Get your fill of expert advice for green business strategies and best practices when you listen in on this interview with Glenn Croston of Starting Up Green, a company focused on helping green entrepreneurs see success. Glenn, whose writing has appeared in the LA Times, the New York Times, Fast Company, BusienssWeek.com, and GreenBiz.com, has been providing advice to green start-ups for many years and has a passion for helping the next generation of green ideas blossom.
In this interview, you’ll hear Glenn’s thoughts on a variety of topics, including:
- How to define a green business.
- Growth and trends in the green economy.
- Green buildings and transportation and how they play into green business planning.
- The economics of going green for small businesses.
- The psychology of environmental sustainability and how to motivate people to be greener.
- Opportunities in biofuels and other alternative energies.
- Bootstrapping it as a solopreneur.
In this interview, you’ll also hear Glenn’s views on how to achieve a work-life balance as a green entrepreneur, and much more.
Watch the Full Program
About Glenn Croston
Glenn Croston is a noted expert on green business strategy and best practices. The author of the books 75 Green Businesses and Starting Green: An Ecopreneur’s Toolkit, he has been featured in the LA Times, the New York Times, Greenbiz.com, BusinessWeek.com, Fast Company, Entrepreneur, hundreds of blogs, and other print, internet, and radio outlets.
A regular speaker at green events and sustainability consultant, Croston lays out the greatest green opportunities of our time, the business case for sustainability, and how people from every background can do the right thing for themselves and for our planet by building a successful and profitable green business.
As the founder of Starting Up Green, Glenn Croston is helping the next generation of green entrepreneurs from cleantech inventors to stay-at-home moms to join the sustainable business revolution today.
Books by Glenn Croston
00:38 LL: Hi there! I’m Lorna Li, the Editor in chief of Green Marketing TV and Entrepreneurs for a Change. I’m your host today, and we have a very special guest with us. His name is Glenn Croston. He is a green business consultant, speaker, and author of two books, “Starting Green” and “75 Green Businesses.” He’s going to talk to us about some of the exciting opportunities that await entrepreneurs in a green economy today. For more information about Glenn go to www.startingupgreen.com. So Glenn, I discovered your book “75 Green Businesses” while researching green business ideas for Green Marketing TV, and I’m really curious about how you got started as a sustainability consultant.
01:27 Glenn Croston: Sure. My story is kind of an evolution of how I got to this point in doing the work that I’m doing now. It started out with my history as a biologist. I got training as a PhD biologist, and as a biologist, kind of looking at the natural world and looking at the massive impact we’re having on it. So, from there though it also became clear that as much as we talk about the problems, what we really need are solutions. As a dad, I’m a dad I have a couple of daughters, and being really motivated to kind of do something about that, and we just started doing something at home in our personal lives to go green, and from there though, I wanted to see what more could I do, and trying to harness the power of business to be a part of the solution and give ideas for everyone out there who wants to be a part of it, who would like to create a business that can help to provide solutions. That’s where that first book came in is to say these are 75 ideas where people can contribute challenges around, look at them differently, look at the opportunities to provide solutions. And the second book, “Starting Green,” is kind of more of a how-to guide of how to make that happen.
02:34 LL: So it’s really interesting, your background as a scientist, I can’t even tell you how many times people say to me, “Climate change is a hoax. It’s not really happening,” but at the same time, the people that I know in the science profession in general are telling me that we are in the sixth largest extinction in planetary history. What have you heard?
02:54 GC: Well where we live in our day-to-day lives, it’s hard to see an immediate impact for most of us, and so… And our psychology is such that we really would rather not deal with that because we have other things which are usually more urgent, that we have to pay our bills and take care of our kids and pay the mortgage, and that’s what most people are dealing with, is the immediate, urgent daily necessities. So we have this psychological bent which kind of drives us to look at this and say, “We’ll worry about it later.” And later kind of almost never comes unless a crisis provokes us and forces us to deal with it, but we do have… I think the science of it is undeniable, and it’s not just about climate change. It’s about the impact of this year we’re going to have seven billion people living on the planet. When I was a kid, it was four, and not long before that it was two billion. I mean there’s seven…
03:42 LL: That’s shocking.
