Origin Story Interview W/ John Vermilye, Fair Carbon

Origin Story Interview W/ John Vermilye, Fair Carbon

 / 

Feb 14, 2024

#BrighterFuture #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #ClimateChangeSolution #originstoryseries #seekthechange #BlueCarbon #CarbonOffset #SustainableDevelopment #ClimateAction

John Vermilye is co-founder of Fair Carbon, which facilitates the development and growth of a high-integrity blue carbon market — “blue carbon” referring to carbon stored in coastal and marine ecosystems such as seagrasses or mangroves. Fair Carbon gives communities and organisations, who are the stewards of these ecosystems, a chance to protect and restore them, regardless of their size or location, and benefit from doing so.

Thank you so much for being here, John. Do you think that you could introduce yourself and your organisation?

I'm John Vermilye, founder of Travel Sentry, a company responsible for establishing standards for luggage locks. Our system facilitates dual access, enabling security and customs agents to inspect bags without damaging them. While we don't manufacture or sell the locks, we certify them and support customs and security agencies in over 70 countries globally. If you're travelling by air, there's a high probability that your airport utilises our system. Notably, we provide this service pro bono.

That’s very interesting. How did you co-found Fair Carbon?

My involvement in marine conservation extends back to the 1970s, and with our Gallifrey Foundation, which focuses on marine conservation. In my primary role at Travel Sentry, we aimed to offset our emissions and initially invested in renewable energy projects. However, aligning with the Gallifrey Foundation's ethos, we shifted our focus to blue carbon. When consulting the IUCN in Switzerland, we discovered a scarcity of such projects and questioned why. This inquiry led to the Gallifrey Foundation's research into the challenges of blue carbon projects, resulting in the 2020 report "Blue Carbon: Mind the Gap". The report revealed the complexities and costs involved in the accreditation process, which hindered the development of local projects, especially in emerging economies.

Addressing these challenges, we collaborated with accreditation agencies Plan Vivo and Verra to create comprehensive guides for project development. We also introduced a preliminary assessment to evaluate project viability, considering factors like land tenure, carbon rights, and financials.

Fair Carbon was created to further these initiatives. Our mission is to facilitate the development and growth of a high-integrity blue carbon market that works for the many, not the few.

We seek to lower the barriers that are keeping communities from being able to manage and finance the protection and restoration of coastal ecosystems. We build local capacity and knowledge around blue carbon, and we connect project developers with buyers, ensuring quality control for accreditation agencies. Overall, we aim to foster a more effective and equitable blue carbon market.

Did you also found the Gallifrey Foundation? How long ago was that?

Yes, we have been working with Gallifrey for over 10 years. Gallifrey has two main components. The first is supporting social enterprise education through various methods, such as offering scholarships to individuals from not-for-profits, NGOs, and government sectors. We believe the most challenging management situations often arise outside of commercial businesses.

We also offer internships to MBA students, redirecting them from traditional placements in banks or consulting firms to non-profits where they can make a significant impact. In addition, we support research into social enterprise, like determining the most effective method of providing microfinance to women in Ghana, which involves long-term tracking of projects to measure community and employment impacts.

The other component is marine conservation. My co-founder Antoinette Vermilye and I manage our respective projects and coordinate our efforts. My primary project is Fair Carbon. Antoinette handles numerous projects, including SHE Changes Climate, which has been active in promoting women's leadership at the yearly COP climate meetings.

We also strive for not only gender but also social parity, ensuring representation from the Global South by facilitating their participation at COP, providing training and support for expenses to ensure they have a voice and it's not dominated solely by the global north and oil lobbyists.

For example, Antoinette collaborates with a network of NGOs focused on shark conservation, we call "Sharktavists". We initiated the “Fly Without Fin” campaign, persuading airlines to refuse carriage of shark fins. Her efforts extend to legal approaches to challenge detrimental practices like overfishing, bottom trawling, and deep-sea mining, which have profound effects on ocean health.

To illustrate, bottom trawling alone is responsible for approximately 3% of all greenhouse gas emissions, exceeding the total emissions of the airline industry and even those of countries like Germany. These activities are just the beginning of our work at Gallifrey.

From a broader perspective, our operations fall under the umbrella of venture philanthropy. This approach involves using our funds, time, and expertise. We bring in additional personnel as required and serve as an incubator for initiatives such as Fair Carbon, aiming to build, operate, and eventually transfer them to be self-sustaining.

