Saving the Earth, One Click at a Time

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Thanks to the Internet, even fair-weather friends of the environment can make a difference.

Today, helping to save the planet may be as easy as buying a sweater at J.Crew or a Madonna CD from Amazon.com.

At Care2.com, an e-commerce site devoted to all things environmental, 10 percent of revenues is donated to nonprofits, like Environmental Defense and the National Wildlife Federation, without any additional financial obligation to the consumer. Visitors to Care2 can buy eco-friendly goods from "green" merchants such as RealGoods.com at the site's Eco-Shop, as well as mainstream products from retailers like Gap.com. They can also generate donations by e-mailing friends, sending greeting cards, and using search engines to find information on green issues. Retail sponsors - who pay for banner ads on the site and on e-mails - pick up the bill, with hopes that some of Care2's young, educated, wealthy, brand-aware visitors return to them as loyal customers. So far, the 2-year-old venture has raised almost $400,000 for green charities, and has 1.5 million registered users.

Who says environmentalism and consumerism can't co-exist? The fact that 98 million shoppers are expected to spend $105 billion online by 2003, according to eMarketer, is convincing some merchants, nonprofits, and consumers alike to at least concede the possibility that good could arise from sleeping with the enemy. The Internet has armed the busy, yet environmentally-conscious consumer - known by some as "light greens" or "greenback greens" - with a new method of environmental activism: shopping. Whether they buy from the expanding number of dot-coms specializing in enviro-friendly products, or frequent mainstream merchants through charity mall sites that donate a portion of sales to green causes, e-commerce is expanding the opportunity to "do the right thing" for Mother Earth. And for marketers trying to achieve consumer loyalty and retention, the Internet has provided a better way to target these customers. Says Jacquelyn Ottman, president of J. Ottman Consulting in New York City and author of Green Marketing: Opportunity for Innovation: "I wouldn't be surprised if we were able to broaden the base of green shoppers because the Internet is making it easier for them to get involved."

Eighty-seven percent of Americans say they are "concerned" about the environment, according to Environmental Research Associates (ERA) in Princeton, New Jersey. It is somewhere within this large group that the light green consumers can be found. Market research firm Roper Starch's 2000 Green Gauge Report defines them as greenback greens because they are more likely to open their pocketbooks than their day planners to save the Earth. While 59 percent of these consumers donate to environmental causes, and 90 percent buy products made from, or packaged in, recycled materials at least occasionally, just 6 percent regularly roll up their sleeves to volunteer.

Demographically, the light green consumer segment is very attractive to marketers. They are relatively young, with a mean age of 39. They are smart: 69 percent either have some college or are college grads, and 54 percent are executives/professionals or hold white-collar jobs. Thirty-eight percent have household incomes over $50,000 and 22 percent over $75,000. They are also Internet savvy - 67 percent have a PC, and 72 percent have gone online in the last month. This group is also predominantly female (62 percent), a plus for marketers, since women traditionally make the majority of household purchases, both online and off.

Lisa Bohne, 26, has been a self-described light green consumer for about five years. She recycles, takes her own bags to the supermarket, and buys organic produce and aluminum toothpaste tubes. But she doesn't classify herself as an activist and isn't quite ready to trade in her Gap jeans for hemp ones. While she's used the Internet to find general environmental information, she was unaware that green product merchants or charity malls existed on the Web. "Are there green books? Green Gap jeans?" she asks. "I'd love it if there were, and I would definitely buy them, even if the price was a little higher. Buying green is a personal value of mine, and I will pay to support that value."

Such sentiments from light green consumers are the driving force behind a slew of new e-commerce models giving marketers access to this group, while offering consumers easier ways to make a difference. Online charity malls like GreaterGood.com, ShopForChange.com, and iGive.com, allow customers to buy goods and have a small percentage of their purchase go to a philanthropy of their choice, green or otherwise. Then there are click-to-donate sites, like The Rainforest Site (www.therainforestsite.com), where clicking on a button automatically sends a donation to The Nature Conservancy, courtesy of merchants who pay for banner ads on the site. Other mall-like properties, such as EthicalShopper.com, GreenHome.com, and EcoMall.com, offer environmentally-friendly products, from chamomile shampoo to non-chlorine bleach. Also sprouting up are individual vendors, like DolphinBlue.com, which sells recycled paper and office supplies, and EcoBaby.com, which sells enviro-safe baby products.

"No one wants to be consciously irresponsible," says Rachel Prishkolnik, CEO of EthicalShopper.com. "The Internet is just making it easier for those who might not normally go out of their way to buy responsible products to find them. It's like if you walked into a store and saw two piles of similar clothes and one had a sign that said `sweatshop free' and the other didn't. Once people realize we're here and have products that are price-comparative, it becomes a natural choice."

There is certainly a growth in online green merchants trying to get the word out. While there is no good measure for the number of sites selling enviro-friendly goods, a quick search on Google for "green products" retrieves 8,500 hits. As for e-philanthropy, 2000 alone saw the launch of more than 140 Web sites founded specifically on the principle of giving to social causes, according to Boston-based cause-related marketing firm Cone, Inc.

"The [charity mall] model flips cause-marketing on its head," says Carrie Suhr, director of cause development for iGive.com. Traditionally, companies have had to guess about the one cause their shoppers care about, and then work that into their marketing, she explains. "But when you allow the individual to choose his charity, you are essentially connecting your brand with the cause the consumer cares about most." In a Cone study conducted prior to the holiday shopping season, 58 percent (up 14 percent from 1997) said they planned to purchase a product that had a percentage of its price donated to a cause.