03:45 GC: Seven billion and I think most people aren’t even aware of that. Seven billion people on the planet, and you can’t have seven billion people on the planet without really kind of totally reshaping the Earth. The oceans, the air, the land, that we are using up a massive fraction of the land for agriculture and other purposes. The oceans are getting acidified. Species loss is really undeniable, and I mean, unless you’ve been trying to deny it, but the truth is there for anybody who is willing to look at it, and the climate. And I know these are hard things for us to deal with because people are kind of overwhelmed by all the other challenges in their lives sometimes, but the science is really clear. I think it’s important for us to… It’s helpful for us to just acknowledge that and to say, “It’s here. It’s happening.” But, the reason people deny it, I think, is often because they feel like it’s so overwhelming, and they feel like it’s so out of their control. The psychological that helps them to deal with it is to just putting it out and putting it away and packaging it off and not handling it, but it’s useful for us to say, “Look, as big as these challenges are, as enormous as they seem, they’re not overwhelming. We can deal with it, and we can each of us make a difference, and through the business world, hopefully we can even have a bigger difference than in our own personal lives.”
04:58 LL: Absolutely! In my research, the biggest causes of environmental degradation, as much as consumers are sincerely trying to lighten their ecological footprint, it definitely seems like most impact to the environment comes from businesses, but I think one of the questions that arises is, “What exactly is a green business?” Can you help us understand that concept?
05:19 GC: I try to stay away from having a strict definition because there’s different green business certification schemes out there that define it different ways, and the FTC has their guidelines for what you have to do in regards to communicating your sustainability efforts. But to me it really starts out as people making a difference in your business. Working to improve your current environmental impact, and to be better than you have been and hopefully better than your competition is. In the long run what being green will mean is that we’re really, truly sustainable that we’re running our businesses and our lives in a way which will allow us to live on the planet for the long term and not just dealing with our day-to-day necessities.
06:03 LL: So it seems like green business is a concept that’s really picking up and being embraced widely. I’ve been looking at the green economy; it seems like there’s a lot of opportunities. The green economy is growing. What do you see as the ten top trends in the green economy that are really going to change the world or make an impact?
06:24 GC: There are a lot of things. One of the trends is our need for food that we have. We’re faced with rising food prices globally and yet people, the seven billion people on the planet, they need a source, they need healthy sustainably produced affordable food. Another one is water. Once again, with increasing populations, with climate change, our world’s water resources are getting less reliable, less predictable. So we need business and other entities that can help to deliver clean water for people everywhere. They need energy. As the developing world becomes more and more developed, there’s more and more consumers who want what we have. They want things that use energy so we need energy and we need energy efficiency. That’s another opportunity is that we need to produce this energy cleanly and we need to use what we do have more efficiently.
07:17 GC: Green building. Everyone needs a place to live. In the past, especially in the US, we’ve been kind of wasteful with how we use energy in our homes, with our lighting, with our heating and our cooling. We know better ways to use energy, more efficient ways to use energy in our homes, but it hasn’t always been implemented. So we have to implement that. We’re going to see our transportation systems changing a lot over the next years and the coming years and decades. One of the trends being that in the future, the price of oil would go up, not saying when it would happen but saying that it’s almost guaranteed that it would happen. I didn’t know it would happened so soon, it’s already happening now that the price of oil has gone up. The price of gas is going way up already again. It was up in 2008, now it’s up back in the same neighborhood again and that’s going to change how people drive, how we transport our goods and drive us to be more efficient, creating business opportunities.
08:10 GC: We look at waste as a problem and it is, that we waste so much and put stuff in the landfill. That’s a resource which is lost, but more and more people are looking at that landfill as kind of an urban mine that we can use too as a resource, that we can take those plastics going into the landfill, the organic material, the metals, take all the stuff going in the landfill and that’s a resource. We can find better ways to use it in the future. And services. Services are a huge area where every service business I think has a greener version. If you’re a lawyer, you can be a green lawyer. If you’re a dentist, there are green dentists. If you’re a dry cleaner, there’s green dry cleaners. So there’s another whole sector of opportunities there in terms of greening the service sector. The big opportunity here isn’t even just for so-called green businesses, it’s for every business to become more efficient.
09:03 GC: That’s I think where I’d like to see things go, is that we’re not even talking about green businesses anymore, because being a green business is just synonymous with being a good business, being less wasteful. Being green doesn’t mean your business isn’t successful, in fact the Fortune 500 people out there who are investing in sustainability a lot of times, of course, I think they want to do the right thing but I think they’re also doing it because they’ve found this is very profitable for them. That 3M and Dupont and WalMart, I’m sure part of the motivation is that they’re parents and they have kids and I think they’d like to see that we’re headed in the right direction in the future. But they’ve also found that for the millions that they’ve invested, they’re saving billions in terms of reducing waste and opening up new markets.
