Communicating Green Business to Non-Green Audiences: Clean Tech Makes a Great Educational Tool

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Recently, I was given the opportunity to give a guest lecture for an entrepreneurship class at a local community college.  The teacher wanted to give his students a glimpse into the green business world.  For me, it was a terrific opportunity to reach out to an audience of poor, mostly minority students, many of whom had GEDs at best, and to test the universal appeal of green business.

The class went amazingly well, and I found that these students were as jazzed about green business and clean tech as any group of Silicon Valley Venture Capitalists.  More so, in fact.  Below, I present the outline of my approach so that others in a similar situation may build on this communication success, and adapt the approach as they wish.  Chip in a few dollars a month to help support independent cleantech coverage that helps to accelerate the cleantech revolution!

Thank your sponsor for their introduction, then give them a tagline ripped off from Harvey Milk:


My name is Scott Cooney and today we’re going to talk about green business.

Start with an audience poll:  ask how many people live a green lifestyle.  If anyone is crazy enough to volunteer, ask them to give an example.  Biking, eating organics, growing veggies, staying in shape, spending more time at the park than in front of a TV…whatever it is, it humanizes green.  If no one volunteers, ask them if they share clothing with their siblings.  Start where they are, not where the ideal green lifestyle is.

Then, ask if anyone would mind trying to define sustainability.  A good one is the concept of meeting the demands of today without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own demands—use patch-cutting versus clear-cutting as an example, or sustainable fishing.

Then ask if anyone is thinking of starting a business.  This will help establish a link that you’re about to make.

Now that you have the audience alert and participating, introduce yourself, and why you are who you are.

Hi, I’m Scott Cooney

•    I grew up fishing in the Everglades in an area that I watched slowly turned to concrete as I got older.

•    I became a Scientist/Advocate, but soon grew impatient with the slow pace of change.

•    I went back to school for an MBA, and when I had to write a business plan for a marketing class, I wrote one about a green business.   It was 2002, and I was openly criticized for what some viewed as pie-in-the-sky.

•    2 years later, I started the company.

•    6 years later, I sold the company for a nice chunk of change.

•    I followed that with another green company, which I later sold.

•    Based on my experience publishing a green business directory, I wrote a book about how to start a green business.

After you’ve introduced yourself, ask them what they think a green business is.  What kinds of green businesses have they seen in the news?  Put these suggestions into categories, and write the categories up on the dry erase board.

•    Industries:

o    Landscaping

o    Building

o    Energy

o    Fuel

o    Food

o    Ecotourism

o    Products & services

o    Financial

o    Clothing

In essence, it covers just about every corner of the economy.  So what defines a green biz then?

Ask them to name some companies that are doing green.  They may know a few, even if they don’t know they know it. This gives you an opportunity to talk about the shades of green.  Wal-Mart has made some strides.  I put them in the light-green category.  Wells Fargo, also light green for some of their paperless ATM’s and preferred green lending.  Once students recognize a few names, they realize you’re not talking in Martian anymore.  Give them Clorox and Green Works (bring an example if you can). Talk about some deeper green companies:  Seventh Generation, and maybe something local they might have heard of.

Then ask what determines how deep the green of the business is.  This will help define for them what a green business is.  The thread, as I put it to my class, was that sustainability is an integral part of the business mission, and is incorporated into the planning, procurement, production, marketing, strategy, human resources, etc….Draw the obvious conclusion that it’s very different than selling a few green products or changing out some lightbulbs (both good, too, just a very light green thing to do).

Bring the conversation back to the present, and ask them why green business is booming.  How and why?  Ask the audience to talk about the industries above you’ve written on the board, and explore the green aspect of them, and to give some reasons why the green economy is so newsworthy these days.

  • Foods–why are organics growing so fast?  Concern over health effects of chemicals in our food.
  • Renewable energy–why?  Concern over global catastrophe, polar bears going extinct, etc.
  • Alternative fuels–why?  Gas prices!
  • Products–why? Concern over toxics (lead paint from China, organic cosmetics, ‘clean’ cleansers).  Concern over landfill (compostable cups, Styrofoam replaced with paper products, 100% post-consumer recycled ingredients, etc.)
  • Green Building–why? Energy prices!  Healthy interior air.  Better resale value.  Longer duration.  Lower maintenance.
  • And so on…

