Five years ago, Spencer Brown decided he was tired of wasting his money on cardboard boxes. More important, he was fed up with the double whammy of cutting down trees to create a product that ended up thrown in a landfill. He channeled his displeasure--and a bunch of plastic bottles--into a reusable plastic box, and later, into Rent a Green Box, his multimillion-dollar green enterprise. Now he's won just about every environmental award under the sun and Congress is asking him what to do next. He shares his thoughts with us as well.
Entrepreneur.com: As an entrepreneur, what can you bring to the table in terms of environmental policy that someone with a purely academic background can't?
Spencer Brown: We're in the beginning of a paradigm shift in the economy, not because of the economic crisis, but because of people's awareness. Because this green boom has been somewhat connected to the internet, the speed to market has been much faster. Because of this, the academics who have been teaching environmental studies or environmental policy, they are teaching it from a paradigm that's not relevant today.
What's relevant today is who's in the trenches and making it work. I happen to be one of the few people in the nation who has brought a concept to market without banks or funding or venture capitalists and proven my model to the point people will say, 'This will work.'.That kind of created the spark where people started watching us. People start putting these things together and say, 'We at a state level and we at a federal level understand that this is the new paradigm. We can bring in academics, but we really want to know from the people in the trenches: What is going on? We want to know why this is working, how it's working.' As they craft policy at the federal and state levels, they want a dialogue with people who are more than hype.
We started this three years before green was a buzzword. So we're authentic. We're one of the most visible green brands in America. We've broken the chokehold of cardboard on our industry. We're the first alternative in 230 years. Because of that, the marketplace says, 'We need to know what you think should happen.'
What are some of the changes you'd like to see in terms of environmental policy and where are the problems rooted?
Am I a person who should be crafting the law? I think I have insights. I've learned a lot in five years.I believe that the problem really is in education. We don't talk a lot about trash in school. We just go to school and learn history, reading, writing, but we're missing something. We're disconnected from the realities of consumption. I believe every student from kindergarten through high school should be mandated to attend a landfill visit every year so they see the process of their consumption. That's pretty crazy, but it's only a by-product of doing this for five years and having kids. That's the biggest solution right there--get these kids to the landfill.
The other big thing that we're talking about is that there needs to be some type of incentive for industries to work with green companies. I don't believe in tax or law--I believe that the government should go green first. They need to be leaders and say, 'We're going green.' The government is a very large business, so if they go green, that tells everyone else they should be going green. If someone told me two years ago I'd be going to Washington, I would've laughed at them. I'm just a guy who buys trash and makes a box. But I do know now that I have insights that academics don't have and bureaucrats sure don't have, and I'm willing to tell them what I think.
I'm not trying to put a burden on anyone. I'm just saying we need to do a couple of things and let the market react and be a catalyst for change.
What's the key when it comes to getting people to subscribe to green practices?
If Americans are given the choice, they will do the right thing. You have to give them the opportunity, and that's where green is such a bright spot. Green is analogous to what America's built on: opportunity, optimism, change, better, better, better. Not bigger--better. Americans are the best in the world when we collectively agree on something that we want to get behind. People are finally realizing that there's a connection to their lives outside of their little bubbles. Green is the cement that's binding people together. People ask why we don't have online ordering. It's because we want to talk to you. We want to have a relationship with you. That's all very green. Green is connecting people with how they feel, and the other thing that green does is it really creates a community, and that's what lacking in business is that people feel like they've been browbeaten by corporations and there is no connection.
Green entrepreneurs have historically been very honest about creating a successful business first and saving the world second. How important is that transparency to the credibility and success of the green movement?
Business is simply providing a good or service or unique entertainment value to a person for profit. That combination has never changed. We provide a good as well as a service for profit. We also happen to be a green company. We always think of what the impact would be and what would be the best choice and the right thing to do. That's an added dimension--we provide a good and a service for profit without trashing the planet.
In business, you've got to make money. It's a balance with us. Our intent has always been to eliminate the cardboard box. Is it environment first or is it business first? There's a hybrid here. From our standpoint, we've had a green DNA right from the beginning. I've built a business model that's been green. We're a green company first. People want to save time and money. They don't really care about green. We have to compete. The green companies that go out there and try to guilt people into it or try to create that fear of, 'The world's ending so you should buy my stuff,' that's not right. Is it green first? No. I don't think the market is ready to be green. They still want you to be a business. I buy that. I subscribe to time and money.
All businesses must run on that premise: providing goods and services to customers for profit. We happen to do it without trashing the planet. We're detoxing the planet to create our product. It's definitely turning the tables on how we view trash, how people view their move, and it works. But if someone wants to come out with an altruistic, Pollyanna feel-good, I don't think it'll work. I don't think people will really care. You have to be a business.
What advice would you give to aspiring green entrepreneurs?
Somebody had to prove the model. And I'm that person. I don't have corporate funding and banks and VCs. It's little old me. I think when people hear that, that's what entrepreneurial stories are all about. We know we're getting huge and we're getting massive, but our story is unique and authentic. In a world of hype and mistrust and greed and deceit, where did we start in this country? We started with little people like me who had an idea they think is better, and with the right combination of skills, they bring it to market and it works. I hope this motivates people to think that they can have a green company.