Carbon Crusaders

SXSW Web Nominees: A SXSW Lesson
March 14, 2008, 8:46 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

This byline was originally featured on FoundRead here.

A mere 3 weeks before SXSW, (MMS) was nominated as a web award finalist. Before we could celebrate, we panicked! None of us had been before. So with almost no warning, little preparation, a gigantic stack of business cards and suitcases filled with t-shirts and jeans, we hopped a flight to Austin to see what opportunities SXSW would bring. This is our account of our first pilgrimage to Web2.0’s latest confab-Mecca.

I. Observations:

1. It almost hurt to see the sheer amount of waste in the SXSW schwag bag. schwag.jpegBesides most of it being junk, it represents an environmental disaster for every conference of this type (Here’s our full post on all the SXSW junk).
2. SXSW is not a place to find funding. It is the perfect place to encounter your next evangelist. You’ll see innovative web ideas, get press coverage, find new collaborators and partners. Still, as far as we could tell, not many companies launched or re-launched at SXSW. The established come to SXSW to mingle.
3. Excellent place to find contrarian advice for your startup. In fact, the established come to SXSW to give advice as much as to help themselves, and it’s good much of the time. 37 Signals’ Jason Fried and Bill McKibben gave great presentations.
4. Geeks are not dorks. We know how to party. More importantly, we know how to party, and then go home and write a blog post for an hour.

II. Opportunities:

1. Startups need to answer an essential question: “what does a geek want?
2. VC’s and Angels should come to SXSW to begin to understand the power of tech-evangelism.
3. Traditional marketing materials were unnecessary. We expected more interactive, online marketing and you cannot imagine a greater accumulation of PDA’s and laptops and an audience more plugged-in. We hope that next year conference materials will be made available exclusively online with a brief 3 second ad in order to view…after all, that’s greater than the amount of time most conference attendees spent looking at fliers.
4. Be a sponsor! The food inside the convention center was awful. If your startup needs to advertise, do it by sponsoring a caterer, or have a display with free food available.

MMS’s Score Card

We had no plans to attend the conference. We weren’t featured on any panels. We are a small, angel-funded start-up, whose web product is still in its early public Beta stage. It was an honor and surprise to be nominated for the web awards, but any young web company can benefit from the SXSW adventure.


Shades of Green: Obama vs Hillary on the Environment
February 20, 2008, 5:57 pm
Filed under: Politics

Originally Posted on Huffington Post.

Senators Clinton and Obama are battling state-by-state with platforms so strikingly similar that news anchors often resort to broad generalizations and horse-race style talking points. Both candidates stress the centrality of environmental and energy issues in guiding the nation’s future, yet it remains difficult to discern concrete distinctions between the candidates’ positions.

In short, let us abstract away for a moment from Hillary’s vote to authorize the use of force in Iraq; forget about Obama’s relative inexperience on the international scene and both candidates’ aggressive programs for economic and health care stimuli. We are going to concentrate on the candidates environmental and energy platforms to examine the various shades of green.

The Similarities: Both candidates are full supporters of: a cap-and-trade permitting system to cut U.S. emissions 80% below their 1990 levels by 2050, with proceeds from the sale of permits going towards renewable energy projects, R&D and energy efficiency measures; increased CAFE and EPA fuel efficiency standards; zero-emissions government building requirements; 25% renewable energy portfolio standards by 2025; 60 billion gallons of biofuel available for cars and trucks by 2030; a federal sponsored venture capital fund towards clean technologies; investment in a green collar workforce; and both support coal-to-liquid, provided it is proven 20% more efficient then conventional fuels (still on the fence about this one myself, even if 20% efficiency is achieved). In essence, Obama and Hillary share many of the same views on this crucial issue of climate change.

The Differences: Obama walks two slippery slopes in his campaign. First, he is a Senator from coal-rich Illinois, the state in which the government’s first coal-to-liquid FutureGen plant is slated to be built. Secondly, he is a proponent of increased use of nuclear energy, which Hillary opposes until more research is done regarding associated hazardous waste stream. (Even though in 2005, Bill Clinton helped a large energy financier gain the exclusive rights to mine Uranium in Kazakhstan). However, Obama does stress investment in local ownership of biofuel refineries and remains stringently in favor of 50% industry energy use through efficiency measures by 2030. Hillary on the other hand, has been less vocal then Obama as a proponent of America as the global climate leader. Her strong differentiators are a proposed a plan with Connie Mae in order to make green homes easier for families to purchase, her support for the complete phase out of incandescent light bulbs and a proposed series of Smart Grid city partnerships to increase the use of on-demand energy efficiency measures. While there are other nuanced differences, these are a few of my highlights.

