Going Online for Green Shopping

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This article was published by May/June issue of In Business magazine, 2005-06-21, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 20-21) and their website.

Even though it is a technological, man-made phenomenon, the Internet is bringing together environmentally active people and organizations at an unprecedented rate. It also has the potential to do the same at the consumer level, by greatly facilitating the promotion of green products, i.e., those which have the least negative impact upon the biosphere. This could take the form of an item being made only of organic components, or manufactured so as to minimize toxic emissions, or shipped using recyclable materials.

Given the strong and growing interest worldwide in protecting the earth's resources, one would think that there would be a large number of websites on the Internet designed to make it easy for people to find environmentally sound products. However, there are remarkably fewer than one might expect. Perhaps this is partly a result of a lack of knowledge among consumers that there are a tremendous number of eco-friendly goods available online.

Regardless, the green shopping directories that do exist serve a valuable role in making it much easier for ecologically-minded consumers to find green products, services, and organizations. It does not take a huge number of such websites to collectively provide the average consumer with worthwhile choices. Just as with recycling and other ecological efforts, it is the sum of many minor steps that can result in appreciable progress.

A Dynamic Shopping Site

One such directory, PristinePlanet.com — while a relative newcomer to the field — is rapidly becoming a well-regarded resource. Users of the site are welcomed to rate the products and services offered, to share their own opinions in the form of user reviews, and to discuss any of the offerings in an open forum.

The founder of PristinePlanet.com, Cathy Finn, notes that her business's primary goal is to make it as easy as possible for people to educate themselves with facts and figures before they make their next purchase, and thereby make a difference to the planet. It is designed to be the premier site where green shoppers and companies can come together, and where those shoppers can share with others their personal experiences and opinions regarding any of the products listed.

Participation in the PristinePlanet.com community is considered ideal for any organization that operates in an environmentally and socially responsible manner, offers products or services that are friendly to the planet and its inhabitants, adheres to internationally recognized fair trade practices, and makes consistent efforts to recycle and reuse resources, as well as reduce pollution. By limiting membership to companies that truly walk the talk, Cathy is maintaining a high level of quality among participants.

For Members and Visitors

Once signed up, a member organization is able to include its products in over 110 categories, specify links back to their own website, add small images of the products ("thumbnails"), see their products featured in rotation, help educate visitors by contributing Did-You-Know's, and have products profiled in the site's newsletter. In addition, a member firm gets 24x7 access to their traffic statistics via a secure login section, thereby allowing fine tuning of their product descriptions for improved traffic.

In addition, the PristinePlanet.com staff works continuously to maximize the attractiveness of the website to search engines. This ongoing process of "search engine optimization" (SEO) is an essential component of any online business's marketing campaign. Cathy urges every eco-entrepreneur whose business depends upon website traffic, to take the time to learn the basic principles of SEO — or at least get some assistance in optimizing their own website — as it can make a significant difference in improving the visibility of one's clients to Internet users.

All of these efforts are paying off for the shoppers who visit PristinePlanet.com, because they are thus able to learn more about green products and companies, sort them for better viewing, read product reviews written by people just like themselves, and share their experiences, opinions, and recommendations with other people. This unique capability gives the shopper an online resource that is growing with information, as more people join in.

Business Challenges

The tallest initial hurdle for any new enterprise is building and integrating the various components of the business. For PristinePlanet.com, there were several major stages of development: choosing and honing what exactly the business would be offering to clients, creating and securing the business name and website domain name, filing for a business license, obtaining a merchant account, designing and developing the website and backend database and code, fleshing out the front-end functionality, search engine optimization, and finally marketing and sales. Cathy found that the completion of one stage led naturally to the next.

One of the difficulties of being an entrepreneur getting started, is that there is not always enough time to develop the infrastructure for handling business, and to anticipate everything that could happen. Sometimes miscalculations can end badly. Other times, one can only feel blessed for happy accidents. For instance, when Cathy was first testing the database, she chose a particular member organization to test the login capability. As a result, they received a test e-mail message inviting them to receive their new password, which they did. Unbeknownst to Cathy, this allowed them to begin adding products to the database, which they naturally began doing, even though she had not expected it.

Demonstrating that the key to resolving issues is full communication, Cathy immediately contacted them, explained what had happened, and offered them a free month of membership, which they accepted. That's how PristinePlanet.com gained their first client, and illustrates how easily the unexpected can happen.

Some Lessons Learned

For any small Web-based business to succeed in the vastness of the Internet, it is critical to distinguish the business from the competition. Right from the start, Cathy became dedicated to making PristinePlanet.com provide a better experience for the green shopper. The various product and sorting features were purposely designed to make it easier for the site visitor to find what they want quickly and pleasantly.

Yet the one factor that Cathy points to as the most critical in the success of her venture, is flexibility — specifically, the willingness to alter her company's procedures, pricing, marketing efforts, and website, at a moment's notice, if circumstances warrant it. Cathy commented that she views her entrepreneurial work as like riding a wave — a wave of change and fleeting opportunities — in contrast to many businesspeople, who tend to stick to a rigid business plan, and try to force circumstances to match their preconceived notions of how their business will progress.

That's not to say that PristinePlanet.com has no clear business plan and direction. But Cathy is constantly listening to what customers want and the feedback that they provide. This allows her to quickly adjust to what the members and visitors would prefer. For example, in the early stages of the business, PristinePlanet.com was only going to be a site where consumers could write reviews. But seeing the consumer demand for green products, and the ability to compare them easily, Cathy shifted gears and rapidly adjusted the website so that members could list their own products, and include product descriptions and pictures.

Advice from the Trenches

When asked as to what recommendations she would give to anyone else considering starting their own small business, Cathy stated that you must believe in the business. You must know that your work is ethical. As long as you do something that you believe in, then your efforts will seem more like a fun project, and not a tedious job.

For instance, Cathy is adamant about practicing ecology within her own business operations. PristinePlanet.com is a Web-based business that garners its revenue from providing online service and referral value, and thus has no inventory, no manufacturing requirements, and almost no waste generated. What little there is, gets recycled — whether paper, glass, or plastic. Also, Cathy uses recycled paper for creating any promotional flyers.

As noted earlier, the creator of a new business should be flexible, willing to go with the flow and make quick adjustments as needed. While it is important to remain committed to the business's current direction until modified, the entrepreneur should not operate with blinders on, trying to force situations. That can result in missing out on possible improvements, and being less capable of adapting to the demands and interest from current and prospective customers.

Cathy joins this writer in encouraging you — if you are not already doing so — to start building your own green business based upon your deepest values. In the case of PristinePlanet.com, Cathy combined her passion for preserving the environment with a willingness to work as hard as possible to make self-employment financially and ethically viable. We hope her experiences and lessons learned will be of value to you in the future.

Copyright © 2005 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.