Welcome Greenophobes

Today there is a growing awareness that business-as-usual corporate and lifestyle practices jeopardize the health of the planet and the ability of future generations to sustain a good quality of life. Awareness in turn has created a confusing array of sustainability-oriented decisions. The Greenophobe takes a skeptical, practical, informed look at a variety of sustainability topics. Explore a mix of common sense solutions and in-depth discussions that demystify how to live green and live well.

29 January 2014

Why is Airbnb Checked Out On Sustainability?

Recent NYC legal troubles underscore why the crown jewel of the sharing economy urgently needs a sustainability strategy

Adam Freedgood Third Partners Airbnb graphicBy the time you are done reading this article 120 room nights will be booked with the hottest hospitality company in the world. That company is not Hilton or Marriott or Starwood. It is cloud-based tech startup, Airbnb. The firm is barely four years old and has never built or acquired a single hotel property. Yet Airbnb guests and hosts exchanged more than 10 million guest nights by 2012. Based on annual bookings, Airbnb now outweighs many brick and mortar hotel chains. If the company went public today, its market cap could rival Starwood, topping $10 billion.

For a firm with such an elite position in the hospitality business and in the sharing economy, Airbnb’s lack of a sustainability strategy is shocking. Airbnb produces no annual sustainability report and shows no transparency around climate change impacts, pollution, energy use or waste generated by the firm or its global network of hosts and guests. While disappointing from a green business perspective, Airbnb’s lack of a sustainability strategy earns the firm no goodwill with regulators including New York State attorney general Eric Schneiderman.  

New York State has declared war on the Airbnb business model, claiming that many of the firm’s hosts are operating illegal hotels under the law.  New York seeks to recover millions in unpaid taxes from Airbnb.

While government regulators are primarily concerned with collecting hotel tax revenue lost to Airbnb’s peer-to-peer micro-enterprise business model, the top Airbnb cities also boast aggressive sustainability strategies. The firm’s position in the recent NYC legal battle is weakened by the fact that the company has done nothing to quantify the costs of waste, energy consumption and pollution resulting from guest nights booked in sustainably-minded cities.

Demonstrating sustainability leadership would strengthen Airbnb’s position with eco-conscious cities

Airbnb is lauded as the largest member of the sharing economy, a movement that is reshaping the way we live by helping to reallocate excess capacity in all kinds of creative ways. New hotel construction typically only serves peak demand, with rooms sitting idle the rest of the time. Airbnb guests make use of excess capacity while injecting money into local economies -- $56 million in its home city of San Francisco alone. Making efficient use of excess capacity has been part of Airbnb’s story from the very beginning.

CEO Brian Chesky called Airbnb the “e-bay for space” in a 2013 interview with The Atlantic. But Chesky also references the ever-expanding size of the global tourism industry in which the company operates. Chesky notes that tourism is as big as the oil industry and it’s not a “fixed pie” -- the size of the industry is expanding as demand increases in high-growth countries.

As a fast growing player in the massive and ever-expanding tourism industry, there is nothing virtual about Airbnb's environmental footprint. Sooner or later the firm must embrace its responsibility or it risks falling short of the vision of efficiency underpinning the core business model.

“Utopian visions of efficiency all too often have a way of obscuring their potential for abuse, with workers, consumers and the environment the all-too-common victims,” according to Wired’s Marcus Wohlson in a 2013 critique of the biggest players in the sharing economy.

The true environmental impact of Airbnb may be worse than traditional hotels

Unlike scrappy startups that embody the eco-chic principles of the sharing economy, Airbnb has a valuation in the billions of dollars and operates in the resource-intensive hospitality and technology sectors. A decentralized business model spreads Airbnb's environmental impacts

02 April 2013

Introducing FatAir - the world's first weight-based passenger airline ticket

In addition to causing pain at the gas pump, volatile fuel costs are causing a revolution in passenger air travel pricing. 

April 2, 2013 -- CNN's Erin Burnett reports on Out Front that Samoa Airlines has become the world's first passenger airline to implement a fare based on a passenger's body weight and baggage weight combined. The weight-based fare is the latest in a series of airline pricing grabs aimed at covering rising fuel costs. Spirit Airlines made headlines and raised tempers with travelers in 2012 by announcing a $100 fee for carry-on bags. Around the same time, United implemented a record high $100 fee for the second checked bag on transatlantic flights. As usual, the other big carriers followed suit with their own maze of increased fees.

Samoa Airlines' weight-based fares boldly reinforce a growing trend. From healthcare costs to food prices, consumers are increasingly picking up the bill for systemic sustainability problems that went unnoticed in the bygone days of cheap energy and strong economic growth. The immense threat posed by long-term impacts such as climate change historically has little to no impact on business. Weight-based fares may be the first of many near term pricing strategies that finally motivate changes in the way we address our global fossil fuel addiction.

The unprecedented intensity of these new fee models means that shopping for the lowest fare becomes riskier and more complicated for consumers. For example, the impact of today's bag fees can easily double the cost of a domestic airline ticket. Consumers must expend additional effort to carefully compare fare policies and compute fees while shopping around.

