C Free: meet the founders

The seeds of C Free were planted at the pub and watered with a few pints between founders Adam Forster and Eddie Fitzgerald-Barron.

Sept. 3, 2020, noon by Anna Prendergast

As with most great business ideas, the seeds of C Free were planted at the pub and watered with a few pints between founders Adam Forster and Eddie Fitzgerald-Barron. Here’s how they came to kickstart the UK’s first carbon offsetting company that both calculates your footprint and offsets it with a project of your choice in one fell swoop.

Eddie and Adam, let’s start with the world’s worst interview question: can you tell us a bit about yourselves?

Adam Forster (left): I’m a pretty typical physics nerd with an added football obsession (Saints fan). I also have an unhealthy obsession with chess, much to my girlfriend’s chagrin. 

Eddie Fitzgerald-Barron (right): I love the outdoors, and spend all my free time hiking, cycling, and exploring. I’m obsessed with food and cooking for friends and family, which is why it’s so much fun working with Adam, one of my oldest friends. 

So, you like football and food – how did C Free come about? 

AF: I’d been looking into climate solutions for a while, but the problem seemed to pertain to vast multinational corporations; not the likes of me. But I discussed it with Eddie and he made me realise we didn’t have to wait for someone else to do something about it. Reading up on the effect of the 2008 financial crisis was a big change for me, because I learned the effects it had on the carbon market plus the possibilities around individual offsets. 

EF-B: That conversation happened at a pivotal point – I’d quit my job in sales, gone through a breakup and hit ‘factory reset’ on life. I had always wanted to start my own business, and whilst I’ve always been worried about the environment I never thought I’d be the one to make a difference. Adam pitching me the idea became a bit of a metaphor for the whole business – we can change, we just need the tools to do so. 

What makes you two the right people to run a business like C Free? 

AF: We fundamentally believe in a) the power of people to make a difference and b) the power of technological solutions – C Free combines both. We empower people to be the change they want to see in the world through technology that allows them to influence environmental projects and people in different continents. We are both also fundamentally optimistic people, which is vital when challenging such a vast and globally entrenched system of environmental exploitation. Having a positive attitude helps in not feeling defeated. 

EF-B: I have three motivations in life: I’ve always wanted to start my own business, I’m goal-driven and enjoy success (whether that’s my own or others’), and I want to do something with a positive impact. After my degree in International Business Management, my Masters in Design-led Multidisciplinary Innovation involved me in a collaborative environment where we solved complex issues with people from many different disciplines. I’ve been entrepreneurial from a young age, and Adam and I have been incredibly lucky with the opportunities we have both had growing up, not just with support from our families but with a fantastic group of friends that have helped us along the way. So why not pool all these resources? Educating myself changed my mind, so why can’t it change others’?

What’s your own relationship like with the environment? 

AF: I lived my whole life feeling guilty about my carbon footprint but never actually doing anything about it. I became a vegetarian, but obviously still ‘consume’ in basically every other sphere of my life. C Free has changed that. Informing people is half the struggle – now we have a platform to do so, plus a lot of expertise in it. I finally feel like I’m making a positive difference and helping others to do so, too.

EF-B: Two or three years ago, I was no eco warrior. I like to travel, and that was often by plane. I like eating meat, but didn’t think much about where it came from. As soon as you start researching and reading about the environment and the climate crisis, there’s this shift in your mindset. C Free’s emphasis on education comes from our own learning curve – all you have to do is start reading to grasp how urgent the situation is. My past behaviour was solely down to a lack of understanding, and I think my understanding has developed more than Adam’s since we launched C Free: while he was already well-informed about many of the issues, I had to discover them. 

What effect has launching C Free had on your own lifestyles? 

AF: I became a vegetarian, which was surprisingly easy, and subscribed to a sustainable energy provider. I now take the Eurostar instead of flying to see my girlfriend, who lives in Amsterdam. I recycle like a maniac, I use low-energy light bulbs and environmentally friendly washing powder, and use local transport or cycle when I need to.

