CoGo is a relatively new addition to the ever-expanding world of fintech. The free app helps consumers align their spending habits and values. CoGo provides users with a real-time, personalised carbon footprint and reviews their banking activity to calculate their estimated carbon consumption. According to CoGo’s managing director, Emma Kisby, the company’s founder and CEO, Ben Glassier, recognised the limitations of government policy and turned his attention towards “empowering consumers with better information.” Admittedly, this philosophy is very similar to VOIZ’s, but at its core it could be argued that CoGo’s approach is somewhat flawed. Should the responsibility to make sustainable choices rest solely on consumers? Surely there should be a greater emphasis on the accountability of corporations too? While CoGo does also work alongside companies to develop more sustainable business practices I still feel that the focus is disproportionately placed on the purchasing power of consumers.
Regardless, I was pleasantly surprised by the CoGo app, particularly the company’s emphasis on the regulation of labour practices. This is a refreshing departure from the often-myopic focus of corporations who conceptualise ‘sustainability’ purely in terms of its environmental implications. CoGo’s Impact Model values the importance of securing both ‘positive long-term social and environmental impacts.’ However, my main issue with CoGo is their close relationship with a number of high-profile banks and companies that have a problematic track record when it comes to climate justice and social action. While I sympathise to an extent with CoGo as a relatively young start-up still finding its footing, I feel that they have compromised their core values by aligning themselves with these harmful corporations.
CoGo’s app is available on Apple and Android. The app connects straight to your bank account and reviews your incoming and outgoing transactions to create a monthly carbon profile. Your carbon consumption is then broken down into: ‘Food and Drink’, ‘Around My Home’, ‘Stuff I Buy’, ‘Getting Around’ and a final miscellaneous category, ‘Unknown.’ However, because CoGo only tracks your recorded purchases, there are still plenty of activities that could contribute to your overall carbon consumption that are not accounted for. For instance, if you ask someone else in your household to buy an extra batch of eggs for you or redeem a gift voucher at a retail store, you are still adding to your overall carbon consumption – it’s just that these activities do not always leave behind a traceable digital footprint. Nonetheless, what really sets CoGo apart from similar carbon footprint calculators is the way in which it actually translates your financial data into a set of workable solutions. CoGo gives the user the unique opportunity to meaningfully alter their spending habits and offset their carbon emissions. The app even converts your monthly carbon consumption into the equivalent number of torn down trees or miles traveled by car which really helps the user visualise the tangible effect their actions have on the environment. This monthly data is further contextualised against a baseline UK average as well as an optimal goal of 180kg of carbon to lead a ‘Sustainable Lifestyle.’
CoGo’s recommendations for reducing carbon consumption are based upon the users’ personal values. The user can choose from a list of values to guide their purchasing decisions, these include reduce waste, social enterprise, living wage and fairly traded, etc. While I think giving the user the option to select their own values helps to tailor the experience to the preferences of each individual – this raises a slightly difficult question, should consumers really be allowed to be so selective about which values they opt in and out of? Shouldn’t we all be held to the same ethical standards? I was initially suspicious about how CoGo vetted companies for their accreditation system until I came across their ‘Good Impact Framework’ which outlines the necessary criteria to be awarded one of CoGo’s value-orientated certifications. For each certification, a company must pass CoGo’s Issue-Action-Badge-Impact test. First, CoGo will identify the key ethical issue at stake for the consumer, next CoGo must consider what actions need to be taken to respond to the consumer's concerns, then the company must produce a badge (certification) to prove it is working to improve its practices and finally, the overall impact of the businesses' improved practices must be calculated by CoGo. However, I still felt upon further investigation that some of the criteria necessary to satisfy the individual values were not stringent enough. For instance, in order to qualify for CoGo's ‘Sustainably Sourced’ badge a company need only produce evidence that at least one of their products has been certified by an organisation from a pre-approved list. Surely having one sustainable product does not redeem an entire company? Similarly, for a company to be considered ‘Cruelty Free’ they are only expected to sell at least one brand or product that is certified by one of CoGo’s trusted organisations. The issue here is that a consumer might change their purchasing habits according to CoGo’s recommendations under the assumption that the businesses have been rigorously scrutinised to meet their personal values, only to discover that CoGo’s own criteria leaves a lot to be desired.
CoGo’s app also has a search bar that allows you to look for a specific item that is sold by a trusted company. However, the issue I encountered with this search function is that the recommended stores in the returned results were not very local to me. Perhaps the scarcity of local businesses in my search results reflects the size of the platform itself; hopefully, as CoGo’s operation scales up, the relevancy of its search function will also improve. Furthermore, at its core, CoGo hopes to improve consumer awareness and I feel they definitely achieve this; they offer users the option to receive personalised notifications that promise to “boost positive spends.” Clearly, CoGo understands the importance of sustained user engagement to remain at the forefront of people’s minds each time they plan a purchase.
