something that you’ve been thinking about and working on for years?
The idea of Live By has followed me throughout career changes, a move to a foreign country and graduate school. It has shifted shape, morphing and mutating as external events have unfolded, but at its heart Live By is, and will always be, about addressing the most pressing environmental issues in an attempt to slow down the damage caused by human consumerism.
This is no small task but the work needs to be done.
The beginning ✨
The initial decision to start Live By came from a feeling of deep, deep frustration.
I was, and continue to be, outraged at the profound level of inaction, inertia and the complete failure of governments and corporations to act.
As people debate about whether humans are causing climate change or how many degrees of warming the planet can tolerate, the crisis continues to worsen. Parts of the world are literally burning before our eyes.
Alongside this, we are witness to truly gross levels of inequality, where the richest few continue to get richer and richer at the cost of everyone and everything else, including a habitable planet.
Watching events unfold I felt driven to do something but wasn’t sure where to start. I was aware of the mainstream public campaigns to tackle individual issues such as the zero waste movement, pushes to ban plastic bags and plastic straws, using less water when you shower or brush your teeth or veganism. Given the incredible complexity of the environmental crisis though these individual actions seemed insufficient at best and greenwashing at worst.
I began speaking to environmental scientists and academics working on, or around, environmental issues and would ask every person that I spoke to the same question:
“I’m an individual who cares deeply about these things – what’s the single most impactful thing that I can do?”
The answers that I received ranged from the frustratingly nihilistic (“nothing, we’ve already passed the tipping point”) to the very vague (“reduce your impact”) and the slightly less vague but still rather wooly (“lower your personal emissions”; “stop emitting carbon”). No one had a real action plan ready for individuals who wanted to make a difference.
Still searching, I read one study that outlined the four lifestyle choices most likely to reduce your carbon footprint : “eating a plant-based diet, avoiding air travel, living car free, and having fewer children.” Unpacking each of these points as they applied to my lifestyle:
- I already eat a predominantly plant-based diet, only eating meat occasionally or for special occasions.
- On average I fly perhaps 1-2 times a year, although that number has now conveniently plummeted down to a nice and sustainable ZERO flights as a result of the pandemic, however I think potentially black swan events  shouldn’t be factored into carbon counting.
- I haven’t owned a car since 2010. Whenever and wherever possible, I walk or take public transportation to get to my destination.
- I don’t have any kids. This may change in the future, but at the time of writing there’s nothing I can do here to reduce my footprint.
So, in short: I could make some minor tweaks to my diet (☑️) and think twice before taking a flight (☑️). You don’t need to be an environmental scientist to see that this isn’t going to impact meaningful change on the greater problems that we’re all facing.
I decided that if someone wasn’t going to provide me with the tools to do the work that so desperately and obviously needed doing, I’d make them myself.
It was time to take action into my own hands.
I began looking for two things:
- A way to engage a maximum number of people, even those who might not necessarily consider themselves to be environmentalists;
- something that had the potential to get the attention of a primary driver of our collective destruction – corporations.
When dealing with the latter I think it’s fair to say that one thing matters above all else, profit. This led me straight to a sweet spot: voting with your dollars through your purchasing habits.
It’s a pretty universal fact of modern life that no matter how hard you might work towards minimalism you still need to buy things – for yourself or your baby or husband or wife or pet or new job or best friend’s wedding. Regardless of the situation, things are required.
To impact change, however, you can always choose to buy better things from brands that cause less damage. This strategy achieves three goals: in aggregate, less harm is done; those trying to make a difference are financially supported; and brands that aren’t trying (or aren’t being truthful about their efforts) are held to a higher standard by conscious and/or concerned consumers.
Building Live By ?
So I got to work making something that would cut through the greenwashing and provide people with a tangible way to take action without demanding too much time or effort (because #latestagecapitalismburnout) and also generate profit as a sustainable business model.
The first step was to define and quantify better. In other words, how to decide whether one brand or product caused less environmental harm than another? Perhaps more importantly, how to determine whether one action makes a greater difference to the bottom line of mitigating climate catastrophe than another?
To get answers to these questions, all of the different ways that ‘green’ and ‘environmentally friendly’ businesses use to describe themselves and their products (e.g. cruelty-free, vegan, palm oil free, organic, fair trade etc.) were collected. The most commonly used terms were then correlated to the Planetary Boundary Framework. These represent nine planetary boundaries which are used to define the “safe operating space for humanity” . The crossing of a boundary increases the risk of irreversible and potentially unforeseen environmental changes.
Using planetary boundaries as a baseline acts as a ‘greenwashing detector’ – the validity of terms that are frequently thrown around in green and eco circles are weighed against how much they do or do not impact the planetary processes that are critical to our survival. This approach also lets us identify which buying factors make the biggest difference to our environmental bottom line.
With a science-driven and data-based definition of ‘better’ in hand I went about designing an algorithm that would calculate the betterness of a company and prioritize those trying the hardest and causing the least harm to the environment. The same approach was also applied to products, but with a twist – in addition to only featuring things made by better brands, buyers are able to filter products based on the causes and issues that they care about most.
Now, let’s talk about money for a minute because for Live By to drive the level of change that the current situation requires, it needs to be sustainable in all senses of the word, including financially.
Thinking about common ways to generate profit online, I first and foremost wanted to avoid the sponsorship model arrangement where brands pay to be featured, be that through write-ups or directory features. I also didn’t want to offer a certification scheme where brands can pay for a badge that verifies their eco-creds. This pay-to-play type of monetization model is in opposition to what Live By stands for and can, in some instances, encourage greenwashing and other insincere methods of marketing.
In the end, I opted for an affiliate/commission model which means that every time you click a product link and purchase an item from a product featured in our store or elsewhere on the website Live By receives a small percentage of that sale. This seems like the most straightforward way to generate revenue while maintaining the level of integrity necessary for maximum impact.
In pursuit of full transparency, if and/or when we change the way that we make money I’ll make sure to share this information with you in future letters.
But buying better is only part of the equation.
Buying better products is an integral part of Live By’s mission, it is the engine that ensures we can continue doing the work that needs to be done while fairly compensating those we work with.
At the end of the day though, just because a company is able to convince people to spend money doesn’t mean the duty to care about the environment and society stops there. Our goal is to truly reimagine our relationship with consumerism and the way we buy things.
To that end, each quarter Live By will invest a portion of our profit into three non-profits that are actively and tangibly working on critical environmental and social issues. To underline our commitment to maximum impact we are asking you, the user, how the money should be distributed each round.
As a matter of policy all companies should be giving back, regardless of size. In the current system that we all operate in business is one of the few places where real change can be made. Therefore, we invest for maximum impact and encourage others to follow our lead.
The future ?
So that’s Live By in a nutshell:
Better brands and products are identified and prioritized based on their impact on the environment → You buy what you need after clicking a link on our website → We earn a percentage of money for each sale and set aside a portion of our profits → You decide how the money is distributed → Each quarter three non-profits get the money they need to do the work that the world requires them to continue doing.
But this isn’t a solo adventure. The scale of the problems currently facing the world, from climate change to biodiversity loss and beyond, means that every single person needs to get involved.
If you have suggestions, ideas or think we’ve made a mistake get in touch. Let us know what you think, what you want and how we can do better.
In turn, if you believe in our mission and/or find value in our services then tell everyone you know that there’s this website called Live By that uses data to quantifiably identify better brands and then reinvests half of their profit with action takers making a difference.
Because at the end of the day, we’re all in this together.