09:46 LL: That’s true, and these big enterprises can really achieve economies of scale if they are trying to go green and reduce their energy consumption or have a more efficient fleet of vehicles, for example. But for a smaller business, do you think it’s possible to go green and save money the way the big guys are? I mean, it seems like everything that is more eco-friendly tends to cost more. I think that’s where a lot of small or medium businesses get hung up. What are your thoughts on going green for SMBs?
10:17 GC: Sure, you know what, I think there are just as many opportunities for small to midsize businesses as there are for large ones and it is hard sometimes for small businesses because when you’re a small business person you have to wear a lot of hats. Your time is precious, your money is precious, you’re trying to squeeze as much as you can out of every dollar. But all the more reason actually for people like that to invest in sustainability is that while there are expensive things that you can do, there’s also plenty you can do which is going to save you money and save you a significant amount of money. Things like investing in reducing your wasted printed materials, and there’s a company I know that’s doing print management to reduce that problem. And reducing energy that maybe you need a little help with that, but investing in energy efficiency usually has a really quick return on your investment not something that necessarily has to take years and years to pay out. This can pay out quite frequently oftentimes.
11:08 GC: But it doesn’t always mean they have to invest in fancy new technologies or expensive ones. Sometimes being green means just reusing stuff that we already have, reusing some old office chairs that you don’t necessarily have to go out and buy brand new office material that’s out of the most sophisticated eco-manufacture materials. Sometimes getting new stuff is a pretty green move because it’s stuff which is already been made, no new resources required, not just green material, there’s no new resources required. That’s a pretty green move. So there’s plenty we can do for small businesses, midsize businesses that aren’t that hard, that save them a lot of money, that can fit in with their existing business and really helps them to save money.
11:48 LL: I agree, I think there a couple of companies that I really appreciate creating a bit of a paradigm shift so to speak. For example, DocuSign, oh my God, it’s great, can you imagine all that paper that you’ve saved by doing electronic signatures.
12:04 GC: Yeah, yeah. And if you want to do printing then… And there’s still printing required. I mean, I try not to be… That’s another thing, a preconception people have about the green world is that it’s extreme, that we’re extremists. And, like, talking about printed materials, I think that most businesses at the end of the day, they’re still going to have some need for printed materials, for things likes like brochures and such. But if you are gonna work with those materials, work with a green printer. Like, I know a guy in San Diego here, a guy named Thomas Ackerman of Spirit Graphics and Design, and he’s a green printer. He’s doing everything in an eco-friendly way. But more importantly, he’s also a great a printer. Because people like him, they’re interested in providing, not just a good product, but a good service. So, often times there’s easy ways to do things that feed into your existing business and that also are still good for the planet.
12:48 LL: What else do you do?
12:49 GC: Thanks! Well, I’m working on another book project right now, which is… It kind of evolved out of thinking about things like the environmental challenges that we face and how it is with things like climate change. We talked about earlier that we don’t always necessarily, as a society, have affective responses to these or our resource depletion or our need to transition away from oil as a transportation fuel. And really that kind of led me to thinking more about our psychology and how it is that we deal with these kind of risks, long-term risks, and saying that we need to find a better way to handle these over the long-term. So that’s another book project I’m working on right now, which I’m calling “Risking Everything,” which is all about, sort of how our psychology works and affects how we perceive risks like these and respond to them. And I’m also helping out with… One area that I’m spending a lot of time on lately is helping out green businesses, small to mid-size green businesses, with some of their PR needs, where I’m saying, these businesses, like the big businesses, they need help with getting their businesses singing and getting and helping people to intercommunicate with their clients out there in the world. And yet they don’t always have thousands to spend per month on that type of thing. So I’m trying to provide to address the need that these people have with affordable solutions for reaching out to their clients and communicating with them.
14:05 LL: Wow! Well, that sounds really exciting. So your new book, it’s called “Risking Everything”. When’s the ETA? Wen can we look out for it on Amazon?
14:13 GC: It’s gonna be 2012. There yeah go. I think so.
14:16 LL: Alright, so diving back into some of the green business opportunities that you see with… That are available or hot in the next 5 or 10 years, you mentioned there’s a great need for greening our transportation. And I know that there’s a lot of enthusiasm around the potential for biofuels to help us shift away our addiction to oil, but at the same time there’s a lot of controversy around biofuels. Can you share with us more about your thoughts on the opportunities, and how do we really get to a point where biofuels feel like a viable solution? I mean, I’ve heard of everything from biofuels having a high degree of cost, in terms of energy to even create, versus taking away resources from food consumption, to even rainforest destruction and human rights abuses. So, what are your thoughts, Glenn?
