One Company’s Journey Towards Supply Chain Transparency: Interview with BuyGreen.com Founder Douglas Farquhar

No one knows the challenges of green product sourcing more than Douglas Farquar, founder of BuyGreen.com. Last month I had the pleasure of speaking with Doug about the Green Products Standard – his company’s proprietary green product rating system – and the rewards and challenges he and his team experienced in developing and implementing it.

stainless steel water bottles
Figuring out what’s “green” about these water bottles is hard enough, let alone comparing their environmental footprint to, say, a ream of copy paper.

What makes a “green” product green? A simple question, but not so easy to answer. Almost no product is “green” across the board – some features are greener than others, and one has to weigh the environmental pros and cons.

This, of course, is one of the biggest challenges faced by businesses trying to offer more responsible choices – and by consumers trying to make those choices.  The whole scene is confusing, and too often results in consumers just throwing up their hands and giving up – either blindly purchasing whatever “seems” like the best option, or walking away from responsible purchasing altogether.

One Company’s Journey Towards Transparency

No one knows the challenges of green product sourcing more than Douglas Farquhar, founder of BuyGreen.com. He launched his online business in 2007 with two goals:

  1. To create a one stop shop for eco friendly products, and
  2. To offer a way for consumers to intelligently compare products based on their environmental impact.

In order to meet the second goal, BuyGreen.com developed a comprehensive proprietary rating system – the Green Products Standard – for all products sold on their site. The Green Products Standard reviews and rates products based on their environmental impact in four key areas: source materials, manufacturing, materials and disposal.

Products are scored from 1-100 in each of these categories, plus each product is given an overall score. (It’s important to note that a positive score, even a low one, still indicates that a product is more environmentally friendly than typical products on the market.) This scoring method is notable because it enables consumers to compare all BuyGreen.com’s products at a glance – making it much easier to make informed environmental choices.

Last month I had the pleasure of speaking with Doug about the Green Products Standard, and the rewards and challenges he and his team experienced in developing and implementing it.

Anne Michelsen: What prompted you to implement the Green Products Standard?

Douglas Farquhar: At the time (that we launched BuyGreen.com), I wasn’t always able to understand objectively why & to what extent a product was green. There are a lot of certifying organizations, but they are mostly product or industry focused. For example, if I want to buy copy paper, I know the FSC certification is very good and I look for that. But if I want a water bottle, how do I make sure I’m making as good a decision?

We take trust very seriously – it’s even reflected in our tagline – and I think the Green Product Standard is a pillar of trust for our customers.

Anne: Please tell me about the process you went through to bring the Green Products Standard into being.

Doug: We started out taking it from a laymen’s perspective. Some of these certifications you need to be a PhD to make sense of them, your eyes kind of blur over. We wanted to put it in plain English and in layman’s terms, to make it accessible to the average Joe.

It’s really a part of our product selection process. The initial part of identifying products is not particularly scientific. It’s a gut reaction – “oh, that one looks really good.” That’s how our product selection starts. Then we get samples of the product itself. We want to know that it’s something of quality, that it will last longer than the warranty. We also use the products make sure our customers will have a good experience.

We then ask the supplier to participate in an online questionnaire. There’s often some back and forth communication to make sure we understand the information they supply, and they understand what we’re looking for. We use an algorithm to come up with a rating. Once we accept a product, at the bottom of the product page there’s a link to a full 2 page report for each product.

Once we got the basic framework worked out, we ran it by a number of people for feedback – sustainability consultants in different areas. Our basic theory was, the only stupid question is the one you don’t ask. We took that approach and threw it against the wall to get people thinking.

I shudder to think back on it – it’s involved several thousand ratings. It was – is ― a huge endeavor.

Anne: What has been the reaction from suppliers?

Doug: We’ve had varying reactions. Some are happy to complete the product questionnaires, some do it grudgingly.

Our merit rating is 0 -99 (it’s technically impossible to reach 100.) One supplier – her products rated in the 60’s – only met the threshold for two of the four basic components. She was fixated on the fact that her product rated a 68, and applied it to her academic experience – “my product is not a D+ product.” What I couldn’t seem to get across to her was that we only apply the standard to products we’ve already identified as green. By virtue of being rated, you’re several steps ahead of most; a 68 actually puts you in the top quartile. But she opted not to go further.

We’ve had some manufacturers, though, who got a rating and said, “what can we do to get a better rating?”

I look at this whole thing as a journey, a marathon rather than a sprint.  Whether it’s the consumer changing their purchasing habits, or the manufacturers changing their products, we’re still moving along for a greener world.