But CoGo doesn’t just help consumers, they also work with companies to improve their sustainable performance. The CoGo Impact Model states that they measure the ROI (Returns on Investment) of a company’s existing CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) initiatives and help develop new strategies that will generate even better results using consumer data. In doing so, CoGo seeks to reassure companies that sustainable practices can actually be an additive to their business model rather than a detractor.
CoGo’s carbon emissions tracker tool was developed by the company’s CEO in collaboration with their in-house data science team, world-renowned climate expert Mike Berners-Lee, and data provided by Leeds University professor, John Barrett. Barrett’s data has also been used by the UK government and WWF which is clearly a testament to its reliability. Your actual carbon footprint is calculated by analysing your banking data and tracing the company to match each transaction to its relevant industry (food, sport, fashion, etc.). The transaction is then multiplied by an ‘emissions factor’ for that industry. This generic emissions factor can be adjusted according to a company’s sustainable credentials and any relevant information pertaining to the consumer’s lifestyle e.g vegetarian, vegan, etc.
However, some aspects of the carbon emissions calculator are highly speculative. According to CoGo, the carbon emissions factor assumes its user “buys an average mix of products when [they] shop.” Therefore, say you only buy multiples of one item, the generic emissions multiplier will not necessarily create an accurate reading. In CoGo’s defence, they are well aware of the limitations of their carbon tracker tool and concede that it is “imperfect, but .. the best solution available”. I feel that CoGo’s tracker as it stands strikes the best balance possible by drawing reasonable conclusions from the data available without overstepping the mark and being too invasive into people’s private information, especially as CoGo’s customers should already be familiar with how the app works before signing up and have therefore voluntarily agreed to surrender their personal banking data.
CoGo’s founder and CEO, Ben Gleisner, in his own words, wanted to create a platform that uses the “power of people, technology and data to fundamentally change the world for good”. Gleisner appears to have an extensive background in environmental and social justice. Previously, Gleisner founded the marketing platform, Conscious Consumer, and also served as a former economist for the New Zealand Treasury, helping to develop the Treasury’s Living Standard’s Framework in 2011. CoGo’s team of employees currently operate out of London, Wellington, and Melbourne. I was really impressed by the level of diversity in CoGo’s senior management team. CoGo certainly delivers on its promise of creating a platform where “each voice matters,” in fact, 9 of its 12 members from the senior marketing team in their Wellington-based office are women (that constitutes a startling 75%). This is a really encouraging change from the predominantly male senior management infrastructure at most companies. However, I wasn’t able to find any information about the racial diversity of CoGo’s workforce.
CoGo’s commitment to sustainable practices and climate justice is also attested to by their collection of certifications, including a Toitu Carbon Zero certification which means all of CoGo’s carbon emissions from its operational activities are offset (this certification is importantly reviewed annually) and their B Corporation certification, although it should be noted that CoGo’s B Corporation assessment score was only 81.1, which means they only marginally scraped the minimum pass mark.
However, the more you peel back the curtain and investigate CoGo’s investors, the less their sustainable rhetoric holds weight. In 2020, CoGo announced its partnership with Australian bank, Westpac, in order to “empower businesses and citizens … to build [a] low-carbon economy”. However, this partnership seems to be inconsistent with CoGo’s sustainable corporate values given that Westpac has previously come under fire for its role in funding the New Zealand mining corporation, Bathurst. Similarly, despite professing to care about corporate responsibility, Westpac has faced significant criticism for its involvement in logging operations in the Solomon Islands. To add further insult to injury, as recently as 2019, Westpac was once again caught up in the midst of another scandal after an investigation by Austrac revealed that it was guilty of money laundering and child exploitation offences. The bank was subsequently forced to pay a hefty fine of $1.3 billion (although this is probably only a drop in the ocean for one of New Zealand’s top five banks).
But Westpac isn’t the only dubious corporation with a vested interest in CoGo, for instance, one of the company’s major shareholders is James Watt, the CEO of the popular pub chain BrewDog. In 2021, over 100 of BrewDog’s former employees came forward to share their experiences of bullying and harassment in what has been described as a “culture of fear” while working for the company. The letter also criticised the company’s blatant greenwashing – claiming to be *environmentally conscious* while chartering private planes and wasting glacier water to manufacture its line of craft beers.
So surely that’s it, right? Well, not exactly; another one of CoGo’s shareholders is the former CEO of the National Australia Bank (NAB), Andrew Thorburn. Under Thorburn’s leadership the bank loaned an astonishing $7.3 billion to the fossil fuel industry. Thorburn would eventually be forced to resign in 2019 following an investigation by the Royal Commission which exposed the toxic internal culture at NAB. Clearly, CoGo needs to better vet its prospective investors and shareholders to ensure that they align with the company’s values. However, perhaps it is unrealistic to expect CoGo to exclusively work with companies that have a perfectly polished reputation. By integrating CoGo’s tools into their services, corporations and major banks can begin to reconfigure their business model and make more sustainable choices in the future.