Environmentally Sound Startup

There's never been a better time to start a green business.
Magazine Contributor
6 min read

This story appears in the October 2002 issue of . Subscribe »

Did you ever dream about saving the environment-but still making a bit of money on the side? Then you might consider starting an environmentally friendly business. This will not only give you the chance to support a cause you believe in, but also appease your desire to build a successful enterprise. And while you'll face certain challenges in going green, you'll also reap some great rewards.

The time could not be better, according to Eric Brown, communications director of the Center for a New American Dream, a Takoma Park, Maryland, nonprofit organization that encourages sustainable lifestyles and businesses. "The need [to produce] things without using as many natural resources and the need [to produce] materials and products without contributing to global climate change will dictate that we buy things differently," he predicts. "And people [will] manufacture and sell things differently." Brown notes that green businesses can be anything from a flooring services company that re-mills old floors to a pest control service that uses nontoxic chemicals to a business that sells all-natural pet care products.

That's where entrepreneurs can enter the fray-by hopping into growth areas for environmentally safe products and services. Brown cites the organic food sector as one example of a prime opportunity. According to the Organic Trade Association, the organic food industry is growing between 20 and 25 percent per year, with sales expected to exceed $20 billion by 2005. Zoe Foods is just one entrepreneurial natural foods company that has done well in the organic food market. The Newton, Massachusetts, company manufactures Zoe Flax & Soy Granola, a natural remedy for the symptoms of menopause.

Green businesses have exploded over the past decade, says Rona Fried, president of SustainableBusiness.com, a consulting firm that helps green businesses grow. But, she notes, there's still room for growth. "I got into the field 10 years ago-right after the Exxon Valdez crashed," she recalls. "Before that, there was no such thing as a green business-now [almost] everybody is producing environmental reports. So it's gone from nonexistent to being a really big field."

Another burgeoning green industry is renewable energy, says Fried. People are looking for planet-friendly sources of energy-and investors are looking for companies with the inside track. "[Many] VC groups are focused on clean energy [companies]," she says. "It's a very good place to be right now." She notes that the first fuel cell cars will be on the road this year and that states are creating incentives to promote renewable energy.

Local and state governments are also excellent places to procure work once you get your business up and running. "State and local governments buy $385 billion dollars worth of goods and services every year," says Brown. "These governments are increasingly looking for green products. [In fact,] many of them have mandates to purchase green products." This can mean anything from nontoxic cleaning supplies to recycled paper products. Even start-ups in the early stages of business can log on to the Center for a New American Dream to view a listing of current procurement opportunities.

Now's probably a good time to start thinking about the marketing challenges you'll likely face when promoting your new green business. It's quite possible that some of your target customers will already hold preconceived ideas, such as that green products are of a lower quality than traditional products. "There can be [a stigma] for sure, and it's certainly smart business and smart marketing for a company to debunk those myths-because most of them are really myths," says Brown. "There are many green products that are cheaper and work better than their less environmentally friendly counterparts." Some business owners get around this by promoting their product or service's high quality alone, without even mentioning its environmental benefits. On the flip side, though, Brown notes that promoting both quality and eco-friendliness can be a great way to set your company apart from the competition. Before you decide, see how others are marketing in your segment.

Thinking Green

Even if you don't want to start an entirely green business, you can still incorporate eco-sound practices on a smaller level. For instance, you can use both sides of office paper (just set the printer to duplex); purchase nontoxic cleaning supplies; recycle paper, aluminum and cardboard; and use energy-efficient appliances. You'll find that small changes will not only benefit the environment, but also your budget-by cutting costs on energy and paper, for example. You might even consider a paperless office, suggests Fried. If you're building or renovating an office, think efficient windows and nontoxic insulation.

Learn More
  • Click here for a closer look at the issue of social responsibility and business.

Brown touts the four-day workweek as an inexpensive, though environmentally friendly, step. "You may think: What does that have to do with anything?" he says. "But the fact is, [these] workers spend more time at home, eat less processed food, travel less, use [fewer] fossil fuels-their actions are better for the planet." Though it may not always be possible, it is one action to consider. A reduced workweek will also enable you and your employees to donate some time to volunteering for environmental causes.

Though going green requires commitment, don't think that you'll have to live in a commune, knitting baskets from grass, to make it work. It's really about balance-balancing your business needs with the needs of the environment. "And acknowledging that we all have to consume in order to live, and there's really no shame in that," says Brown. "We're not telling people they should shiver in the dark and make sweaters of old mop heads." What experts suggest is for entrepreneurs to put profits and planet side-by-side on their list of priorities.

As the population continues to grow and environmental resources become more and more valuable, eco-sound practices will become the norm, predicts Brown. Fried agrees: "In 100 years, a green business will just be referred to as a business-because every business will be green."

For More Information

Check out a few of these resources to learn more about green products and services:

  • Sustainable Business.com: Provides news and information about green business. Includes industry information, as well as a place to post green employment opportunities.
  • GreenMarketplace.com: This e-commerce site sells green products-and it's a good place to research what's in the market right now.
  • Co-op America: This site offers a thorough listing of green businesses, and it's a good starting point for researching types of environmentally friendly businesses.
  • Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonaugh and Michael Braungart talks about joining environmentalism with commerce-and includes examples of some companies who've done it well.

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