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Behavior Change
Commons App Informing, Facilitating Mass Shifts in Climate-Influenced Consumer Living & Spending

Highlighting the impact of individual purchases and their associated emissions output, the app — fresh off a large funding round — is evolving to meet the daily spending directives of its users.

There’s a lot of emphasis being placed on consumer spending as a real way to drive measurable impact in the fight against climate change; but for many everyday consumers, it remains one of the most confusing avenues of action. There are dozens of standards and certifications to understand, along with a never-ending stream of data connected to purchases (both good and bad).

That’s where the potential of consumer spending/emissions measurement app Commons comes in. The app — which was launched in 2020 as Joro and relaunched this March under its current name — allows consumers to connect credit cards, bank accounts and other financial information to a system that measures the emissions output of every purchase; and it offers multiple ways to reduce impacts — whether through simple switches, more involved spending transitions or via the purchase of verified offsets.

“We learned a lot about what people were actually looking for,” Commons founder Sanchali Pal told Sustainable Brands®, noting that the app began primarily as a carbon tracking and offsetting platform. “It’s more about the spending choices we make — and that this is not one person’s responsibility, but the collective’s.”

The app is only a few years old; and while the company doesn’t share full user data, Pal said users are in the “tens of thousands.” Commons is currently available in the US and Canada (with most users in the former), and mostly used in large cities by the 25-55 demographic. So far, the app has raised $13.5 million — the company says investors include Sequoia Capital, Norrsken, entrepreneurial platform Incite, climate investors Amasia; and the founders of Headspace, Fitbit, Candy Crush and Nest; as well as public figures including actor Maisie Williams, IncubusMike Einziger and Arrive, (the VC arm of Jay-Z’s Roc Nation empire).

Revelations in the data

Like a lot of tech companies and apps, the leverage is in the collected data — and the trends and spending shifts that the data show. Commons’ demographic, which is likely somewhat affluent (Pal shared that most users have a credit or debit card), offers a small snapshot of how these changes can drive impact in large, urban areas in the US and Canada. It also helps users understand the realistic impact of their purchases.

“Something that people don’t realize is that the goods and services we buy also have a footprint,” Pal says. “People are quite surprised by something like a t-shirt and how that compares to the footprint of eating a burger, for example — or how driving can have a similar footprint to buying makeup. Products and services having that footprint is a novel idea for many people.”

Image credit: Commons

Pal notes that one area where the app is noticing a larger shift is in buying secondhand. The number of Commons users shopping secondhand grew 48 percent between 2021 and 2022; and Pal says content on the app and website associated with shopping “more sustainably” for apparel is some of its most popular.

There are also broader shifts happening in the ways Commons users get around. According to its 2022 Impact Report, 40 percent more Commons users took public transit in 2022, compared to 2021; and users already taking public transportation did so 75 percent more often. App users also bought 63 percent less gas than the average US consumer in 2022 and 36 percent less gas than in 2021. Lastly, it’s no surprise that Commons users also use EV stations at a high clip.

According to Pal, in 2022 the average user reduced their emissions by 20 percent and saved $200 a month via all the app has to offer.

To provide realistic updates on the impact of a particular purchase, Commons updates its data daily, monthly, quarterly or annually — depending on the specific metric. Pal notes the example of gas prices, which the company analyzes daily since the price per gallon regularly fluctuates; and the numbers Commons uses also needs to reflect inflation and other economic movers. In other cases, the movement isn’t enough to measure more than once every few months (for something such as more expensive durable goods).

Education a key component

Almost anywhere you move inside the Commons app, there’s an opportunity to learn. Whether it’s about the impact of taking one less flight or comparing your footprint to those of other users; there’s no shortage of measurable, comparable and, most importantly, actionable advice.

“Users may be looking for the kind of thing they didn’t know how to act on before using our products,” Pal says. “They may have been interested in what could have the most impact in their lives but didn’t know where to start. We have found that folks who are quite educated (on sustainability) still find the product useful.”

I was rather impressed by this once I linked up my own credit card and saw my spending data populate through the app. The home page shows a graph estimating the emissions output of all my purchases on that card in the current month and compared to prior months of my choosing.

One of the app’s newest features is breaking down purchases under a “sustainable purchases” category — which singles out specific purchasing categories such as public transit, rideshare, renewable energy and more. Under Commons’ classifications, I make few “sustainable purchases” — which I’m not particularly sure I agree with, but I would assume that category will continue to be refined.

I also appreciated a level of transparency and discussion around Commons’ choices of offsets. The company’s Offset Portfolio operates under four pillars, and users can take a rather deep dive into understanding the value and impact of each offset under each pillar. Inside the app, I was prompted to pay a certain amount each month to support these offerings (somewhat commensurate with my estimated emissions output) — which, if I took the time to sift through all of the information, I’d likely find a compelling way to reduce my personal impact.

Of course, only having “tens of thousands” of users as the sample population is ultimately a small slice of the entire consumer pool — but certainly enough to potentially influence some changes within a certain, finally comfortable section of the spending public. I could see myself making some small changes based on seeing the data there in plain sight. Once you have the graphs and metrics nicely laid out in front of you, it becomes clearer to see how the collective impact in how and where we spend could make a big difference.

“One of the advantages of what we’ve built so far is that we can connect with you no matter where you spend money,” Pal says. “Ultimately, we’re trying to shift spending behavior and show how money matters.”