Review: Carbon Analytics
Carbon Analytics is a cloud-hosted carbon accountancy tool which allows businesses to calculate their carbon footprint, based on their outgoing finances. It's available via the Xero Marketplace, and perhaps surprisingly, it is currently the only available app on there for carbon accounting. Support for other accountancy platforms such as Quickbooks or Excel worksheets is "coming soon". Carbon Analytics has a few accolades and associations, plus they are B-Corp Certified, making them a reasonably wholesome and genuine proposition.
When first signing up to the service, I found I had to complete payment immediately, which I wasn't able to do at that moment. I then found myself stuck in a sort of sign-in loop, with the UI not giving me any helpers as to what was going on. When I later returned and completed the payment, I was able to sign-in, but overall it wasn't the best start to using the service.
After signing in, I was able to authenticate Carbon Analytics against my Xero account, which completed from within Carbon Analytics. The click of a button triggers the process to approve on xero.com, and after that point, it started syncing transactions. It didn't appear to be immediate, so I left it to do its thing and returned later. Sure enough, my purchases had all been loaded from Xero accurately.
Once CA has synced your transactions from Xero, it will attempt to match those transactions with vendors in its database, which includes an industry category and from there it will be able to calculate a carbon cost for those transactions. Because of this, the transaction must be not only matched to the correct business but also that the industry category for that business is accurate.
The auto-matching of transactions can be very hit-and-miss. For example, Viking Direct, a popular UK based office supplies company, was auto-matched to a U.S based company known as Viking Energy Group, Inc under the category Crude Petroleum Extraction.
So, the matching is not good. When it does match, the industry categories can be wrong or simply written in a way which makes you question what they are. eBay is matched but categorised as Repossession Services. And even Carbon Analytics themselves are listed as Internet Publishing and Broadcasting and Web Search Portals. What? It is more than a bit disappointing because it's a critical part of the service.
To fix errors introduced by auto-matching to incorrect companies or industry categories, you can update and change the details yourself. Adding essential information is straightforward enough to complete. It can be challenging to find companies in the directory when searching. For starters, there is no separation between companies in the U.S, UK or elsewhere, so it's not possible to search for just U.S or UK businesses, its sort of pot-luck as to whether it will find the right company. If you can't find the company, then you can add it yourself. Although when doing this, it's unclear whether you're contributing to a shared database or just updating your list of vendors. Then comes the industry categories, which isn't an exhaustive list but can still be confusing due to the language used for those categories. It's similar to the form filling of VAT categories; there's quite a few to choose from, and it is not always clear to the user which category is appropriate, even for household name businesses.
One of the main promoted features of Carbon Analytics is the reporting aspect. Surprisingly this isn't immediately apparent when using the service and the documentation even refers to a "Reports tab", which doesn't exist. After a short time using the service, information becomes summarised on the home dashboard and there is a chart tracking your businesses carbon footprint month to month. It's a little lacklustre in presentation and content but the basics are there. The dataset is purely transactions with businesses and the impact of those businesses. If you spend a lot with a high carbon industry, it will impact your footprint and this will be clear on the dashboard.
Bugs and general problems
Aside from problems with the functionality outlined above, there are other issues and bugs with the service that make it clear that Carbon Analytics is still a new service. I wrote a list of the problems I'd encountered and sent them to the Carbon Analytics support email. It wasn't until I followed up with a second email that I got a response from the founder, Michael Thornton; who was very apologetic and helpful in explaining the reasons behind some of the problems I'd had. Here's how positive he is:
So, want to tick through your feedback one by one, but firstly, thanks for taking the time to pen the detailed note. It's actually super helpful to have pointed feedback we can action. I can't promise we'll solve all these immediately, but every one will go into our dev queue to be fixed. As you've no doubt noticed we're very much emerging ourselves as a platform and sorely under-resourced for the job. Working hard on both the platform and increasing our resourcing so we can tackle this space. Appreciate the feedback now and as we advance, would certainly welcome it again!
He also offered me a full refund, which I politely declined. I have since sent another email to support, 8 days ago, with some questions around fixing some problems and am awaiting a reply.
Carbon accounting and services such as Carbon Analytics are only going to get more important as the unfolding climate crisis affects our lives even more directly, and businesses around the world have to decarbonise. I'm only just beginning with Carbon Accountancy myself; it's difficult to understand the accuracy of the carbon data it provides about my business without doing extensive research. Still, it certainly appears to be a good enough start.
Despite its flaws, Carbon Analytics provides a service which is easy to integrate for a small business. It's clearly in its infancy: bugs are obvious ones, their support email is seemingly unattended, and they are under-resourced; all of which I completely sympathise with. But Carbon Analytics has all the right intentions and aspirations. I'm looking forward, and very much hoping, to see it get better in the coming months and years.
Posted by Tom Kiss on June 3rd 2020.