Imagine you're an occasional driver. You ride your bike for most of your transportation, and you take the bus when you can, but you keep your homemade biodiesel car for weekend getaways and roadtrips. Wouldn't it be great if there were an eco-friendly auto club that gave you discounts for your green transportation steps, and would offer you the same roadside assistance whether you breakdown in your car or on your bike?
Green America: What does your business do, and how long have you been a member of Green America?
Mitch Rofsky: Better World Club is the nation’s only eco-friendly auto club. We offer the same roadside assistance as AAA and the other clubs, but we are not part of the highway lobby. We also offer maps, trip routings, hotel and car rental discounts, and travel services, as well as auto insurance in most of the country. We’ve been a Green America member since we started in 2002.
What makes your business green?
AAA is not your only choice of auto-club. Better World Club offers you services that match your values.
Mitch: We're unique mostly because we have a completely different policy agenda from AAA and the other clubs. We were the first travel company to offer carbon offsets, and we offer discounts for drivers of alternative fuel vehicles and regular public transportation users, as well as discounts on hybrid rental cars, eco-travel, and other eco-products. We're the only club to offer nationwide roadside bicycle assistance, and we donate one percent of our gross revenues to environmental clean-up and advocacy. Also, unlike in some AAA regions, Better World Club recognizes same-sex partners for spousal membership discounts, regardless of legal marriage status.
What did you do before you started your business, and what motivated you in the beginning?
Mitch: I have managed socially responsible financial businesses for 25 years, since working on Capitol Hill for Ralph Nader’s Congress Watch (I always tell people that I worked for Nader before he became a politician), for American Consumer Insurance (which is now part of Better World Club), for Working Assets Mutual Funds, and for the National Cooperative Bank’s risk capital arm.
While at the National Cooperative Bank, I was lending to consumer and producer cooperatives. As much as I valued the cooperative form of organization, I ultimately concluded that a socially responsible business model had a better chance of developing the kind of brands that consumers valued than the cooperative model.
This isn’t to say that credit unions, and rural electric, health care, and natural food cooperatives don’t have important roles to play, but each of them have developed in consumer markets that for-profit competition was ignoring. Obviously, there aren’t many of those niches. When I worked for Ralph Nader, generics were very hot. But Americans still liked their brands. Thus the need for socially responsible brands was a big motivating factor in starting Better World Club.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?
|Get help for your bike when you break down with Better World Club.
Mitch: Better World Club was the first travel company to offer carbon offsets. Today that might not seem so special, but at the time it was a challenge. It meant, for example, finding our own offset programs that met the high standards of our customers.
But the biggest challenge was bicycle roadside assistance. How do you provide service everywhere in the country? When we first started thinking about it, we thought that bike couriers might provide the service. But there is no national courier network. That meant aggregating all of the local services. Except that courier services only existed in cities, and that meant leaving more rural areas without service – just where it might be most needed.
All of this came against the background of creating a new product, so there was no way to know just what the demand might be. Without going into too much detail, we were able to create the service nationally and are very pleased that we figured it out.
What's been your proudest moment as a green business owner?
Mitch: Other than this interview? Probably when our renewal rate exceeded 80%. That proved that we were delivering. Or now that the amount of greenhouse gas that we have offset approaches 20,000,000 pounds.Or when AAA started copying us, first by offering carbon offsets and then bicycle roadside assistance (but only in one region).
What is the most hopeful sign you have seen recently from the green economy?
Mitch: It’s hard to believe that there can be so much change in less than a decade, but the difference between today and our 2002 launch is huge. Back then, to be a green business, earned a somewhat condescending pat on the head. Today it’s mainstream. Even the Fortune 500 wants to be considered “green.” (That was today’s Greenwashing alert!)
What advice would you give to other green entrepreneurs just starting out?
Mitch: I think a critical decision is whether you’re starting too “early.” From an entrepreneurial perspective, it’s best to be right on time, but, if not, it’s better to be too late than too early. Which is really unfair, but true.
What's the next green step you're working on?
Mitch: We’re in the process of creating Better World Club 2.0. This will be a community site where members can post travelogues, photos, and videos. Members will also be able to ask each other questions: What is the greenest hotel in Rome? How do you like your hybrid? A big part of being green is actionable information, so we hope to be getting more such information out there.
What one green product could you not live without?
Mitch: Well, there’s my Prius. (And if not the Prius itself, the hybrid engine. I’m looking forward to the plug-in hybrids, which are set to be introduced next year.)