A green social network? Yeah, your immediate reaction might be something like “Been there, done that.” From the now-defunct Hugg and GUSSE, to Care2 and MindBodyGreen, to our own review community, there are (or have been) many opportunities for the green-minded to engage with one another online.
Fortunately, when We Stay Green founder Liam Bayer contacted me about his new venture, he made it clear that this wasn’t just another social networking or product review site. We Stay Green is a community site, and has many of the features you’d expect of such a site, but its purpose isn’t simply about bringing greenies together to talk about issues, share news stories and blog posts, or review products. Rather, it’s about engaging the business community — particularly manufacturers and distributors of consumer goods — with people who are concerned about the environmental, social, and health impacts of those products. Or, as the company itself puts it “you can influence brands and products to be more environmentally friendly, healthy, and socially responsible, and promote brands and products that are already green.”
So, how does this work? I’ll let them explain…
Yep, it’s an intriguing idea… and one that I’d love to see work. I wanted to find out more about how the company is making this work, and passed along some questions to Liam about their strategy and practices.
Five questions with Liam Bayer, co-founder of green social networking site We Stay Green
Jeff McIntire-Strasburg: There is a strong product review component to We Stay Green; still, I’m guessing you guys often have to distinguish yourself from more traditional review platforms. How do you make that distinction for someone who’s initial response is “Oh, so it’s kind of like a green version of Amazon reviews…?”
Liam Bayer: We want our users to be real green consumers offering real feedback to brands about what they think about the eco-friendliness, health, and social responsibility of their brand and products. Our research shows that this account for 78 million consumers in the United States, accounting for the LOHAS (Lifestyles or Health and Sustainability) and Naturalite communities. We not only have the challenge of distinguishing ourselves from traditional product review sites, but we also have to explain how we are different from green product e-commerce sites and guides.
In regard to the mainstream product review sites, we differ in that we are a location where consumers that are interested in changing the environmental, health, and social impacts of the products that they use every day can come. By rating and reviewing brands and products on our site, users not only make a statement about whether a product is good or bad for them, but also for others that are impacted throughout a product’s, or entire brand of products, life cycle.
The e-commerce sites and guides that are available for consumer products are great. For the time being, we don’t plan to sell anything on our site, but those sites, like sustainablog, are great places to find specific green products that someone might have difficulty finding in other locations. Again, sites that guide consumers are good, but they are also very controversial because of the scientific data that they collect and aggregate for their users. After providing a score to guide their users, these guides ask their users to rate the products as well. These sites end up with ratings that are skewed in that the “scientific” score has already influenced the user rating the specific product. That is why we do not guide our user, but provide raw data from industry leaders in order to provide help. This method provides us with quality data to share with the brands that we work with, and a much more transparent system on the whole.
JM-S: Though many companies are starting to get social media, I’m guessing that the kind of engagement you seek is still a challenge. Are companies beginning to engage with the community? If so, are you seeing genuine conversation… or mostly PR speak? What major corporations strike you as doing social media particularly well (and why)?
LB: We’ve been working with a number of brands to shape our brand engagement platform, and their feedback has provided us with invaluable insight into what brands are working with in regard to being green. Brands know that their products are not that different, and understand that marketing has been where they can reach their desired demographic. They are worried about the regulations that are being put in place to oversee “greenwashing.” These are great guidelines because they are forcing brands to do even more in using sustainable practices and being transparent.
Brand conversations now revolve around real changes versus labels and certifications. One of the major areas that brands are looking to for more eco-friendly products is packaging, something that has been overlooked forever. We are not a guide, so I will not endorse any specific brand or product, but I will say that every brand has the opportunity to be sustainable, and consumers have the power to make them so. Use our tools and we’ll do our part to make sure that brands are engaged.
JM-S: In addition to community reviews and company sustainability information, you also include environmental impact information on many products and companies from Trucost. Why’d you choose to partner with them? What do their scores provide for your community members that you couldn’t find elsewhere (or, perhaps, elsewhere at a reasonable price)?
LB: We are very fortunate to be partnered with TruCost, the provider of the world’s most comprehensive corporate environmental data. TruCost is the firm that works with the British and Australian governments to calculate the impact of consumer products, demonstrating their influence and respect in the community. We’re very pleased to have their “skylines” available for our users. The skylines show the impact of brands in relation to greenhouse gases, water, waste, land and water pollutants, air pollutants, and natural resource use. These provide real and comparative environmental impact factors that both educate our users and help them make better decisions.
Again, we don’t ask for scores from TruCost because we don’t want our users’ perception ratings, and thus our community score, influenced or devalued in any way. Thus, TruCost provides our users with the best information available about the products they use and trust so that they can make the best, and most informed consumer decisions.
JM-S: One of the most intriguing features of the community (to me, anyway) is the Advocacy groups. In theory, this strikes me as pulling from “the wisdom of the crowd” – are you finding that your community is smarter than you are? Seriously, though, how well is this working for identifying and promoting issues that might have never struck you?
LB: I agree. The advocacy groups are very important to the community and mission at WeStayGreen.com. Of course, we provide the platform so that users who are much more versed in different fields and topics can collect and work together toward the same goals, ones that we might know very little about. These are almost like petition letters. By joining a specific group, users are supporting that initiative. The initiative might be as simple as ending the use of BPA in Coke products. In this example, we do our part by engaging the brand. Each brand is given the opportunity to respond to the group directly on the group’s profile page, in order to let them know what they are doing to address the issue. We think that this will definitely be a great tool to create that collective voice that we’re looking to provide green consumers, one that is so strong that it can influence brands to make real change.
JM-S: You reward a number of actions by users by planting trees. This seems to have become a relatively common form of “green reward” – companies ranging from Enterprise Rent-a-Car to book “offsetter” Eco Libris plant trees for social media users and customers. No doubt it’s a good and necessary action; do you think it’s a reward system that could actually keep a company from standing out because of its wide use?
LB: This is a great question because you may be right. We’ve been slowly and subtly changing the language to make it clear that users can “earn” trees for doing a number of simple actions on the site, one of which is signing up. This distinction is important because, although we do plant the trees with our partner Trees for the Future, we truly use the trees as a motivational tool. Users can increase their status and compete with other members within their network, almost like a Farmville. They can also add their tree total to either an organizational or advocacy group to increase the exposure of that entity on the site, something that is calculated by the number of trees that a group’s members have earned.
We’re in the process of building in a further level of rewards that will go beyond rewarding users with trees. This system will compensate the user with targeted rewards, and that’s all I can say. We have only just begun and are looking forward to continued growth of the site and the community.
We’re grateful to Liam for taking the time to answer our questions. Want to let companies know what you really think about their products? Check out We Stay Green… and keep an eye on them on Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube.