Student-founded startup aims to offset online shopping's carbon footprint

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A squad of students who took the top prize at a Stanford University hackathon last year are highlighting the carbon footprint of online purchases to make e-commerce more sustainable.

The eight students, five of whom study at Western University, are working together on the startup known as Neutral or

“What Neutral really is, on a high level, is a browser extension that calculates the estimated carbon footprint of every online purchase allowing users to offset their emissions by donating to NGOs (non-governmental organizations) fighting climate crisis,” said co-founder Cem Torun, who is studying business and computer science at Western.

The students are “dedicated to challenging the culture of over-consumption at the heart of the climate crisis,” he said.

“We were students who were dissatisfied with inaction we saw in society,” Torun said.

Neutral, which is free to download, works by educating consumers about the carbon footprint of their online purchases and offering a chance to offset it by donating to groups fighting climate change.


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This group of students started Neutral, an app that offers consumers a way to offset carbon emissions from online purchases.
This group of students started Neutral, an app that offers consumers a way to offset carbon emissions from online purchases.

The story of Neutral began when three of the students — two from Western and one from Waterloo — captured first prize in a coding competition in 2020, also known as a hackathon, at Stanford University.

“That inspired us to keep working on it and not call it quits,” Torun said. “As consumers, this was something affecting us directly and we thought, through it, we could get much more people in the fight against climate change.”

After their win, they joined an incubator program for startups where they were offered funding, resources and mentorship.

“The initial problem we saw were consumers are often unaware of the environmental impact of their entire shopping experience, from the production of the product down to the mounds of wasted packaging, to the aisles required to stock the product,” Torun said. “We invented Neutral as a way to add that additional transparency. We thought it was needed to easily inform users about the environmental impact of their shopping habits.”

Torun said the pandemic accelerated the development of Neutral due to the number of people using online retailers such as Amazon.

“People were using (e-commerce) so much more, we wanted to provide users the option of being more sustainable,” he said. “We want to make joining the fight against climate crisis as simple and as easy as possible.”

Neutral can be used without ever leaving your shopping cart and the average offset is only around 50 cents for a purchase, Torun said.

Launched last May, Neutral already has 1,300 users, he said.

“As a community, we’ve offset over 150,000 pounds of CO2 (carbon dioxide) and are a strong and growing community,” Torun said.

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