We always start by identifying existing efforts and determining where there might be gaps we can fill, as we did with Fair Carbon. Our focus is on collaboration rather than ownership; we aim to contribute to success and sustainability. We partner with organisations like the Global Mangrove Alliance, supporting a collective of groups including Conservation International and The Nature Conservancy, enhancing the overall impact of our conservation efforts.

Where does the Gallifrey Foundation’s name come from?

It originates from the UK TV programme Doctor Who, which has existed for 60 years. Gallifrey is the home planet of the Time Lord, aka "The Doctor". Our website features a logo at the top in the Gallifreyan language. There's a deeper connection: over the 60 years of Doctor Who, various actors have portrayed the Doctor. Likewise, we introduce a new scholar annually, similar to the new Doctor. They're designated as the Gallifrey Scholars, forging a link between our scholarship programme and the TV series.

Could you elaborate on your background and the journey that has shaped your career?

My roots are embedded deeply in the history of the United States; my ancestors were among the early settlers of Manhattan, specifically Harlem. The lineage is still prominent, with Vermilye Street standing as a testament to our family's past. My academic journey took me through various educational institutions in the US, where I balanced my studies with a job at the airport. This job was not just a means to an end; it was the beginning of a diverse career in aviation. I started with hands-on roles, such as handling luggage and cleaning aircraft, and progressively took on more complex responsibilities in operations control and flight dispatch.

Upon my university graduation in 1980, I found myself at a crossroads, carrying the typical burden of student debt. The opportunity to enter a management training program with the airline I worked for was a welcome turn, albeit a shift from my primary focus on Japanese history. This decision propelled me into a career in the airline industry, which proved to be fortuitous.

My initial role in 1972 was entry level, but in 1980 I became a junior manager. My expertise in operations became invaluable, particularly in the intricate world of baggage logistics. My tenure saw me orchestrating the design of conveyor belts for new airport terminals, managing lost and found operations, and overseeing baggage tariffs. A tragic incident in Guatemala, where a bomb was planted in luggage, thrust me into the forefront of baggage security. This became a pivotal area of focus, especially after the devastating Air India incident in 1985, which necessitated a complete overhaul of security protocols. During these times, baggage checks were stringent to the point of passengers being required to personally identify their luggage on the ramp.

In my capacity as a representative to IATA, I had the privilege of leading the emergency group tasked with revamping security and baggage handling standards. This role enabled me to contribute significantly to industry-wide practices. My work was supported and valued by senior figures in the industry, including Colonel Frank Borman, a venerated astronaut and CEO of Eastern Air Lines.

My contributions to the industry included pioneering the barcode system for baggage sorting and reconciliation, an innovation that remains in use today. After the 9/11 attacks, my expertise was once again called upon, this time by the US Department of Transportation to assist in establishing the TSA. My role was comprehensive, involving project management, stakeholder engagement, and specifically the challenge of integrating baggage screening processes on a national scale. The dilemma of locked luggage led me to propose a universal locking system, an idea initially beyond the government's scope. However, by engaging with the luggage industry, I created Travel Sentry, setting a new standard for luggage security.

What led you to get involved with Fair Carbon?

The involvement with Fair Carbon stemmed from our 2020 study, "Blue Carbon: Mind the Gap." We pinpointed several problems and, to me, the solutions were clear. Through discussions with NGOs and experts in the field, we formulated the Fair Carbon concept. After confirming that this initiative was unique and recognising an unaddressed need, we established it.

Who are you doing your work for? Who do you think it's speaking to directly with Fair Carbon?

The primary beneficiaries of Fair Carbon are the community-driven projects focused on protecting and restoring blue carbon ecosystems such as mangroves, seagrass, and salt marshes. These projects are crucial as they can sequester carbon more effectively than other ecosystems, exemplified by mangroves which are significantly more efficient than even the Amazon rainforest. Furthermore, the principles of Fair Carbon are applicable to any carbon sequestration initiative, aimed at simplifying standards and offering training and guidance.

The second group of beneficiaries includes the demand side, namely the buyers. This category includes companies seeking to ethically offset their carbon footprint through contributions to blue carbon projects and philanthropists supporting environmental work and communities.

Third, governments also play a role as important stakeholders due to their involvement in the setting the legal and regulatory frameworks for carbon project execution, such as jurisdictional authority over resources like mangroves and carbon rights regulations. Additionally, international frameworks like Article 6, emerging from the COP process, aim to facilitate carbon offset transactions between nations, each with their own nationally determined contributions (NDCs).

