21st century “green” stamps

When I interviewed Steve Case last month at GreenBiz’s VERGE conference in DC., he told me that we are entering a second Internet revolution. I’ve been thinking about that since then, and not only to do I think he is right–I think the rise of social networks and the mobile Internet may be the best things to happen to sustainable business in a long time.

They create enormous opportunities for companies, consumers and NGOs to connect people in new ways. The whole idea of the sharing economy, which I’ve written about lately (here and here and here), is built on social networking and the mobile web. So are Good Guide and Climate Counts. I’ve been impressed by the power of change.org to affect corporate practices.

Last week, I wrote a story for GE’s ecomagination website about three companies —  RecycleBank, Opower,and Practically Green — that are built on Internet platforms and using incentives in intriguing ways to change consumer behavior. For some reason they reminded me of the “green stamps” that my mom used to save when I was a kid. Here’s how the story begins:

If you remember S&H Green Stamps you’re probably over 50. If you don’t, ask your parents or grandparents. They’ll tell you about the little green stamps they collected when shopping at supermarkets or buying gas, then pasted into books and eventually redeemed for rewards like a clock radio or a set of kitchen knives. Green Stamps, which were popular from the 1930s through the 1980s, showed that even small incentives change the way people behave, showing the way for the airline frequent-flier miles, credit-card points and Starbucks Rewards that followed.

Today, RecycleBankPractically Green and Opower, among others, are offering a 21st century version of green stamps –but with a twist. They are providing financial or intangible rewards that are intended to promote environmentally-friendly behaviors, such as recycling, biking to work or washing clothes in cold water. No licking of stamps necessary. Instead, consumer track their results on websites, smart phones or Facebook, competing with friends or piling up points for their own use. Think of it as social networking for the save-the-world set. [In fact, you can register for each of these companies through Facebook.]

The companies are privately-held, so they don’t release financial results, but anecdotal evidence indicates that they are making a difference. RecycleBank, which began in 2004, rewards people for recycling household waste; it has driven up recycling rates among the 2 million or so people who participate in its curbside recycling program. Opower, which launched in 2007, has found that homeowners reduce their electricity usage by about 2% after they are shown how well (or poorly) they are doing compared to their neighbors, and given energy-saving tips. Practically Green is just over a year old, but it already has tens of thousands of people who report back on their green actions, competing with friends or against themselves.

All of these companies share a philosophy that runs counter to the doom and gloom of some environmentalists: to promote greener behavior, prizes and games are more effective than guilt trips.

You can read the rest here.


The elusive green consumer

I’d like to believe that we can shop our way to be a better world.

It’s unlikely.

If our economy is going to become more just and sustainable, change will have to come from the top down, not from the bottom up.

This roll of toilet paper helps explain why.

Called Moka, this bathroom tissue comes from a company called Cascades, which is headquartered in Montreal. It’s made from 100% recycled paper, and it has a lower carbon footprint than conventional toilet paper. Moka costs less to manufacture than ordinary white toilet paper and uses less bleach. And it works fine. Trust me–the company sent me a sample roll.

“It’s beneficial for us, for consumers and for the environment,” says Isabelle Faivre, US Marketing Director for Cascades.

The trouble is, you can’t buy Moka in a store.

That’s because Moka is being, er, rolled out exclusively in the away-from-home market. That is, it’s being sold to distributors who supply office buildings, schools, colleges, hospitals, restaurants and hotels. “Companies have that need to look green, to make them feel better about themselves,” says Faivre. But consumers aren’t ready to accept off-color bathroom tissue. [click to continue…]

Forestry wars: Who’s peddling pulp fiction?

Pity the shopper who wants to buy “green” paper or forest products.

They can choose products certified by the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) or by the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI).

Only the most dedicated deep-green consumer can be expected to understand the differences between the two.

And few know there’s a war of words going on between backers of the FSC and SFI.

Todd Paglia, executive director of the activist group Forest Ethics, says this about the SFI:

SFI is dangerous because it is a lie – it tells consumers that the product bearing the label is green when it isn’t.  SFI allows logging in old growth, logging in endangered species habitat, clearcut logging on landslide prone slopes above salmon streams….  In other words, business as usual with a “green” façade.

When industry is helping write the rules and set its own standards they will be high on rhetoric and extremely low on substance. That is SFI:  this is a fake eco-label of, by, and for the forest industry.

Not surprisingly, this kind of talk angers the folks at SFI–so much so that they  approached The New York Community Trust, a foundation that supports Forest Ethics, to complain. On its website SFI says:

ForestEthics continues to peddle pulp fiction about the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, repeating the same old inaccurate and misleading information.

With just 10 percent of the world’s forests certified to any certification standard, groups should work together to increase responsible forestry. Instead, ForestEthics spends energy and resources on well-funded attacks to discredit SFI, often citing outdated, incomplete, inaccurate or misleading information.

