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From intern to sustainability director: Chelsea Mozen’s journey at Etsy

April 6, 2022, 1:00 PM UTC

Chelsea Mozen’s trajectory from activist to corporate sustainability change agent at Etsy began with a simple email a decade ago. 

Already holding a master’s degree in economics from the New School, Mozen was helping to build a community-owned wind power utility in Oaxaca, Mexico, itself a shift from her years working with nongovernmental organizations and advocacy groups around the world. 

“I realized that coming from the NGO space and the advocacy space, I really had very little understanding of business,” Mozen, now Etsy’s senior director of impact and sustainability, tells Fortune. “That’s when I saw an email for the Bard program; I responded immediately.”

To secure a place for her Bard capstone project—solar power installation for Etsy’s sellers—Mozen wrote a letter to Matthew Stinchcomb, one of the first official Etsy employees and then the company’s vice president of values and impact. She offered to work for free. Stinchcomb insisted on a paycheck and hired her, she says. 

“I started pretty quickly after that letter, even before the first sustainability director was hired,” Mozen recalls. Being an official employee (at that point an intern) gave Mozen access to seller data, making the solar project possible.  

When Mozen arrived at the e-commerce marketplace for homemade goods and crafts in 2014, Etsy was already formalizing its corporate values—including sustainability—as it rapidly expanded from startup to global marketplace. In 2012, Etsy became a certified B Corp, a designation awarded by global nonprofit B Lab to companies that maintain high environmental, social, and legal standards.

The company’s first values and impact report in 2013 included a goal to reduce Etsy’s ecological footprint. Offices switched to 100% renewable energy in 2016. Buildings would later operate under zero waste in 2018—two years ahead of its goal. By 2020, the company had shifted computing to Google’s cloud.

But in 2017 Etsy was in upheaval. New CEO Josh Silverman made the decision to streamline the company just two years after its IPO and cut the workforce by more than 20%. Each team, Mozen says, was subject to review, including sustainability.

Today, Mozen’s team of four coordinates closely with other departments. When sustainability manager Hilary Young transferred to Etsy’s engineering department, for instance, Mozen suggested the company’s accounting and investor relations teams assume carbon accounting responsibilities, which they now oversee.

As Silverman and the new management team took over, the sustainability group was wrestling with a bigger problem: shipping. Data culled from millions of mailing labels showed the vast majority of Etsy’s greenhouse gas emissions occur when its millions of small merchants ship goods to customers, something Etsy doesn’t control. 

So when it came time to meet the new brass, Mozen found herself mulling whether to “address the elephant in the room around our carbon footprint.”

“I was a little bit afraid. What’s going to happen with the new leadership? Are they going to tell me thanks, but no thanks?” Mozen, 41, tells Fortune. “But I knew I had to. It’s the majority of our environmental footprint. And if I was serious about being a sustainability professional, that was something that I was obligated, really morally, to bring to them.”

Silverman’s response? “He was like, ‘Oh, absolutely,’” Mozen recalls. ‘Bring me a proposal.’”  

In 2019, Etsy became the first e-commerce company to fully offset its carbon emissions through a program managed by 3Degrees, a company that makes investments in areas like forests on Etsy’s behalf.

Before Silverman publicly announced the offsets, it was Mozen who put him on the phone with climate scientists and other experts so he had a solid understanding both from a business and scientific standpoint.

“Speaking to experts and scientists gave me confidence in the team’s recommendation,” Silverman recalls. “We are very sensitive to not falling into the ‘greenwashing’ trap, and wanted to make sure that if we are touting this program externally, that it would be truly impactful, and not just nice messaging.”

Mozen says the offsets were something Etsy could tackle relatively quickly. Cutting actual emissions from its base of independent sellers is a bigger and more complex goal.

“I’m happy that we’ve pushed in the offset space, but it’s not enough for us,” Mozen says.

Early last year, Etsy announced a goal to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2030. Plans include cutting 50% of Scope 1 and Scope 2 absolute greenhouse gas emissions—including those from offices and purchased energy. For Scope 3 emissions—in Etsy’s case mostly shipping and packaging controlled by sellers—the aim is a 13.5% decrease. Targets follow the Science Based Targets initiative, according to company reports.

Etsy now offers packaging made with recycled material, which is one way to help curb seller emissions. Seller packaging represents 12% of the company’s total carbon footprint. Emissions from the corporate supply chain make up 20% of the total—an area where Etsy says it plans to use its negotiating power to bring that figure down.