Since discovering iGive.com last year, 32-year-old Jodi Hoatson, from North Providence, Rhode Island, has forsaken all offline shopping except for incidentals and has convinced her family members to do the same. She's even warned her boyfriend that if he buys her flowers, he'd better do it on iGive.com. "If retailers are willing to put up the donation money, I want to frequent them. Companies can give back and should give back. If they don't, they'll lose my business. There are other things besides price that I'm thinking about when I shop." She found iGive.com while working 80-hour weeks as a public relations executive. With no time to shop and even less time to volunteer, she was thrilled to find a way she could contribute by "selfishly shopping for myself." Hoatson's chosen charity, Hearts United for Animals, an animal rescue organization in her home state of Nebraska, raised more than $3,500 last year from iGive.com shoppers. In its four-year history, iGive.com has raised an estimated $1 million for charities nationwide.

Before going online, Catherine Fenner, a 48-year-old writer from Golden, Colorado, who has been buying green for 14 years, had trouble finding certain items within her somewhat conservative community. But now she has much broader access to information about corporations' environmental records and to a wider range of eco-friendly products. Her favorite site is Pangea's Veganstore.com. "Where else can I find non-leather, non-sweatshop shoes that I can wear to a Fortune 500 holiday party?" she says. "It's so nice shopping there knowing that I don't have to check ingredients or worry about the poor child who skipped school to glue shoes together."

Stumping for a cause may actually make good marketing sense. Eighty-three percent of consumers say they have a more positive image of a company that supports a cause they care about, according to Cone. And for the last seven years, since the firm has been keeping track, the environment has remained one of the top three concerns that consumers say they most want businesses to bear in mind. Eighty-four percent say they are likely to consider a company's reputation for supporting causes when making purchases.

These are trends that companies like Etera, Inc. (www.etera.com) are cashing in on. Of the gardening retailer's 5000 affiliates, GreaterGood.com generates the second most traffic, and iGive.com comes in 12th, according to Wade Tonkin, affiliate marketing director. One two-week e-mail promotion on GreaterGood.com in June generated 1,300 orders - one of the highest response rates the 2-year-old charity mall has had. Another month-long sponsorship in September on The Rainforest Site, which is also run by GreaterGood.com, generated about 15,000 click-throughs, and about $7,000 in sales, not to mention access to a database full of e-mail addresses for potential repeat customers. "Customer loyalty is very valuable on the Web, and very difficult to get. Anything you can do to differentiate yourself online is very important," says Tonkin. "If you build your brand and get people to associate a good cause with your name, it makes a big difference." Etera, Inc. is not the only business to think so. According to Chicago-based International Events Group (IEG), cause-related marketing by companies has increased 504 percent since 1990, to an estimated $630 million in 1999.

But marketers be warned: light green consumers are not easily fooled. For companies who spread themselves too thin or aren't fully committed to a specific cause, the tactic can backfire. "Cause marketing online only works if the company has already established itself as having an ongoing commitment to an issue," says Alison DaSilva, vice president of Cone. "Otherwise, to consumers, it's simply another banner ad." Fenner, for one, usually gives new companies a test by ordering something small to investigate their packaging and shipping methods. If, for example, the package arrives with an inordinate amount of bubble wrap in an unnecessarily oversized box, the company has failed.

Nevin Cohen, senior analyst at New York City-based research firm eMarketer, questions the true impact of the click-to-donate and charity mall models, since they may inhibit people from taking more concrete actions, like volunteering or changing their consumption behaviors. As for green consumerism, the jury's still out. Die-hard environmentalists - about 10 percent of the population - will always be looking for enviro-friendly products and the Internet is certainly helping those consumers to find them, says Cohen. But to expand interest to the mainstream, comparison shopping has to become easier. The development of green shopping "bots" - search engines that compare products' environmental efficiency and ingredients across various retailers - will be key. Such sites do not yet exist for consumers, although at least one, GreenOrder.com, is making strides in the business-to-business sector. Since about 85 percent of all e-commerce transactions today are b-to-b, the greening of government facilities and corporations needs to come first, says Cohen. Once green shopping bots become used regularly by these agencies, he predicts "some smart entrepreneur" will create them for the consumer marketplace.

The demand for green products and services is likely to increase within the next 15 to 25 years, say experts, as the 71 million members of Generation Y - born between 1977 and 1994 - grow into positions of power as heads of both households and businesses. They are the first entire generation to have been taught in school about the consequence of human actions on the planet's vitality, says Lois Kaufman, co-founder of ERA. In fact, almost 100 percent of kids today have had some form of environmental education in school, compared with 19 percent of all adults. Says Kaufman: "Our studies have shown that these younger adults, who will be the buyers of tomorrow, are much more willing to spend money for environmental products than their parents were."

Teens are likely to use the Internet to make those purchases. By 2003, 51 percent of the teen population, almost 7 million wired 14- to 17-year-olds, will be shopping online, projects eMarketer. And 49 percent of all teens say they plan to buy products online that support causes, according to Cone. Thirty-seven percent plan to use the Internet to find volunteer opportunities and 71 percent expect to use it to learn about causes. The Internet offers marketers a perfect opportunity to influence these conscious consumers: 89 percent of teens say they are likely to switch brands to those associated with a good cause - a 62 percent increase from 1999, reveals Cone.

So, while it still isn't easy being green, the Internet is at least making it less difficult. "Online, nobody feels threatened that they are not green enough," says Marlin Miller, Chief Operating Officer at Care2.com. "For expanding the interest in environmental issues overall, that's very important."

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