Having a number is a good place to start a conversation. Scores are something people are familiar with and have a good understanding of. Especially in the e-commerce world, we’re all familiar with comparison shopping. A rating system like ours allows customers to have an apples-to-apples comparison to, say, the water bottle and the copy paper.

Anne: And that’s great, especially if they’re looking for a gift and need to compare two very unlike things.  How have customers responded?

Doug: Historically, our light green customers have taken more of a blind approach. They just want to know it’s “green.”  Our dark green customers often have a very specific belief – all things from China are horrible, all plastic is bad.

Of the green buyers, some really like the Green Product Standard a lot and some are oblivious.

With the poor economy the greenwashing situation has become a bigger problem. (We’ve noticed that) more traditional manufacturers and suppliers are trying to put a new spin on their products, and are seeing green as an opportunity to, if not grow, then at least maintain their business. You certainly have traditional stores that suggest that (a product is) green, but it’s often a complete mystery why it’s “green.”

A lot of times the info as to why and to what extent a product is green, is nowhere near the product. You have to go search for it. Or, you’ve found the accreditation and now you’ve got to go find the product.

(Both) transparency and easy access to information are important considerations if you’re trying to avoid greenwashing. Most people don’t have the time or interest in doing the research. They just want to know it’s safe and eco friendly, so they can buy it and move on. (Our program) gives consumers easy access to reliable information they can base their decisions on.

Anne: It’s interesting to hear you make the distinction between different types of consumers. Can you elaborate? Do you have an idea what percentage of your customer base you’d describe as “light” vs. “dark” green?

Doug: No, not really. We get approached from all sorts of different angles.

When we started we were somewhat confused by the LOHAS consumer. We thought people would want to vote with their wallets. Clearly there are consumers out there that do that with some regularity, but regrettably they are the minority. I think it’s somewhat exacerbated by the economy.

Personal safety and health are often the biggest motivators, and by the way, if it’s softer on the planet that’s icing on the cake.

I think we’re starting to see a bit of a change. Selfishness continues to be a motivating factor, but over the last 12 months with some of these weather conditions and gas prices you’re starting to see some of the non LOHAS consumers turning the lights on in their heads. With Sandy, we started selling solar powered flashlights, etc. That motivation was more necessity, but it seemed to come along with a realization that green has merit.

(Interest in going green) comes from all sorts of different places. Sometimes it’s just awareness. Like, “I didn’t know there’s a solar powered flashlight, or biodegradable garbage bags.”

I think we’re facing both a challenge and an opportunity. Ask 100 people if they’re interested in going green, and most will say yes, but there’s a big gap between saying and doing.  Any time we can bridge that gap, whether it’s simple education or making a personal connection, it makes a difference.

Anne: Are you aware of anyone else who’s doing this? Wal Mart comes to mind with their sustainability index – do you know of any others?

Doug: WalMart has some areas where it has a bit of a black eye. As the largest retailer in the world they have an unbelievable opportunity, but I think they’re backed off lately. For them it was more this conceptual effort, where it was going to get pushed down through the supply chain.

The Good Guide is a really good resource, although they were just bought by Underwriters Laboratory – I don’t know what effect that will have. I think they’ve done a good job. But they wouldn’t talk with the manufacturers, they just pulled publicly available information. And they have more of a social focus.

Anne: Tell me about your new website, AskGreen.com.

Doug: From a business model, we hope to have a portfolio of green business websites.  We’re developing GreenCouture.com, we’ve got PrettyHealthy.com in the works, etc. We were going to develop blogs for each one, and thought maybe there was something we could do that would apply to all our ecommerce websites.

And hopefully something interactive. Every time we do a show or something, a person waltzes up and looks at a water bottle or something and asks questions.

AskGreen.com is very new – we’re still working on the questions and answers section. But we hope to offer something of value. To get instant answers, obviously, Google & other search engines provide answers, but sometimes there are things that can’t be answered in a Google search. We’re hoping to offer a place where people can come with their green product questions and get them answered.

Anne: Linked In just dumped their Answers section – are you thinking of jumping in and filling the gap here for green topics, inviting lots of interaction, or will it be more set up as an authority site?

Doug: We’re going to let the interest and demand dictate what direction it will take.

Anne: Thank you, Doug – it’s been a real pleasure speaking to you!

Doug: You’re very welcome!

Please enter your comments and questions about Douglas Farquhar’s insights and/or the Green Products Standard below!

 

 Anne Michelsen was not paid for this article.