Such conflicts aren’t unique to the forest products industry, although the rhetoric here is unusually heated. Eco-labels are supposed to guide consumers to environmentally-friendly choices, but they have become so numerous–more than 300, by some estimates–and so confusing that consumers now need their own guides to eco-labels, like this Greener Choices website from Consumer Reports. [click to continue…]

Randall Davidson’s 20 green tips for small biz

Today’s guest post comes from Randall Davidson, who is the lead project manager at Audio Transcription, an eco-friendly transcription service based in San Francisco. Clients send audio files to the company, which are parsed into smaller clips, digitally distributed to a network of trained transcribers and returned as a complete, quality-assured transcript. In addition, the company offers online transcription services, which are the greenest form of transcription available because no CDs or flash drives need to be shipped through the mail. Randall, who is 28, has introduced a number of the green practices outlined below into Audio Transcription’s marketing operations.

Small businesses employ more than 52% of working Americans, according to the Small Business Administration, and comparable percentages in other developed countries. It follows that small businesses generate a substantial portion of the business world’s environmentally harmful waste. To help small business owners and employees minimize their environmental impact, here are 20 simple ways to more sustainably market a small business. I hope that you’ll contribute your thoughts – what I’ve gotten right and wrong and what I’ve omitted – in the comments.

  1. Print all marketing materials on recycled paper. Whether you’re going to send out flyers, pamphlets or other marketing literature, make sure it’s on recycled paper.
  2. Hold your meetings remotely. As you meet with your colleagues, including external vendors, try to hold as many meetings as possible over the Internet. Try tools like Skype, TokBox and other free videoconferencing technologies.
  3. Send email  instead of paper newsletters. Not only will you save money by switching to an email marketing service, but you’ll also do far less damage to the environment. Even better from a business standpoint is that email marketing provides huge insights into how your marketing efforts are being received that printed flyers cannot. For instance, email marketing services can generally tell you what percentage of your emails were opened, how long they were opened and which links were clicked. [click to continue…]

Will Rosenzweig: Venturing in sustainability

Most venture capital investors don’t have a focus. Kleiner Perkins says it is “in search of the next big idea.” Draper Fisher Jurvetson “backs extraordinary entrepreneurs everywhere who set out to change the world.” Mohr Davidow values “entrepreneurs who identify impressive market opportunities and are not afraid to go after them.”

Physic Ventures is different. Its mission is “investing in keeping people healthy.” Specifically, the San Francisco-based venture firm, which has backing from corporate giants Unilever, PepsiCo and Humana, invests in “technology-enabled, consumer-facing companies that help people and the environment stay healthy,” according to Will Rosenzweig, its managing director.

Physic is betting that it can discover and invest in startups that can make “personal and planetary health” a big business, just as richer and better-established Silicon Valley VCs made fortunes by backing information technology startups like Apple, Google and Amazon.

Will Rosenzweig

I had lunch recently with Will Rosenzweig in Washington to talk about Physic and some of its portfolio companies. Will is an engaging and interesting guy, best known for starting a company called The Republic of Tea in the early 1990s. (He and his co-founders, Mel and Patricia Ziegler, who also co-founded Banana Republic, wrote an acclaimed book about the experience that’s also called The Republic of Tea.) Will, who is 51, was also an early organizer of the TED conferences, the head of marketing for Odwalla and a teacher at the Haas business school at Berkeley.

Will and Dion Madsen, who had run a venture fund inside Unilever, the $57 billion consumer products giant, co-founded Physic Ventures about five years ago. It’s an independent fund whose corporate backers who offer strategic advice and research insights. Its financial investors include CalPERS and CalSTRS, the California state and teachers’ pension funds.

Will has written about the fund-raising efforts and strategy in an article called 7 Reasons Why Great LPs Invested in Our First-Time Venture Fund . [PDF, download] He and his partners raised about $159 million by 2008–an impressive amount for a fund in a new sector, with no track record of successful exits.

It’s much too early to judge the success of the fund or its investment thesis, but there’s no doubt that Physic has invested in some intriguing startups. [click to continue…]

Why green business is like teen sex

Corporate sustainability is like teen sex.

Everybody talks about it.

Nobody does it very much.

And when they do it, they don’t do it very well.

My friend and colleague Joel Makower likes to tell that joke, and it’s as good a way as any to introduce Greenbiz.com’s third annual State of Green Business report. The wide-ranging report was unveiled today in San Francisco at a conference hosted by 100203-sobg1-wJoel. I won’t try to summarize it;  it’s available free for download here, and well worth a read. Among other things, Joel and his colleagues identify 10 green business trends–they include radical transparency, green fleets, toxics as strategy, and the rethinking of packaging–and they measure progress (or the lack thereof)  around 20 different metrics, including carbon transparency, carbon reporting, clean-tech investments and green power use.

The teen sex joke is fitting because the ratio of of talk to action in the green business arena remains high. Particularly when it comes to climate change–now and most likely forever the No. 1 environmental issue for business, and for everyone else–progress has been halting because of the absence of consistent government policy, at the national or global level. Only 34% of the S&P500 companies have promised to [click to continue…]