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After overseeing the campus sustainability program at New College of California, and helping to develop other green business ventures including a community supported agriculture program and a line of sustainably harvested redwood furniture, Alex Szabo put his GreenMBA™ to work launching TheGreenOffice.com in 2005.
Shortly thereafter, he joined Green America's green business network, which Alex says helps connect him with the suppliers of green products that are appropriate for his virtual shelves. We asked him to tell us more about how TheGreenOffice.com has grown in the last two years, and what he thinks about the greening of the mainstream marketplace.
Green America: What does your business do?
Alex Szabo: TheGreenOffice.com offers a comprehensive suite of products and services designed to make office greening easy and cost-effective. Our core business is the online retail of sustainable office products. For those looking to go beyond green procurement, we offer sustainability consulting, carbon offsetting, and a range of online tools and information. In all we do the underlying aim is to speed the transition to sustainability in the workplace. Cradle-to-cradle design, zero waste, carbon neutrality — the know-how to reach these ideals is fundamentally there. The challenge is to package what we know in a way that appeals to the values and habits of the mainstream.
Cutting down on waste:
Scissors designed with
recycled plastic handles.
What makes your company green?
Alex: Our goal from the beginning has been to model the best practices of sustainable business. In decision-making, we work to maximize social and ecological benefit ahead of profit. In the long run, of course, this is the only way to ensure a high return on investment.
Specifically, it’s difficult to find an aspect of our work that doesn’t incorporate our commitment to sustainability. Our Web site features nearly 40,000 supplies all labeled and ranked by greenness, with next-day carbon-neutral shipping free over $49. Our network of sustainability consultants work with organizations of every stripe to develop and execute operational greening initiatives. Finally, our carbon neutralization (a.k.a. offsetting) service advocated for the reduction of onsite emissions, the procurement of green energy, and investment in third-party-certified emission reduction credits.
We are employee-owned and committed to generating not just jobs but career paths that honor diversity it all its forms. In addition to Green America, we affiliate with a wide variety of non-profit and governmental agencies working to support the development of the green economy.
What motivated you to start your own business?
Note to self: Pick up 100% recycled paper post-its.
Alex: The business model for TheGreenOffice.com emerged from my work as a sustainability consultant and my study at the GreenMBA™ program, now hosted by Dominican University. What became evident was that a period was fast approaching where it would be imperative for organizations to begin the transition from business as usual to a more sustainable mode of operation. Acknowledging the human propensity for procrastination, we set out to build a company that would remove the barriers to office greening.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?
Alex: Internally, I have the luxury of working with a team that is already quite good about factoring social and ecological concerns into the decision making process. The difficulty is balancing our personal desire to put people and planet first with the larger goal of appealing to the mainstream.
A good example of navigating this terrain is what we call the brown product paradox. In addition to the widest selection of green office products found anywhere online, TheGreenOffice.com also sells a variety of conventional products. Originally, our idea was to shun everything “brown,” but after a few months of working with beta testers, we noticed a funny thing: the more conventional products we removed from our shelves, the fewer green products we were able to sell. Why? Because we were forcing well intentioned customers to shop in multiple locations. By offering the products we eventually hope replace we are able to create inroads for customers who would otherwise resort to conventional purchasing.
What’s been your proudest moment as a green business owner?
Old news: Pencils made
from recycled newspaper.
Alex: We now get calls all the time from folks who found our site and became compelled to take initiative within their workplace or home. After years of planning and months of development it was quite rewarding to hear the hard work was paying off. A distant second has been the recognition we’ve recently achieved in the mainstream. A recent mention in Newsweek magazine and a call we received from someone at the Oprah show looking for advice on their Earth Day program indicate to us that we’re in the right place at the right time.
How has your vision for your business changed since you began?
Alex: While our vision for workplace sustainability remains unchanged, our tactics have evolved somewhat over time. What began as an online superstore for green office products has expanded into a sustainability consulting and carbon offsetting service. In retrospect, perhaps we should have recognized earlier that organizations looking to go green often need strategic advice at the outset, and that those who have done what they can onsite naturally look for ways to extend their efforts by investing in offsite mitigation efforts. But it all comes back to making the transition to sustainability easy and cost effective. We’re seeing new green products hitting the market every day and an explosion of those committed to incorporating them into their workplace. The trend is hopeful. Still, there’s a long way to go in a relatively short time frame if we’re to mitigate the looming social and ecological crises of our time.
What advice would you give to other green entrepreneurs just starting out?
Alex: One of my favorite poets, Henri Coulette, liked to use the metaphor of a secret agent. I sometimes think of our work – that of building the green economy – as a kind of covert operation. Our mission is to infiltrate the houses and hotels of the mainstream and quietly inject the serum of sustainability. We can’t change human nature, but we can demonstrate that action towards social justice and ecological balance is a form of enlightened self interest. I’d also caution against what I sometimes call eco-fundamentalism. Our work, especially in business, is not that of the enforcer, but rather that of the persuader. We need to challenge ourselves to move beyond problem statements and finger pointing and into the realm of problem solving and coalition building.
What green product can you not live without?
Alex: I’d have a tough time without thrift stores. I live above one and love to drop-in on my way home to see what I can find. Recently, I picked up the perfect triangle shaped desk to seat our new intern. We put him in the corner window and he couldn’t be happier.