Bring the conversation around to the customer that is driving this revolution.  Draw any number of different diagrams on the board and divvy it up into four parts.  Make one part really small and label this ‘core/deep’.  Make the other three parts about a third each.  Describe the core/deep group as the ones who will buy green no matter what.  They bike, eat everything local, grow their own veggies, are vegans, live in a condo downtown so that they can walk to anything they need.  They hang their laundry to dry.  The next segment is the ‘progressives’.  They do most things green.  Maybe they drive a Prius and bike most places.  They go hiking.  They eat organic food and shop at the farmer’s market.  They have a small garden or at least some herbs they grow indoors.  But they draw the line somewhere.  Maybe it’s at sun drying their tomatoes for the winter.  The next group is the ‘followers’.  This group will generally follow the lead of the group above them, as long as it’s easy, somewhat practical, and mostly, hip and fun.  The last group is the ‘laggards’.  This will be the last group to change.  They still have incandesent bulbs at their house and drive SUV’s.

If this analogy is tough for your audience to grasp, as it was with mine, equate it to something more common.  I used fashion.  The ‘core’ were those that lived for their clothing.  Paris, NY, LA folk.  The ‘progressives’ were the trendsetters who picked and chose the stuff they thought cool from what the core were doing.  The ‘followers’ were those that followed the progressives as long as it was fun and practical and none too expensive.  The laggards were your grandparents.  The analogy is silly, but drives the point home that while they don’t want to be LA or Paris, they also don’t want to be their grandparents.

Some evidence shows that the market for green is generally drawn into these types, with percentages roughly:

♣    Deep:  3-5%

♣    Progressives:  35%

♣    Followers:  30%

♣    Laggards:  30%

However, depending on what poll you read, consistently 80-90% of Americans report they are ‘very concerned’ about the environment.  So why doesn’t this translate into true green economic revolution?  Ask the audience here to think of specifics of why people don’t buy green.

♣    $–people think it costs more to be green

♣    knowledge—do people know what is a green product?

♣    Lack of availability—use suburbs example—”Should we go to Applebee’s again?”

♣    Inconvenient—hanging clothes versus tossing them in dryer, despite savings of roughly $2.50 per cycle

♣    Performance anxiety—do green products work?  Use Clorox Green Works example.

♣    Inertia/Lethargy/Loyalty—I still have a Citi Mastercard, despite the fact that applying for a greener credit card is simple and similar in service.  I’ve been with them since 93.

♣    Afraid of social perception of hippy-ness.

And so on…

Address how green companies can overcome this.  It’s not an easy problem to solve.  But have them think about this as they go into an exercise.

So now they understand

o    What a green business is

o    What makes the green economy so exciting

o    Who the customers are, and what are the objections green businesses have to overcome in reaching them.

Now have them break into groups.  The groups will decide on a green business to run.  If they have any questions here about whether it’s green or not, consider these concepts:

•    Is sustainability a core mission

•    Is sustainability a central part of all the crucial elements of a business:  product/service, customer, message, raw materials, etc.

Have them develop a business plan.  This should be cursory:

Basic Company Description, including

•    What’s your product/service

•    Where

•    How will you accomplish this

•    Why it is green

•    Why it will work

Marketing Plan:

•    Who is the customer

•    How will you reach them

•    What obstacles must you overcome

Have them take 10-15 minutes to do this, and be prepared to do a 3 minute presentation.  Others in the audience will likely have great suggestions for them.

At the end, draw their attention to the absolutely incredible array of green business opportunities that exist and are very feasible.  Here’s a list of green business opportunities from a recent article I wrote on

Good luck and have fun!

Scott Cooney is the author of Build a Green Small Business:  Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill)

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Scott Cooney

Scott Cooney (twitter: scottcooney) is a serial eco-entrepreneur focused on making the world a better place for all its residents. Scott is the founder of CleanTechnica and was just smart enough to hire someone smarter than him to run it. He then started Pono Home, a service that greens homes, which has performed efficiency retrofits on more than 16,000 homes and small businesses, reducing carbon pollution by more than 27 million pounds a year and saving customers more than $6.3 million a year on their utilities. In a previous life, Scott was an adjunct professor of Sustainability in the MBA program at the University of Hawai'i, and author of Build a Green Small Business: Profitable Ways to Become an Ecopreneur (McGraw-Hill) , and Green Living Ideas.

Scott Cooney has 138 posts and counting. See all posts by Scott Cooney