It can be overwhelming and frankly off-putting to make sustainable changes in our lives. Where do we start? How can we be incentivised to make the necessary changes? Start-up EcoFoote is attempting to eliminate this confusion, creating an online solution that connects users to sustainability solutions. 

Earth.Org chatted to Matthew Hanly, Founder and CEO of EcoFoote, to get his insights on the future of sustainability and how EcoFoote is paving the way for wide scale change.

Earth.Org: Can you tell us a bit about EcoFoote and the services that it offers?

Matthew Hanly: EcoFoote offers a multi-dimensional approach to sustainability. We are developing a Software and app as a service that guides, rewards and connects people to sustainable solutions. It essentially encompasses the circular economy model, whereby we guide people to reduce their impact on the environment,  we reward them for sustainable actions to incentivise these changes to a more sustainable lifestyle and we connect them to sustainable solutions where they can redeem their rewards. 

How the reward system will work is that you could for example walk to work and we could track this through your phone’s GPS. We would then give you points based on how much you walked per day and with these points, you can go to a partner company and get a discount at a restaurant or coffee shop. Alternatively, if you have weekly goals that you meet, you can unlock free rewards, like a vegan meal for example. 

We also have a carbon compensation option, which is where we offer tree planting as a service to offset carbon emissions. We’ve calculated that on average, a tree stores around 20kgs of carbon a year. We’ve priced these trees at 1 Hong Kong dollar per kg, so HKD$20 per tree. We’ve partnered with four companies in Uganda, Nepal, Thailand and the US who will plant the trees on our behalf. We are always looking to expand the companies that we work with, and right now we’re looking into South African companies because of the country’s high carbon-storing capacity. 

Finally, we have an online e-learning platform that educates people about the climate crisis and climate science, which is geared towards young people. We’re currently working on a package to offer to corporations and smaller businesses to educate them on where they can offset their carbon and how to get their employees to be more sustainable.

EO: What inspired you to start EcoFoote? What need did you see in society that you feel EcoFoote fulfils? 

MH: The idea actually stemmed from an earlier idea that I had where I envisioned people running on treadmills or using cycling machines, generating renewable energy from this and then getting rewarded for it. EcoFoote expands on this- this is still something that we want to do, but we’ve evolved to encompass a more holistic approach on sustainability, by working to reduce waste in five different areas (fashion, energy, waste, recycling, diet). 

Our name used to be SYNERGE (System Yielding Natural Energy Renewably Generating Electricity), but since expanding on and improving the model, we changed it to EcoFoote, because we wanted to give credit to the woman who discovered the greenhouse gas effect in 1856, Eunice Newton Foote. 

We’re currently working on the app and hope to have it available in November. 

EO: What is your ultimate goal for EcoFoote?

MH: Our ultimate goal for EcoFoote is for it to be the primary platform that connects people to sustainability options, guides them to them and then rewards them for choosing them, completing the feedback loop of sustainability, which no other platform does. There’s a lot of carbon compensation and carbon calculating apps that show you how to reduce your impact, but they don’t connect you to solutions or reward you for your efforts. 

Ultimately, we want to shift peoples’ mindsets into becoming more sustainable and more conscious of their consumption choices in their daily lives. 

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EO: In your opinion, how can society shift their perception about sustainability? And what do we need to do as consumers to become more sustainable?

MH: We’re actually working on our own guide to a sustainable future right now, which will hopefully help people to understand the impacts of various aspects of our lives that have the biggest impact on the environment- we’re mainly looking at diets, waste and recycling, fashion and beauty and transport and energy- and help them make the necessary changes in their everyday lives. 

For example, if we eat a lot of meat, we are polluting the environment and causing a lot of degradation through greenhouse gas emissions, whereas if we consume a vegan or vegetarian diet, our impact is a lot lower. Essentially, we’re building this guide to help people shift their practices and adapt their behaviour, and then incentivise them to do so as well. Generally how people can do this is by asking themselves questions like “who, what, when, where, how”- “who made this,” “how was it made,” and “where was it made,” for example. We hope that through doing this, consumers will start being a lot more aware of the purchases they make. To drive more sustainable consumption, we really need to question what we’re consuming and how much of it. 

Put simply, if the demand for unsustainable products is there, the supply will be there, too. We’ve become really disconnected as consumers because we generally don’t see the waste that we produce. This is changing, but we hope that EcoFoote can speed up this transition to sustainability. 

EO: Do you think that consumers should be driving the shift or do you think it should be in the hands of governments?

MH: It’s a two-way street. The economy is flawed in this sense because it’s as though there is a stand-off between consumers and corporates, both blaming each other. This just delays action and requires systemic change on both sides. 

The current economic model assumes that we have unlimited resources on the planet, which is obviously not the case. I’m a big fan of donut economics, which recognises the finite capacity of our environment and the impacts that we have, as well as the impacts that our consumption is having on our society. We need a massive shift in terms of making everything fair and equitable, balancing the society, environment and economy to ensure that they are not exploiting the environment or customers. The idea of a never-ending profit margin or increased GDP is not sustainable and we need to move beyond this in determining the success of an economy. We need to consider how we can improve the economy, while improving the environment and societal factors, like education and reducing poverty, at the same time. We also need to shift the mindsets of governments and businesses to adopt the Sustainable Development Goals. 

EO: What’s holding them back from making this shift? 

MH: There’s a lot of factors. One main thing is that investors always want profit, which makes it a bit more difficult for businesses that want to become more sustainable but have to make profit as well. Sometimes, we compromise profit to do more good, whereas some companies compromise the wellbeing of the environment and society to make profit. 

We really need to analyse and shift our relationship with money because we’ve really put the economy at the heart of everything. But fundamentally, we rely on the environment for everything- if we didn’t have the environment, we wouldn’t even have an economy. 

I’ve been seeing a lot more investment in greener solutions and technology and renewable energy, but I don’t think it’s enough. It’s one thing investing in renewable energy but it’s another thing actually understanding the problem. According to the donut economic model, we have nine planetary boundaries, and the climate crisis is just one of them; we’re over-exploiting and damaging biodiversity, we are putting too much nitrogen or phosphorus into the soil which is damaging our ability to create crops and it is damaging our ability to survive, let alone thrive. So we really need to make this shift sooner rather than later. 

EO: Do you see a shift in consumer behaviour happening already?

MH: Not so much in Hong Kong. Even the Civic Exchange’s “Hong Kong 2050 is Now” report says that people in Hong Kong don’t seem to be worried about the climate crisis. 

In the UK and elsewhere in Europe, it looks like they’ve really changed their mindsets societally and even in the government. Hong Kong is a bit slow to the game but I have started to see some changes like zero waste and bulk stores popping up and a lot more food outlets offering vegan and vegetarian options. Awareness is always the first step towards action, so it’s a good sign that awareness is growing in Hong Kong because as we know, the city is encountering a massive waste problem. 

Developed countries will suffer more under the climate crisis; the Global North are the biggest polluters, but the Global South will pay the consequences. These countries are the ones who will experience more drought and water and food insecurity. 

We need to realise the power of our connection to other people, in that what we do will have an impact on someone else, not just ourselves. People usually respond to immediate threats, like water shortages, rather than long-term threats, like sea-level rise, because we think the latter is so far off. But some countries, like Indonesia and parts of Africa, have been experiencing the effects of sea-level rise for years already. 

I think that to fix this, we need political leaders that are more compassionate and considerate in that sense. I really hope that COVID-19 will bring some of these issues to light, and stimulate this transition to being more aware of our impacts on others because we need this transition now, time is running out. I think this decade will be the one where we make a lot of changes, hopefully for the better. 

EcoFoote is paving the way in shaping how Hong Kong approaches sustainability; we need more businesses and initiatives like this to make the consumer green transition easier.