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Reader Report: Sustainable Brands Conference

By Agnes Mazur

Early this June, marketing and advertising experts convened in Monterey for Sustainable Brands '09, where topics discussed ranged from fair trade labeling practices to product life cycle assessment. Among the emerging ideas for securing a profitable future in a challenging economy, two struck me as particularly promising. Virgance, an incubator for profitable business with a social activist flair, and EarthEra, a fund for a renewable energy future for America.


Can you recall a time in the past when a common yet challenging goal sparked a united global outpouring of creativity and collaboration? In searching for an answer to the troubled times we face, entrepreneur Steve Newcomb believes that the challenge of bringing about a paradigm of sustainability is parallel to landing a man on the moon. His business-savvy response to the call for innovation is Virgance, a profitable company that he ambitiously dubs “an Apollo project factory.”

Virgance is essentially a new kind of business incubator. It blends ideas of social activism and conscious capitalism in a high tech way, with a mission to promote positive change using effective business models. All projects supported by Virgance must meet the five following criteria: causing as much direct change as possible, harnessing the power of people and community, using positive mechanisms for change, operating under a common technological infrastructure, and finally, operating within a for-profit business model. Once the firm identifies worthy projects, it supports them with not only traditional capital and technological infrastructure, but also invigorates them with creativity and opportunity for participation of everyone involved. Because its projects aim to produce social movements, not products, cutting-edge social marketing strategies are always part of the plan.

Among Virgance's early projects is CarrotMob (the brainchild of Virgance President Brent Schulkin), an entity that takes the flashmob phenomenon and tweaks it to encourage responsible business. Based on the knowledge that business is motivated by profit, Carrotmob poses challenges to businesses and rewards those that show the strongest commitment to social responsibility by mobbing them with clients. Last summer, Worldchanging covered an early Carrotmob in San Francisco, where shoppers swarmed a corner store that committed to dedicating 22 percent of these sales to improving its energy efficiency. (Video here.)

Another Virgance startup is One Block off the Grid (1BOG), an initiative whose mission is to make solar power easily available, understandable, and affordable to communities across the United States. 1BOG's website allows people interested solar to learn about solar economics, incentive structures and advantages of renewable energy. By seeing how many people in a given area are interested, 1BOG can negotiate with leading solar companies in the area to facilitate a group rate, offering discounts to homeowners, large projects to installers and an objective perspective as an impartial consumer advocate. Thus far, 1BOG has launched in 20 cities and on 8012 1BOG homes, with many more to come.

Virgance has two other projects currently in pilot mode, with plans for many more that will engage big brands, small business, grassroots activists and everyday people. We hope that Newcomb and his smart, innovative team succeed in their mission to create a future that is environmentally, socially, and economically sustainable.

EarthEra: Investing in a Renewable Energy Future

NextEra, the largest producer of wind and solar energy in North America, has launched the EarthEra campaign to answer the challenge of funding and facilitating America's transition to a clean energy economy. The campaign's core concept is to produce a trust dedicated to the creation of new wind and solar projects across the United States.

Recognizing various groups' desire to contribute to a clean energy economy and the need to provide a vehicle to help them do so, EarthEra offers products for individuals, small businesses, corporations and governments. As an example, a family can calculate its carbon footprint on EarthEra's website and choose to purchase yearly offsets, while a small business can join a business network that allows them to demonstrate and market their environmental commitment to customers with the EarthEra brand. Corporations have a variety of options for becoming involved, with a wide range of products that help customers participate in the program through their purchases. An alliance with Eco-Media also allows corporations to purchase "carbon offset advertising," which contributes a percentage of revenue to help retrofit city buildings for efficient and renewable energy.

Revenue generated from the sales of these products is contributed to the Trust, currently estimated at $18 million. Working with an objective third-party trustee, NextEra has committed to dedicating 100 percent of the funds to building renewable energy facilities across the United States. Participants can view progress of the projects on EarthEra's website.

Agnes Mazur is a sustainability enthusiast based in San Jose, California. After completing her studies in Political Science, Spanish, and French at San Jose State University, she worked as a reporter in her native city of Warsaw, Poland. She has since returned to the Bay Area where she contributes to various efforts in sustainability including organizing an urban gardening project, researching up-and-coming green businesses, and attending various conferences about environmental sustainability. She hopes her love of world travel, nature and innovation can help change the world.

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I know of another company that is very similar to both companies that you mentioned but with a different twist. I would like to share with you.

Posted by: Mark on 21 Jul 09

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