The 2022 Precedent Innovation Awards: The Sustainability Fund

A corporate program that, relying on novel legal agreements, has invested millions of dollars in carbon-removal technology
Jeanelle Dundas pictured in the Benchers’ Dining Room at Osgoode Hall.

When Jeanelle Dundas joined the in-house legal team at Shopify, in 2018, she was excited. The company — whose founders originally developed the platform in 2006 for their own snowboarding-merch shop — is an e-commerce giant that helps entrepreneurs thrive in the digital marketplace. About two years into her legal career, Dundas was looking forward to supporting the company on its mission. 

Within a year of her arrival, an unexpected project landed on her desk. Shopify was gearing up to launch something called the Sustainability Fund, a corporate program that would help combat climate change. 

By that point, the company was already mitigating its climate footprint through carbon offsets. This involves compensating another party to not emit an amount of carbon comparable to what you’ve already emitted. Although Shopify purchased high-quality offsets, such an approach has limited impact. “Even if we’re paying someone to avoid emitting 10 tonnes of carbon, we still left the original 10 tonnes in the atmosphere,” says Stacy Kauk, Shopify’s head of sustainability. And so, the company wanted to direct a significant amount of capital — to the tune of millions of dollars a year — into carbon-removal technology that might undo the pollution that’s currently warming the planet. 

Most carbon-removal technology, however, is experimental and tremendously expensive. Companies in this space are working hard to fine-tune their technology and scale the product enough to lower the price. But to pull that off, the industry needs customers who are willing to step up when the cost is at its highest and the risk is at its greatest. Shopify wanted to take on that role. After completing extensive due diligence, the Sustainability Fund would pay early-stage companies to scrub carbon from the atmosphere. With Shopify as a customer, those companies would gain credibility in the marketplace and much-needed revenue to scale their technology. 

Jeanelle Dundas pictured in the Benchers’ Dining Room at Osgoode Hall.

The winner

Jeanelle Dundas, an associate general counsel at Shopify, is pictured here in the Benchers’ Dining Room at Osgoode Hall. 

Insider info

The doors behind Dundas lead to the servery, where dishes — already prepared in the kitchen of Osgoode Hall’s main restaurant — are plated before service.

Dundas, now an associate general counsel, had to draft the legal agreements between Shopify and the carbon-removal companies. The work would be difficult. But, she says, “I was excited!” 

Every purchase agreement must outline what the seller has promised to deliver. A smartphone manufacturer, for instance, might have to ship a certain number of units, by a particular time, all in working order. But how can a company prove that it has captured and stored an agreed-upon amount of colourless, odourless gas? 

Dundas had to figure that out. The answers varied depending on the technology. One company might capture carbon waste from industrial facilities and store it in concrete. Another might use kelp to absorb carbon, before sinking the seaweed deep in the ocean. Each agreement had to sketch out a different way to monitor, report and verify that the vendor had done its job. “Along with the engineers and the scientists,” says Dundas, “we’re thinking through how to define the units in a quantifiable, digestible way.” 

By March 2022, Shopify had committed US$32 million to 22 companies. Those companies have, in turn, been able to significantly increase their carbon-removal capacity. Many have also brought on new customers. 

Nova Scotia-based Planetary Technologies was one of Shopify’s first Sustainability Fund partners. At the most basic level, the company creates an antacid out of mine waste that, when added to seawater, draws CO2 out of the atmosphere so it can be permanently stored in the ocean. For CEO and co-founder Mike Kelland, Shopify’s willingness to pay the current price of carbon removal is crucial. Offsets typically cost between $3 and $25 a tonne, but the average price of carbon removal sits around $800 a tonne. (That number, which varies widely depending on the method, should drop over time. At Planetary Technologies, the target price is $75 a tonne.) To participate in the industry at such a high price point “takes a pretty big leap of faith,” says Kelland. “Shopify’s leadership on that is just so catalytic.” 

In the two-odd years since Dundas sat down to draft the initial contracts, she’s accomplished a lot. “At Shopify,” she says, “we wanted to create a series of relatively user-friendly, streamlined carbon-removal agreements that would help kickstart the market and encourage other buyers to follow suit.” That’s exactly what has happened. As Kauk, the head of sustainability, says, “We’re actually setting the standard.” 

This story is from our Fall 2022 issue.

Photography by Saty + Pratha. Hair and makeup by Aniya Nandy. Shot on location at Osgoode Hall.