EF-B: I don’t buy meat to cook at home anymore – I’ll have it as a treat every once in a while. I’m not veggie like Adam is but I’m a flexitarian! Meat was such an easy thing to cut down on, and there are so many substitutes and great recipes out there, plus I feel healthier for it – I mean, we all saw how powerful that diet can be in the Netflix documentary The Game Changers. I’m no James Wilks, but I’ve always loved cycling and am on a path to ban myself from all carbon-intensive transport, relying solely on ‘human power’ instead.

Apart from Eddie going vegan in 2021, how else do you see C Free evolving? 

EF-B: We’ve got lots of ideas in the pipeline for C Free! Next up we’ll be incentivising people to reduce/offset their emissions: we want to make it an absolute no-brainer by building it into people’s lives. 

AF: Long term plans include C Free funding further climate solution innovation; starting our own projects – such as reforestation or our own wind farm; and expanding our calculator to break down the carbon footprint of anything, so you can tap in the details of, say, your pizza, and it will work out the carbon emissions used to get that pizza to your plate.

What makes C Free unique? 

AF: Our calculator is one of a kind – we built it ourselves, and the combination of information about your footprint with the ability to offset that specific amount is unlike any other out there.

EF-B: We’re also big on transparency, and education – people can use our calculator without even signing up, let alone paying anything. Our drive to reduce first and foremost sets us apart – we’re about putting the planet before our profit margins, as sustainably as we can. Plus, lots of services offer a one-off payment or annual ‘dump’. We designed ours to be monthly because we know our customers are used to subscription services like Spotify and Netflix – C Free is the carbon-offsetting version of that. 

OK, so transparency is key – how do you make a profit? 

AF: Currently we make no profit whatsoever –  everything goes back into the company: 82% goes to the project, the rest goes to covering our costs and marketing. 

EF-B: We hope that as we scale up, we can get it closer to 90% going to projects. If we talk about profit in the traditional sense of the word, Adam is right, this isn’t a money-making scheme. But if we talk about profit in a broader sense of the word, we profit hugely from what we do – we have learnt so much and we want to have a real impact on the planet. People and planet come first over profit all day, everyday. All we want to do is practice good business and make enough money to grow C Free, and we’re well-positioned to do so. According to Courier, “In February 2018, year-on-year data showed that UK B Corps grew at a rate of 14% compared to the country’s GDP growth rate of 0.5%, which suggests customers are actively choosing to spend more money with ethical businesses.” 

All sounds very exciting. Have there been any struggles launching a business like this? 

EF-B: During one of our first promotions, where we offset an extra tonne of emissions for customers that signed up, I accidentally retired 93 tonnes of emissions reductions instead of one single tonne. That’s over ten years of someone’s carbon footprint. Credits are designed so that once they’re retired, they can’t be ‘unretired’ (to stop people selling them on) but fortunately we sorted it all out. It was a hair raising few hours.

AF: I nearly had to fire him…

EF-B: ...But then who would bring you veggie sandwiches?

And what’s been the best bit so far?

AF: Launch day without a doubt, having spent so much time building this thing and then suddenly it’s out there. You feel completely exposed but so excited. And then we started seeing the subscriptions rolling in, it was incredible!

EF-B: As with all startups, most of your first few customers are your friends and family, but some of my favourite moments were simply when someone (who certainly didn’t need to), offered a helping hand. Our network has been incredibly generous, and there have been a lot of “restored faith in humanity” kind of moments. But then there’s the other side of it, is it just going to be our friends and family who sign up to use the service? Is the idea flawed somewhere and they’re just signing up to help us? I think I can speak for both of us when I say that when the first random person, who neither of us knew, signed up we jumped for joy. Now we’re in the habit of yelling “ANOTHER RANDOM” any time people we don’t know sign up. It’s really proved that the idea has legs, and that people are willing to take action against climate change. And that you can’t yell two words too many times, so randoms – keep coming.