The Opportunity Green 2008 conference held at UCLA November 8-9 lived up to its name. The green leaders there had many backgrounds and perspectives, but one message they shared in common was that going green is more than just a challenge for business. It is an opportunity as well, and a big one at that.
Where is the opportunity? For Tom Szaky, founder of Terracycle, the opportunity is in our garbage. Garbage is one of the few things we pay people to take from us, making it a low cost source of materials. Szaky founded Terracycle in 2002 putting worm poop fertilizer into old plastic soda bottles. Today, he is working with a variety of brands to take back their products and make something new out of them. Capri Sun juice pouches are being reborn as pencil cases and lunch boxes. Target bags are being given a new life as reusable shopping bags. Bare Naked granola bags are being refashioned into Bare Naked shower curtains. Consumers and businesses get involved to help return products to Terracycle, bringing them full circle. Szaky says “there is nothing that cannot be made out of garbage”, and he has a long list of partnerships in the works proving his point. “The opportunity to change the biggest companies is massively underserved and in massive demand,” Szaky commented, urging entrepreneurs to take their great green idea to these big companies. “There is the opportunity to go big. People say yes all the time.”
As the Director of Strategy of the green business incubator OZOlab, Rachel Simmons is looking for opportunities to solve problems that are already widely acknowledged in the media, making them ripe for change. OZOcar was founded in 2002, providing an eco-friendly town car service in New York. OZOcar provides transportation in fuel-efficient cars with first class service, addressing the need for cleaner transportation with a stylish and sustainable solution. Another business from the incubator, OZOwater, is developing a solution to the widely publicized environmental challenge of bottled water. The problem of bottled water is talked about everywhere, creating the opportunity for those who can address this need. For OZOwater the solution is about more than just providing bottles or filters. OZOwater is rethinking this $16 billion market by positioning their product as an eco-friendly beverage, and not just a filter. What people really want, after all, is something good to drink.
The opportunities are everywhere. Rick Ridgeway of Patagonia talked about the opportunities in our clothes, making them from more earth friendly materials, taking back old clothes, and giving back through 1% For the Planet. For Nike the opportunities are in our shoes. Mark Shaw of Rickshaw Bagworks is finding opportunities for fashionable bags like the Zero Messenger bags.
And the challenges for green products and services? There are plenty, particularly for green products to break out of their niche into broader and bigger markets. Early adopters will buy green products if they are more expensive but most people will not. One big challenge is price.
When asked about how consumers make decisions, panelists agreed that price is the most important feature. “Nobody is willing to spend more on products going green on a real mass scale,” Szaky said, framing the challenge for green businesses by saying that green products must be not just greener, but better and cheaper than the alternatives if consumers are going to adopt them in large numbers. Zem Joaquin, founder of Ecofabulous, said that consumers should not have to sacrifice to go green, that green products can be and need to look good and work well, in addition to being good for the environment. “We need to rethink how we go about this,” giving consumers what they want. She gave the example of early green products that were rough or unappealing. Rough, brown bed sheets were not big winners in the market, but if sheets are soft, colorful, feel good, look good, and are at a good price, and they just happen to be good for the planet as well, then people will buy them.
Josh Dorfman, author of “The Lazy Environmentalist” and founder of Vivavi, summed it up by saying “Selling green means framing the message in terms of personal self-interest”, providing products reflecting what the consumer values rather than a way of imposing green values on the consumer. We are not perfect, and neither are the things we buy but finger pointing and scolding consumers are not going to have the impact needed. Innovative businesses are making it happen by providing a positive and attractive alternative. Dorfman provided a new definition of sustainability, putting it this way, “To live as well as we possibly can while bringing our lives into balance with nature.”
The opportunities for green businesses are huge, and the challenges are significant as well, but nothing that can’t be overcome with the work of successful green entrepreneurs like these. “The challenge,” said Szaky, “is to transform the 99.9% not sitting in this room.” That’s a big challenge, and also a big opportunity.