As the world of sustainability broadens, the distinction among for-profits and nonprofits has tended to blur somewhat. Companies increasingly are engaging in voluntary actions that border on the philanthropic -- offsetting their travel emissions, for example. And nonprofits are working to incubate green- and clean-technology companies, and to stimulate markets for environmentally preferable products.
And then there are hybrids -- and I'm not talking about cars. I've written in the past about the concept of "B-Corporations" -- "for-benefit" companies that donate their profits to charity -- the Newman's Own model, since replicated by others. And in between are companies that see new market opportunities -- and significant profit potential -- in solutions, both high-tech and low, that can have a measurable environmental and social impact.
That last category describes greendimes, a new start-up that aims "to figure out if social good can meet capitalism in some happy place and make change faster than government or activists can," in the words of its founder, Pankaj Shah. (Disclosure: I sit on greendimes' advisory board.)
greendimes' value proposition is simple and straightforward: for $3 a month (a dime a day -- hence the company name), greendimes will keep you off junk-mail lists while planting one tree every month for each of its subscribers.
You've no doubt heard about free list-removal services that purport to put you on a "do-not-mail" list. Turns out, these don't really work. Actually, they work for a while, but the minute you move, apply for credit, refinance, or do any of a number of other things, you're back on. Hence, the seemingly unstoppable deluge of credit-card come-ons and other solicitations that passes for your daily mail. To stay off these lists, you need to submit your name on a regular basis to fifty or so different list-removal services, something few mortals are likely to do.
greendimes' value proposition is that it does all this for you, automatically, every month.
Shah is a successful serial entrepreneur whose previous companies -- a mobile phone search company and a provider of high-speed wireless Internet access -- afforded him an early, albeit brief, "retirement." During his tenure at home, he saw for the first time in years the steady stream of junk mail arriving each day and wanted to do something about it. He also came to learn the environmental implications of all that mail -- the 100 million trees and 28 billion gallons of water used each year to manufacture the paper, for example.
He began to see three opportunities in one: providing a service that could help people regain control of their snail-mail boxes, creating an environmental benefit, and helping individuals recognize how small actions, done collectively, can have big impacts. Oh, yes: And potentially making a chunk of change.
"I think we've found this really cool spot where we're providing a service to consumers to rid them of a nuisance that they can't stand," he told me recently. "We're helping the environment and building a valuable business." Shah seems fascinated with finding the sweet spot between business and social good. "There are a lot of ways I could have structured this. It could have been a nonprofit, for example, or I could have donated a lot of money to some treehuggers. But business is what I understand. I think we can run faster and do more if it's run as a business."
Shah thinks big. He won't be satisfied if the number of members fails to reach into the millions. I asked him what would constitute "wild success" for him, and the answer came straight out of the dot-com mold of the late 1990s: "If we had 15 million U.S. households engaged with us, we'd be saving or planting over 100 million trees a year. That's a big deal."
Wild success, indeed. Suffice to say, at $3 per month, 15 million households represents a lot of green. You do the math. (Never mind, I'll do it for you: It's just north of a half-billion dollars a year in revenue.)
And stopping junk mail is just the beginning. Shah has up his entrepreneurial sleeve a suite of other services greendimes could offer its members. Once greendimes has aggregated a significant number of green-minded consumers, I'm guessing those opportunities will multiply.
Says Shah: "There's not a lot of time left to start doing drastic things to help the environment. The fastest way we can make change is to figure out if capitalism and social good can marry each other have a happy existence."
Here's hoping they can.