The Shortfalls: This is a tricky category, but I think there are two large issues neither Obama nor Clinton have addressed. The first is the moratorium on the erection of new coal power plants. Many continue to view coal-to-liquid technologies as a “silver bullet” scheme that is years away from being economically and ecologically sensible – one without the other doesn’t help anyone. Secondly, neither candidate has effectively outlined an actual plan to put the U.S. in a role as the global leader in combating climate change, parallel to our economic success. We need to see a portion of revenue from carbon permitting and other activity being diverted towards countries with highest global warming associated risks. This is an international problem, from which we can not hide, and to which we have contributed the overwhelming majority of greenhouse gases over the past century. It’s time we take accountability and share some of the wealth we have accumulated over the past one hundred years thanks to the burning of fossil fuels.

In short, both candidates support very healthy environmental and energy policy measures even though neither platform is revolutionary. Meanwhile, the past 7 years have yielded nothing more then a free-for-all on the environment for corporate interests, so beware of any candidates claiming success compared with the Bush administration’s track record.

To end, here are two indicative quotes from the candidates regarding climate change. As I mentioned previously in a December Huffington Post piece and as Adam Brown alluded to in his de-politicization of the environment post, the time for action is now, the environment has suffered from corporate interests and political divides too long.

“Washington hasn’t acted; and that is the real reason why America hasn’t led.” — Senator Obama

“We can empower individuals with new tools and technology to lead the green revolution one home, one car and one business at a time. These choices determine the energy we use, the carbon we emit, and the world we leave for our children. I believe, when called upon, Americans will choose a clean energy future. This generation can become the Greenest Generation. We only need to light a spark – and that’s what I’ll do as president.” — Senator Clinton

Obama and coal
December 14, 2007, 9:54 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

In a recent NPR Democratic debate, candidates we’re asked to identify the “toughest issue” they faced. Senator Obama recently was quoted saying, “The issue of climate change.” Excellent answer. Now let’s see how his actions face up to his words.

According to Senator Obama supports a cap-and-trade system, improved auto fuel efficiency, increased production of biofuels and nuclear energy as part of the general mix.

But what about the Senator’s thoughts on coal? Most environmentalists will agree that continuing to depend on coal as a primary energy source will inevitably lead to ecologically disastrous consequences. The dirties fossil fuel, coal remains king in the US and China, fueling the majority of energy demand. Obama supports “clean-coal”, meaning coal whose emissions would be scrubbed then pumped underground. In addition, he support coal-to-liquid fuels, which currently are no better, and can be even worse, then current coal alternatives. The senator supports the Coal-to-Liquid Fuel Promotion Act, which would all but guarantee increased emissions. Of course, Obama’s home state Illinois is rich in coal reserves, which politically Obama is not ready to give up.

Until Obama shifts the discussion away from future technologies and unproven methods, such as “clean coal,” he can’t be considered a good environmental candidate. Current renewable technologies are capable of ramping up the level of clean energy in this country. With the disappearance of subsidies for coal and oil, alternative energy sources can become economically viable. This is the direction a candidate needs to be thinking, not directly back into the pockets of big coal.

A grave opportunity
November 20, 2007, 11:07 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

The IPCC 4th Assessment Report was released Saturday November 17, with three major conclusions: global warming is “unequivocal,” it is most likely caused by human factors and in order to avoid disastrous effects of climate change reductions in greenhouse gases need to start immediately. According to a NY Times article, Rajaendra Pachauri, the chairman of the IPCC stated, “If there’s no action before 2012, that’s too late. What we do in the next two to three years will determine our future. This is the defining moment.” He echoes a bevy of other scientists including Columbia University’s Jeffrey Sachs who said, “We can’t afford to wait for some perfect accord to replace Kyoto, for some grand agreement. We can’t afford to spend years bickering about it. We need to start acting now.” The message is clear. Real action, not just words, are needed now in order to avert dire consequences.

The White House press briefing remained vague and unassertive on the matter. When questioned about the President’s vision of successes and benchmarks the administration hoped to achieve at the upcoming Bali climate talks, Chairman Connaughton emphasized, “…if you’re looking for a benchmark there, I would encourage you to look for a broad agenda on adaptation, as opposed to a narrow focus.” Despite strong language and convictions on the issues of climate change, the administration characteristically sidestepped the main issues, simply restating the President’s loose commitments to the environment. Yet again, (like Kyoto) mandatory emissions caps and goals don’t seem likely to be ratified by this administration.