15:16 GC: Sure. I think that biofuels definitely have promise as part of our future transportation mix, but it doesn’t mean… But they’re not all created equal. Not every biofuel solution is necessarily gonna have the same benefits as others might. So, for example… And these are the kinds of issues we do need to consider when we’re trying to encourage the use of biofuels. So, in the US for example, we’ve invested a lot of money in government subsidies in corn ethanol. And yeah, most people, science people who look at this and even economists, anybody who, from a policy perspective, they look at this and they say this might be good politics, but it may not be good science because it does take a lot of energy to generate corn ethanol, and it doesn’t really have any significant climate benefit. And it is probably taking, diverting potential food resources away from food and into fuel and driving up fuel prices.
16:11 GC: So corn ethanol probably isn’t the best solution. And similarly, if you’re using cane sugar for a biofuel, then you want to do it in an environmentally sensitive way. You want to do it in a way that doesn’t deplete the rainforest and/or cause human rights abuses or anything like that. So we have to be sensitive to these concerns. And it’s not that every biofuel is necessarily a good biofuel, but there are opportunities still in the long run, with people… For example, if you can generate biofuels using cellulosic ethanol from material, which is raised or which doesn’t compete with food production, like, you’re talking about switchgrass, for example. We’re not really there today, but in the future we could work out methodology for that. That could be very promising in the future. Using agricultural waste for cellulosic ethanol production, that’s one. If worldwide, if you can produce ethanol from cane sugar, it’s actually much more efficient than corn. So, like what Brazil has done, they’re doing and producing large quantities of ethanol from cane sugar in Brazil. And yes, they need to be careful about their rainforest and so on, but they’ve done a lot in Brazil to move into biofuels, and there’s probably some lessons we can learn there.
17:31 LL: So how far are we away from algae biofuels?
17:34 GC: Algae. Well, algae are really an interesting topic, where algae are still… They have enormous promise, and there’s no question that you can grow algae. A number of people have done that, and businesses are working on that. The only question is what does it… I think the only question really is what does it cost you, and how scalable is it? People have grown algae for a long time for nutraceutical types of applications, in which you cultivate the algae in large outdoor ponds, you harvest them as one. But nutraceuticals are worth a lot of money whereas for biofuels to grow algae, you need to have the costs way way way lower than they have been historically. And already we need the cost of oil to go much, much higher to really make it economically feasible. I think that’s what the question is for algae is, it’s not whether you can grow algae, we know you can do it but can you do it in a cost-effective way which is really scalable to making the kind of meaningful difference. So there’s people working on it and I’m optimistic that at some point the cost will come down, the price of oil will go up. At some point it will make economic sense and there’s a number of different businesses working on making that a reality.
18:44 LL: Now that is the big question, making it cost-effective. Reading your book “75 Businesses” it seems like a lot of the startup ideas actually require a lot of financing, a lot of sort of capital to get off the ground, especially in the area of energy and transportation. It seems like in order to even get started you also have to have some kind of engineering or R&D background. Can you tell us more about the opportunities that you’ve identified that have a lower threshold for entry for your average individual?
19:16 GC: Yes, there are definitely businesses that are very resource-intensive that require years of research and development and lots of money and so really that’s not for everyone. But there are plenty of opportunities for everyone else. I don’t want people to think that that’s the way the whole field works. In fact, one of the reasons I wrote the book was for people to get the message that there’s something there for everyone really, based on your background and where you’re coming from. There are plenty of service-related businesses that people can start with little money, things like energy auditing, which don’t necessarily take a ton of money to get involved with, people involved with direct sales types of organizations like Greenerine that cost very little money to get started with, so I think there are lots of things people can do which are not necessarily huge million dollar sorts of businesses but still very good business that they can start with very little money and start in their own home, and then take it from there.
20:20 LL: So in your book you have this little guide, kind of like in the restaurant guide so to speak to determine how much money is needed for each venture. You have single dollar sign, double dollar sign up to, I can’t remember, 3 or 4 dollar signs, so can you translate that into actual dollar figures? Is single dollar sign opportunity $10,000 in startup capital or is it 5 and is the two dollar sign is that like 20 or is it doubled?
20:49 GC: There’s things you can start for hundreds or less than a thousand, like I’m saying, that these are like startup, work at home types of things, starting out kind of small, bootstrapping your way. You can start things for hundreds of dollars. It doesn’t necessarily take a lot of money, and then two stars would be thousands of dollars and three stars, as I recall, tens of thousands of dollars. It’s kind of a logarithmic scale. Hundreds, thousands, ten thousands, hundred thousands, up to millions, if you were talking about investing in biofuel production or something. That’s not something people start in their garage, that’s a big endeavor. But I don’t think people should be really inhibited by the cost potentially, they should look at it the other way around and say, “Well rather than think about what I can’t do let’s think about what I can do with the resources I have.”