How did you feel about the recent COP meeting?

I believe many share my feeling of disappointment. Time is of the essence. Even if the agreement at the COP was to reduce rather than end oil and gas production, it is still inherently flawed. As demonstrated by the Paris agreements, there is no binding mechanism to ensure such commitments are realised. For our part, we no longer attend COP, and instead redirect our resources towards empowering and training negotiators from small island nations and indigenous communities to represent their interests effectively at these global forums.

What part of your work is most fulfilling for you?

The most fulfilling aspect of our work is the academic support we provide, such as scholarships, research, and internships, due to the personal connection with the individuals involved — researchers, interns, and scholars. Regular contact is maintained, creating a community rather than merely offering financial support. We organise an annual dinner to unite past and present scholars, fostering a community that includes the leadership and faculty of the school. Equally satisfying is building Fair Carbon, where we've identified several barriers to market growth and are now implementing solutions to clear those gaps. So far, they have been universally well-received with encouragement for swift action.

At some point in your life, have you had to change direction in your career?

Certainly, change is a natural part of life and it's important to be receptive to it. In 2000, I departed from IATA driven by my entrepreneurial spirit. I noticed an opportunity to develop a platform for an electronic ticket exchange. Previously, tickets transitioned from paper with red carbon backing to card stock with a magnetic stripe, before becoming electronic. I identified a need for airlines to share electronic tickets with each other and set out to fill that gap.

While setting up a build-operate-transfer model for the airline industry, which was intended to avoid monopolistic control and allow airlines to manage their own electronic ticketing, the 9/11 attacks occurred. The aftermath severely impacted the airline industry with halted IT projects and significant layoffs, eroding our “first mover” advantage. Unable to foresee the industry's recovery period, I decided to wind-up the project. This coincided with the call from Washington, to help set-up the TSA which marked a new chapter in my career.

What were the most significant challenges or mistakes you faced at the start of your journey to where you are today?

Initiating Travel Sentry as a start-up presented considerable challenges for any entrepreneur. It required faith, hard work, and substantial financial risk due to self-funding. Fortunately, from launch, our venture was effectively successful, addressing issues for the TSA, luggage companies unable to sell their products, and consumers. The USA Today newspaper even praised our public-private partnership in an editorial on our launch day. My experience at IATA informed our approach: creating solutions for multi-stakeholder problems, aiming for multi-tiered win-win situations. This philosophy is at the core of Travel Sentry and is evident in our foundation's work.

What were the biggest compromises or sacrifices you had to make to get to where you are now?

At the beginning of Travel Sentry, I required more funds than I had. A friend, having secured a significant government contract but lacking the time to fulfil it, approached me for assistance in starting this new business. At the time, I was launching Travel Sentry.  He could provide cash flow from his business, and I could manage two start-ups simultaneously. We struck a deal on a share swap, making him my business partner.

I also enlisted another partner, a former employee, offering him shares to assist with a promising project. Over 10 years, our goals aligned, but eventually, as my partners got older, they wanted to retire and liquidate their shares. In contrast, I aimed to reinvest in and expand the company, enhancing marketing, management, and financial controls. To resolve this, I orchestrated a leveraged buyout, agreeing on the company's value with these partners and purchasing their shares. It was a difficult and lengthy process. In retrospect, I regret establishing a shareholder agreement that restricted my decision-making for the company's well-being.

With Fair Carbon and your other projects, what future are you hoping to create?

We, Antoinette and I, adopt a philosophy of undertaking projects that others avoid due to their complexity or potential political implications. For instance, some NGOs refrain from suing governments because they must operate within those countries. We do not face this issue and have, in fact, taken legal action against governments, including Argentina. This led to significant improvements in their enforcement against illegal fishing, increasing their patrol boats from one to five. This action was a consequence of holding them accountable for not fulfilling their constitutional obligation to protect natural resources for the Argentine people— a challenge many groups would not pursue.

Moreover, we leverage our neutrality. Unlike the big NGOs, or 'BINGOs', which operate like corporations focused on continual revenue and are hesitant to share projects, we do not have this limitation. We can collaborate effectively with organisations like WWF, TNC, CI, and others because we are not competitors; we are self-funded and do not compete for their donors or projects. Our neutral stance allows us to focus on making a positive impact without the constraints of funding competition.