Triple digit airline baggage fees are simply an indirect surcharge on fuel -- last ditch fees designed to postpone the destruction of airlines' financial health as oil prices fluctuate, trending ever higher.
The New York Times reports that fuel costs will cause airlines' profits to drop 62 percent this year. Also according to The Times, fuel costs now exceed 30 percent of airline operating costs. Carriers are doing radical things including

28 March 2013

A new version of Haiti: My week in Port au Prince with Team Tassy

Adam Freedgood (center with cinder block) with Team Tassy's founder, Ian Rosenberger, Team Tassy Executive Director, Vivien Luk, members of the Adme family, Team Tassy staff and volunteers
Up until last month I thought I knew something about the poverty in Haiti. I knew just enough to care just enough to donate just enough that I felt good about helping a place that needed helping. My few dollars ended up in the gridlocked pile of post-quake contributions to large charities who promised millions of donors and millions of Haitians that they would help Haiti rebuild. It turns out that I really didn't know Haiti very well at all. And I didn't help enough or through the right channels.

I knew just one version of Haiti -- a UN occupied, US AID supported, charity infested, Google Earth mapped, rubble filled, blue tarp roof version. The 2010 earthquake brought horrific images of Haiti to primetime. I certainly didn't know the depth and tenure of Haiti's poverty before the quake. And it turns out the world did not know how deeply persistent that poverty would be. As the months following the quake turned into years, this version of Haiti was simply reinforced and obscurity returned.

Around each anniversary of the earthquake I watched as fresh doubts about Haiti's future were churned up in the media by the wake of restless and vocal disaster donors demanding to see the impact of their donations. In Haiti, emergency tents had become permanent homes. Tropical storms claimed more lives as treeless hillsides funneled diseased water into already devastated villages. People who had worked in Haiti over the years wrote books and dissected the country's problems. People like me bought the books and caught up on the history. All of the money and food aid and interference by the U.S. in Haiti's politics over the years had not created a better Haiti after all.

Urban migration, deforestation, U.S. occupation, foreign investment, embargoes, economic collapse, cruel topography, brutal nature. The more I learned, the more I felt that there was a complexity to Haiti's poverty that was just too big to grasp. How do you help a place that has perennially suffered from too much of the wrong kind of aid?     

Last month, my perspective on Haiti changed dramatically and permanently.

Team Tassy invited me to join them on the ground in Haiti for a week. The agenda: meet with families, understand their needs, deal with immediate problems, tear down rubble, and find new resources for lasting change. I agree, piece of cake. A three hour flight from New York City transported me from the pixelated one meter resolution of a Google Map and a news broadcast to a completely

01 June 2012

Sharing Everything: a simple concept that's world changing

A humorous take on a "green" washing machine from Inhabitat's discussion of traditional efficiency methods.    
Recently Good Magazine ran a story about a sharing program for household washing machines and dryers.  It's a web-enabled concept called "La Machine du Voisin," french for "The Neighbor's Machine." That's right -- opening up your home to neighbors and literally inviting in all their dirty laundry. It is a funny and even unsettling visual. Beyond the obvious ick factor, this kind of sharing is ripe to spread beyond one town in France that has a shortage of laundromats. Expanding the sharing concept to include all kinds of expensive personal gear has clear environmental, economic and social benefits. The idea of sharing everything could very well redefine how we think about owning stuff.

Examples of sharing-based business models are popping up everywhere

Most people are introduced to the concept of sharing by age two.   Bike sharing is widespread in the world's great cities. Rental car companies commercialized the idea of having a fleet of cars that get used by different people around the clock. Neighbors negotiate shared ownership of snowblowers, lawnmowers and other yard equipment. Strangers fractionally own boats, condos and other assets. People even share their couches with hardcore travelers through the couchsurfing community and hitch rides to work using casual carpooling.  You can even share brainpower.   A novel social venture startup called Catchafire allows business professionals to share their skills with nonprofits by donating time performing specialized services.  

Sharing exemplifies triple bottom line sustainability

It's a concept that makes sense both environmentally and economically. When a high value product sits idle for most of its useful life, it's an obvious waste of the embodied energy and materials. As costs continue to rise, the economic incentives for sharing become greater.

Sharing a variety of products that are today considered highly personal could jumpstart a critical shift away from high volume production of cheap crap. Individual ownership of big ticket products inherently forces low quality and generates waste. A whole class of products --including home appliances-- are designed cheap so individuals can own them. They often break from normal use or non-use and then end up in landfills. Cheap products also guzzle energy which can add up to higher total cost of ownership and associated pollution.

Sharing an expanded range of products such as washers requires higher durability and more efficient operation than we expect from today's individually owned devices. Higher initial prices for high-quality stuff would be good for manufacturers and for consumers who gain opportunities to earn rents by lending out their stuff.

Prerequisites for successfully sharing everything

The Internet, social media and new mobile payment technologies make sharing safe, secure, profitable and feasible at an unprecedented range of scales from small appliances to major property. Personal payment technologies have been around since the start of the Ebay age and continue to evolve. Square, for example, enables anyone with a cell phone or tablet to accept secure payments by credit card. In Vancouver, drivers can pay parking meters with a text message. Payment is truly the easy part.