21:37 GC: I don’t care, maybe you don’t have a ton of money but you can think about bootstrapping, you can think about… There are things you can do with tinkering in your own garage. I know a guy, guy named James Cass in Las Vegas and this guy in his own garage through tinkering over the years he’s invented an energy efficient air cooling system, a hybrid air cooler using indirect evaporative cooling and he didn’t have I think, a ton of a hundred million dollars to invest in this. By just through time and perseverance and bootstrapping it, he’s making it work. I think we have to look at these as not so much as insurmountable problems money-wise or in other areas, but it’s just this another factor you have to consider and find a way of dealing with it. There’s a… I read this interesting thing about bootstrapping once where these guys look at the lack of money almost look at it as an opportunity to say, “Sometimes when people have a ton of money to throw at a problem they’re not always the most efficient in how they use that money.”
22:33 LL: That’s very true.
22:34 GC: When you’re bootstrapping and you really… You have to be creative, it forces people to be efficient. The things that they can’t wait years and years and years before they ever bother producing a product or testing it out with customers. They have to get the product in customer’s hands as quickly as possible, see what works, see what gets traction and see what doesn’t, rapidly evolve forward. So I think that it can actually almost be a… It may not feel like it but bootstrapping and having sort of cost-constrain helps you to get creative and efficient early on which can really pay off later.
23:05 LL: So a single dollar sign business opportunity could feasibly be a opportunity that you can start for under a thousand dollars?
23:13 GC: Yeah. There’s plenty, lots of stuff that you can do starting just by looking at where they are today and saying, “Okay I don’t have a lot of money but let’s not think about that, let’s think about what can I do.”
23:23 LL: So what are the best opportunities that you’ve identified that a soloprenuer can do?
23:29 GC: Okay there’s lots of things and I think there’s a lot of opportunities in what I often call the conserver economy where, if you look at the economy, even though we’re kind of in this recovery phase, it’s not like everybody is raking in the dough, or it’s a booming economy. There’s plenty of unemployed people still, people under economic pressure. They don’t have their homes and piggy banks still where they can cash out, refinance and go and get this. So everybody’s kind of getting more efficient than we used to. We’re finding… One consequence of that is that people don’t necessarily go out to the malls shopping for new stuff all the time. They’re trying to find new ways, creative ways to get more out of what they already have, where instead of buying new stuff at the mall you can share or swap with people online or in your community to get the stuff you need, and that goes for clothes, or furniture, or for a lot of different things.
24:22 GC: So there is an opportunity there for people to look at this problem in terms of people who are cash constrained and look at that as an opportunity to help them to find new ways to get what they need through sharing, swapping, reusing, fixing, repairing stuff that they used to throw away. It’s funny, but now it seems like a green business, but one of the consequences of the down turn was that people like cobblers and tailors were having phenomenal business because people used to just throw their old shoes away and go buy news ones, all of a sudden they were just starting to fix those old shoes and repair them and get more life out of them. That’s kind of a green business. You know what? I mean the fact that you’re getting more life out of that old resource is pretty green. You may not think of cobblers as green business people and yet in a way, they are.
25:08 LL: Yeah, It’s kind of interesting. There’s a Chinese saying that “Where there’s crisis, there’s also great opportunity.”
25:15 GC: Yeah, absolutely. I mean it is a period of change that we’re going through, and I think part of those changes that were really out of necessity and kind of being forced to rethink our consumerism and, which should become kind of a habit and rethinking the values behind that, and moving more into a different way of meeting our needs. And I’ve heard that young people today are not necessarily all that into going out and buying a pile of stuff that they’re actually pretty open into the idea of car sharing, for example. Like they’re not necessarily caught up in what car it is they have parked in the drive way, but that they have a transportation need that they need to get filled and doing that in a cost-effective way because they don’t have a ton of money. Car sharing makes sense for a lot of people like that, and it also happens to be both economically efficient and eco-efficient. Car sharing, bike sharing, tool sharing, swapping movies or disks, clothes swapping events in your community. There’s kind of a ton of opportunities there which people can take advantage of.
26:26 LL: Well, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me today. We’ve come to the end of our segment. This is Lorna Li, Editor in chief of Green Marketing TV and Entrepreneurs for a Change, and we had an awesome time talking to Glenn Crosston, who is an author, speaker, and consultant. Author of two books “Starting Up Green” and “75 Green Businesses.” To find out more more about Glenn and his amazing work go to www.startingupgreen.com. Thank you.
26:54 GC: Thanks, Lorna.