Is the ethos of Gallifrey also seen in Travel Sentry?

Travel Sentry is built on the same principles; how to leverage a central neutral position to solve multi-stakeholder problems.  As members of 1% for the Planet, we contribute to initiatives such as Room to Read, which promotes education and gender equality. Our team, which numbers fewer than 20, has visited Cambodia to witness the positive effects of our support firsthand.

Additionally, we are spearheading the luggage industry's move towards net zero. We host competitions encouraging the creation of sustainable products, rewarding manufacturers that achieve significant sales of eco-friendly designs. Furthermore, we engage with the Carbon Disclosure Project to assist factories in assessing and reducing their carbon footprint, benefiting not only the environment but also aiding brands like Rimowa and Samsonite in understanding the full cost of their supply chains, beyond mere financial expenditure. Although we are a commercial entity, our operations mirror those of a B Corp, with our focus on making a substantial difference for the good of society.

What would you like other people to learn from your journey?

I would like others to appreciate the importance of broad thinking. Often, individuals may have a good idea, like creating a widget, but fail to consider existing competition, limiting their success from the outset. My experiences with airlines and the NGO I worked for, IATA, have instilled in me a global perspective. I aim to benefit as many people as possible with my ideas, looking beyond narrow, self-centred goals to a more inclusive approach that ensures benefits for a wider audience. This broader vision can significantly alter outcomes. Before committing to a mission, it's vital to survey the landscape. I use a three-part test to assess my potential involvement: identifying a gap to fill, recognising an underperforming player to replace, or finding a successful entity to partner with for enhanced effectiveness. The ultimate question is how to maximise impact, which sometimes means stepping back to allow others to lead.

Could you share any books, movies, speeches, or individuals that have significantly inspired you in your life?

Certainly, I've been inspired by Frank Borman, an astronaut and a key figure during the Apollo 1 tragedy, where he led the capsule's redesign following a fatal fire. Borman also investigated the aircraft crash that killed Samora Machel, the President of Mozambique, amidst suspicions of political foul play. His approach was very much in line with his West Point and military background, which shaped the command and control culture at the airline I worked for. I respected his directness and his apolitical stance; he was forthright, and you always knew where you stood with him. Additionally, Borman's space missions were pivotal, including the Gemini mission and Apollo 8, which marked humanity's first journey beyond Earth's immediate vicinity. Their Christmas Eve telecast from Apollo 8, which concluded with a Genesis reading— a touch that was his idea— was particularly inspiring.

Is there a book or an author that has been particularly inspirational for you?

One significant book for me is "Zero to One" by Peter Thiel. Rather than inspiring new ideas, it affirmed that my approach was correct. Reading it felt like seeing my own story. Another notable book is "The Ministry of the Future", a fictional work that vividly imagines the future impacts of climate change, beginning with a catastrophic heatwave in India.

Another related book is "The World We Made" by Jonathon Porritt. Written in 2014, it's a fictional retrospective from 2050 by a character born in 2000. It explores the journey through climate change and how society adapted, with personal stories such as the protagonist's father dying in the 'water wars' of the 2020s. At 50, the protagonist is a university professor in a now 'remote' town, where local living is the norm, and infrastructure supports biking, walking, local food and energy production, reducing the need for driving.

If there was one lasting message you could share with the world, what would it be?

None of us can do everything, but each of us can do something. Today, ask yourself: what is the one thing you can do to positively impact the environmental challenges we face? Consider climate change, CO2 emissions, and biodiversity loss. For instance, question the necessity of mowing your lawn or driving your car, which both contribute to these issues. Additionally, we need to address our consumption of plastics and the presence of harmful chemicals in our daily lives. Phthalates, bisphenols, and PFAS are toxic substances found in products like plastic bottles, food packaging, and even store receipts. These chemicals are pervasive, contaminating soils even in remote locations like the Antarctic. Teflon, which is an example of a PFAS, is a “forever chemical” that remains in the environment indefinitely. Plainly enough, David Attenborough sometimes advises us to "stop doing the bad stuff." This simple directive can lead to meaningful change.

Yes it can; if only a common ecological sense like this were more widespread. Thank you so much for spending some of your time with us, John. We’re thrilled to see the work the Gallifrey Foundation and Fair Carbon are doing, and we hope your efforts with blue carbon projects, among everything else, have nothing but the greatest success well into the future.

To read more about Fair Carbon, please see www.faircarbon.org.

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