What’s been clear from the beginning of this process for many of us is that the cost to implement climate mitigation is substantially worth the cost of dealing with the potential consequences. In the IPCC report it is plainly spelled out: “There is high agreement and much evidence that mitigation actions can result in near-term co-benefits (e.g. improved health due to reduced air pollution) that may offset a substantial fraction of mitigation costs.” (Link to the IPCC summary here). Not to mention climate change catastrophes are most likely to effect the poorest regions of the world, even though the richest regions are most responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. Therefore, mitigation is actually dealing with underlying equalities and potential human costs.

Domestically I would love to see one or all of the Presidential candidates make the IPCC report a central issue in their campaigns. Hard, mandatory goals need to be set by the next administration in order to avoid a climate meltdown. Global warming mitigation is not a political decision here, but an economic, societal and global crisis.

LEED, Green, Homes, Buildings
November 12, 2007, 2:20 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

The world’s first ever Platinum LEED’s certified carbon-neutral building was recently finished in Wisconsin. According to Inhabitat, the building scored a 61 of a possible 69 LEED points, which includes producing 15% more electricity then they consume thanks to a 40KW solar installation. Furthermore, the building was constructed with nearly 100% sustainable timber and is being awarded a design and building honor from the Forrest Stewardship Council. Congratulations to the Aldo Leopold Foundation for this incredible building.

Now what’s the big deal about LEED certification anyways? The system (described in detail on the LEED website) rates buildings based on several “green” characteristics, designating a score out of 69 possible points. Pundits applaud the verifiability and the attempt to govern claims to sustainability and “green.” It’s common knowledge that it can be difficult to discern between genuinely positive environmental claims and those that simply sound eco-friendly. Opponents complain about the bureaucracy, long time costs and pricey certification process.

There is also an issue regarding how the LEED’s points are distributed between the six main categories: siting, water use, energy, materials, indoor air quality, and innovation in design. There is no mixture necessary, just a minimum of 26 points from any of the categories in order to become LEED certified. The cut and dry point system allows for builders to pick and choose from the list of points without ever understanding the ideas behind the LEED.

Yet, even though there are obvious flaws with LEED, the United States Green Building Council that established LEED,  was the first organization to successfully identify a system for green building certification, and continues to improve that process. Looking at a parallel sustainability market, like that of renewable energy credits (REC), it is clear that this type of organized verification provides a regulated playing field for products. In the case of REC’s, there is a no clear certification, leading to a marketplace that is largely unsure, with pricing and consumer confidence varying widely.

The United States has become the target of criticism for its lack of federal commitment to climate change. From the Kyoto Protocol failure to federal miles per gallon standards for vehicles, the government has refused to mandate regulatory guidelines. LEED is a good example of a certification body providing a transparent framework for companies and organizations to approach the pivotal issue of sustainability. So, while nothing is perfect, let’s learn from the LEED system and start the regulatory cogs moving.

Furniture: green, sustainable, organic?? What’s it mean?
October 29, 2007, 11:23 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

If you read the paper, watch tv or subscribe to any number of magazines (Dwell for instance), you’ll notice that a number of furniture makers are coming out with a “green” or “organic” line of furniture. These guys of course are on the footsteps of eco-furniture specialists such as Vivavi (founded by the Lazy Environmentalist, aka Josh Dorfman), Greener Lifestyles and If Green to name a few. These are companies that work uniquely with various kinds of “eco” production ranging from SFI certified wood and non-toxic glues, to bamboo and recycled material furniture. In addition, there are generalists, like upscale New York home store ABC Carpet & Home which carry a wide variety of designers’ sustainable products.

Now, for organic. Organic furniture means the raw materials the products are made from have been grown without pesticides and harmful chemicals. Generally organically grown products use less resources to produce and are therefore often more sustainable then their non-organic counter parts.

So, what does all this mean? Well, in the perfect piece of furniture, you would be using locally harvested or recycled materials, assembled using minimal and non-toxic glues and dies, which you would purchase from a locally based store or retailer. This assures you minimize the environmental impact from: 1) the transportation associated with raw materials, 2) shipping distances of the finished product,  3) harmful toxins form dyes and glues entering the soil or groundwater, and 4) energy used to produced to grown and assemble the raw materials. Furthermore, by purchasing from local designers and retailers you stimulate the local economy, encouraging employment and a higher rate of reinvestment in the community (i.e. if you purchase a locally harvested and produced chair, 100% of that will be returning to community in the form of wages and materials purchased, which is then spent locally. If you purchase a chair from a big chain, 50-70% of the chairs value goes to costs outside of the local community).