Some of Etsy’s actions are ahead of peers’, and sometimes are designed to push larger peers to move more quickly. When it announced offsets, for instance, Etsy said it had purchased the equivalent of one day’s worth of carbon emissions for the entire e-commerce sector.

“We can’t stop climate change on our own,” Silverman tells Fortune. “We need public policy that advances the decarbonization of the logistics and transportation sectors, and we’d also like to see peer companies with near-infinite resources step it up, because we know they can.”

Amazon’s goal for net-zero carbon emissions is 2040; eBay aims to hit absolute reduction of 90% of Scope 1 and 2 emissions by 2030—and use 100% renewable energy by 2025. Meta, previously known as Facebook, says it’s aiming for net-zero emissions “across the value chain” by 2030.  

Some 2,169 major global companies pledged to meet science-based emissions targets through November 2021. In 2018, there were 501, according to a Boston Consulting Group and World Economic Forum report.

“Chelsea keeps the Etsy executive team on our toes, arming us with expertise and evidence, while continually encouraging us to push boundaries that will not only reduce the impact of the Etsy business, but also move the industry forward,” Silverman says.

Mozen builds consensus with understated determination, says Eban Goodstein, a founder and director of Bard’s MBA in Sustainability program. During its inaugural year, Mozen helped create an independent student council to better communicate with faculty and administrators. A decade later, the council proved essential during the COVID-19 pandemic, Goodstein says. 

“She is just relentless in terms of pursuing her vision and really understands how to make stuff happen,” he says. 

Take Mozen’s solar project. Though state and other regulations meant Etsy couldn’t offer the discounts at the scale Mozen originally envisioned, the sellers can still apply.

“These were ideas. We had some of the baseline data. But she never stopped working on it,” says Stinchcomb, who left the company in 2015, of the carbon offset, solar, and other projects Mozen steered into reality. “So that’s another testament to Chelsea—the perseverance and the patience to actually see these things through. Because it’s complicated, and there are a lot of stakeholders in these conversations.”

Her approach embodies what Bard wants from its graduates, says environmentalist Hunter Lovins, Mozen’s capstone faculty adviser.

“This isn’t about polar bears. This is about doing business better. And so her great ability is to take ‘How do I solve the climate crisis?’ and make it a business opportunity for Etsy,” Lovins says. “And every step along the way, showing why doing it this way is better business.”

As manager of a small team today, Mozen garners support across Etsy—from accounting to marketing—before she presents a proposal to the C-suite, says James Ossman, Etsy’s head of workplace and strategic sourcing and Mozen’s current boss.

“When every executive team member [turns] to their report, Chelsea would have already talked to them; they would have already signed off on it; she would have already taken into consideration their points of view,” Ossman says. “And so by the time she’s meeting with the executive team, all the buy-in that’s needed is there.”

Mozen’s peers say they admire her leadership style. Patrick Flynn, global head of sustainability at Salesforce, says he talked with Mozen about an approach to transportation emissions for the cloud service giant’s net-zero products, for example. 

“Managing conversations with a wide array of stakeholders with different views and diplomatically steering things is a bit of a science and an art,” Flynn says. “I’ve seen her do that, just hold her ground, but also be really gentle in the process, you know? And that’s really impressive.”

Making sure goals are backed up with verifiable data puts Etsy ahead of the game with environmental disclosure standards for public companies. The  SEC unveiled proposed rules on March 21

Since 2018, Etsy has integrated its ESG (​​environmental, social, and governance) report, including greenhouse gas emissions levels for Scope 1, 2, and 3, into its annual 10-K filing with the SEC. Under Silverman, Etsy let its B Corp designation lapse, now favoring the integrated report.

PricewaterhouseCoopers audits the report, making Etsy unusual among its peers. And Etsy last summer wrote a letter advocating for material climate disclosures in the regulatory filings, similar to a letter cosigned by Amazon, eBay, and other peers.  

About one-third of all public companies ​​disclose some of the SEC’s proposed requirements in annual reports, the agency said at its March 21 meeting.

“For any new rules the SEC comes out with, we are ready,” Mozen says. “We’re prepared.”

Corporate sustainability culture can be seductive, sometimes slowing the urgent action needed to combat the climate crisis.

To focus, Mozen says, she reminds herself why she pursued the profession in the first place. “When I go into a meeting with our executive team, my first obligation is to those issues. My second obligation is to the company,” she notes. “So I take a real sense of strength and confidence into those meetings. And just to remind myself that I’m okay if I’m fired, because if it’s due to a lack of a desired level of action on these issues, that’s okay with me.”

This story is part of The Path to Zero, a special series exploring how business can lead the fight against climate change.