When sharing something as personal as a washing machine with a total stranger, it's essential to have a location-based peer review platform. This makes the process safer and more predictable. Microsites with the local search and review features of Yelp.com reduce the risk out of sharing just about anything. The washing machine sharing program that started in Lille, France has a dynamic website listing the cost, features and sharing locations.

The beauty of social networks is the power of individual choice and the abundance of variety. If sharing a washer with a neighbor freaks you out, don't do it. Individual ownership preserves privacy and convenience but comes with clear trade-offs that I would just as well do without. Stuff is expensive to buy, breaks, needs maintenance and begins to depreciate in value immediately. I think most people value opportunities to be less responsible for the perils of owning stuff but need to overcome the hurdle of thinking differently about what it means to own vs. share.

It's going to go mainstream

We've been brought up and conditioned by targeted advertising to think that owning lots of stuff individually is the definition of success and equates to a high quality of life. Really it's freedom from the burdens of owning stuff that creates a higher quality of life. It is initially tricky to get into this mindset but it's getting easier  everyday thanks to innovative business models that making sharing fun, practical and economical.

Today the sharing concept is at best fragmented to certain communities and certain types of products (it's no surprise that Couchsurfing.org was born in San Francisco, the city that's also home to bike sharing and casual carpooling).

"The Neighbor's Machine" is just the beginning. Expect sharing to proliferate in ways that we cannot even imagine today.  Social networks, the ubiquity of mobile payment systems and rising cost pressures make the old way of owning things simply obsolete.

16 April 2012

Designing a Sustainable Cure for America's Runaway Healthcare Costs

U.S. healthcare spending -- in a league of its own.  Image source.

This chart highlights a scary fact.  U.S. healthcare costs are out of control.  If the $7,000 per year cost represented a household's direct annual spending, it would rival food and energy outlays combined.  

With the Supreme Court likely to strike down the individual mandate component of the Obama administration's healthcare reform plan this June, we may soon be back to the drawing board grappling for non-legislative solutions to America's healthcare cost crisis.  The overall reform plan may or may not survive.  An effective long-term solution to runaway healthcare costs could come from a seemingly unlikely place.  Rethinking environmental sustainability through the lens of human health could reduce healthcare costs swiftly and permanently while addressing the decline in comprehensive employer-sponsored health coverage.  By implementing clever programs at home and at work, we just may be able to lower insurance premiums, mitigate environmental harm and achieve a better overall quality of life.  When the bill is $1 trillion, a few percent here and there means billions of dollars in net savings.
The impacts of environmental sustainability on health care costs can be substantial if we address connections between health and sustainability at both a systemwide and personal level. 
One approach would be to delve into the connection between health care costs and what we eat by exposing the dirty secrets of the American corn monoculture and its role in subsidizing cheap unhealthy foods that lead to obesity.  For a non-food approach, we can connect the dots between transportation and health.  The way we plan our cities, buildings and residential neighborhoods contributes to mass lethargy with an immeasurably large societal price tag.  We know these connections exist.  

Precipitating action and change requires innovative ways of incentivizing positive behavior while circumventing stagnant legislation and powerful lobbies.  Easy, right?  

At face value environmental sustainability might seem altogether unrelated to the main drivers of America's high costs of care. Treating the planet better can't reduce the cost of malpractice insurance or make medical school more accessible and affordable.  What we pay physicians in the U.S. tops the list of factors explaining the huge gap between the cost of care in the U.S. compared with other wealthy countries.  Leveraging environmental sustainability to reduce healthcare costs requires us to proactively tackle the root causes of overall poor health in America.   We are used to thinking about health in reactionary terms -- like the monumental costs of providing care when someone is sick or providing government handouts to support an aging population in retirement.  In focusing on how expensive care has become, we overlook proactive opportunities with game-changing potential.  The proactive perspective says we have a chance to live better through the retirement years and to prevent the onset of many prevalent health issues in the first place.  After all, prevention is generally much more cost efficient than treatment.  This holds true for most major sustainability issues from greenhouse gas emissions to toxic waste cleanup.   

The healthcare problem exemplifies the quintessential sustainability dilemma -- endlessly borrowing resources from the future in order to address short-term needs.  The potential for meaningful change stems from the magnitude of the problem.  Individuals in America are paying more for healthcare than ever before. The collective costs are saddling the country with debt that will unfairly burden scores of future generations.  Will healthcare-related costs and debt service amount to 25% of future GDP? 50%? More? The decisions we make today on how to approach this problem will have grave consequences.  Attacking the drivers of health care costs at the environmental level, while not simple, may in the end be more effective and more feasible than trying to tinker with the entrenched layers of the health economy.  

The death of the employee health plan can be viewed more prodigiously as a mass market motivator and gateway to solutions rooted in sustainability

Traditional employee health plans that we once took for granted are now on the chopping block due to a trifecta of rising costs, corporate greed and unprecedented levels of global competition.  Once upon a time employee health plans were a presumed benefit of a decent job at a decent company.