Of course, we don’t live in a perfect world and have to make some sacrifices. For instance, much of the bamboo used in furniture is produced in China, which means energy consumed to ship it to the U.S. Or you may have a piece of furniture that is made from recycled products but assembled abroad and shipped locally. The important lesson is to know what exactly you are buying when you purchase a “green” sofa or a “sustainable” chair. Sometimes sacrifices have to be made, and you should be aware of what they are. There is still no “green” certification for products, so each piece marketed as such, will vary in terms of their sustainability factors.

Finally, I feel used furniture remains king. The energy and raw materials are already spent, the piece is in production, and the hope is that by re-using it you will reduce the demand for new furniture. While some sites, such as ebay and Furniture Trader provide online used furniture, unless you know exactly what you need, it is still best to find a local store for used goods. Oh, craigslist is a fantastic place to find furniture, but as my girlfriend will tell you, it’s not for everyone.

talk about cool packaging
October 25, 2007, 1:34 am
Filed under: Uncategorized

Last Saturday I was invited by Waylon, editor in chief of Elephant Magazine to attend a Pangea Organics hosted event for breast cancer awareness at New York’s ABC Furniture store. Needless to say, the venue is pretty impressive, and after talking with ABC’s corporate responsibility czar Amy, I learned they are committed to sustainable (incredibly expensive!!) furniture and design pieces. The event was a fundraiser for Beyond the Pink Ribbon, a cancer awareness campaign supported by Pangea, Elephant and a slew of other companies including Whole Foods, Lexus and Eileen Fisher, amongst many more (for a full list of sponsors see here).

At the end of the evening attendees were given a gift bag (not very sustainable packaging, but sustainable products inside, including a bamboo plate and reusable bamboo cutlery). The king of the basket however was the Pangea organics face lotion…not because of the product, which is undoubtedly great, but for the packaging. All of Pangea’s products come in a 100% recycled box made from seeds and organic material. According to the company, all you have to do is unwrap the box, plant it in the soil, and it will actually grow you a plant (See here for more). I’m blown away and intrigued. I would like to know if this works. I’m going to try it and update when I see buds. For anyone that is interested, I will try and find out more on the company Pangea works with for the packaging.

Remember to recycle the glass bottles their products come in when finished. Happy planting everyone.

Green Dating
October 16, 2007, 8:18 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized,,, …these are just a few of the sites dedicated to finding an environmentally conscious partner. Traditional dating sites like,,, and others all have the option to search for eco-friendly singles. [I didn’t link to any of these sites, but I think you all know how to access them if you’re interested!!] If you are thinking that online dating is used by just a minority of people, think again. According to an article from MSN, 40 million Americans use online dating services, which represents approximately 40% of the country’s single population. Busy schedules, longer work weeks and increased internet usage have all added to the online dating phenomenon.

So why is online dating of interest to sustainability? Well, it’s no secret that we adopt our partners habits, good and bad. Eco-dating serves the dual purpose of finding the “special someone” who in turn bolsters your environmental convictions and actions. In my humble opinion it’s exciting to see these types of sites popping up, and I wish them the best.

Even celebrities are throwing their hats in the mix. We all know Leonardo DiCaprio is interested in the environment, but Rosario Dawson went a step farther, apparently revealing she is only interested in dating someone who is eco-conscious. (I am an avid environmentalist and must say that this is excellent news…I finally have an in!). Hopefully this is the coming trend and next Academy Awards not only Susan Sarandon is stepping out of a hybrid onto the red carpet.

September 27, 2007, 9:02 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Recently reading through Good Magazine I ran across this little idea I liked enough to look into. Basically, every CFL box would be similar to a DVD envelope from NetFlix. After installing your CFL, you reverse the packaging, revealing a pre-paid box for the mail, you’d take the old incandescent and ship it to a central recycling location. First, the benefits: 1) I love the “outside the box” thinking. It gives users an uber-simplicity option. Never have to leave your house to recycle the bulb. 2) It is a great driver for recycling, which is otherwise very difficult to find at the local level for certain items such as lightbulbs. Now the negatives: 1) Most unfortunate is the environmental effects of the transportation required to ship the bulb back to the recycling plant. It would be interesting to analyze the environmental impact of CFL impact & recycling bulb vs incandescent re-shipping. Off the top of my head, the approx 150-250 lbs of carbon you save over the life of the CFL would outweigh the shipping, but I haven’t done the math on that one yet.

Another one of my favorite greenovations is the Chico bag. This bag is made from tough, 100% recycled material and reduces down to a small stuff sack about the size of a potato. It’s light, easy to carry and fits in everywhere from a purse to the glove compartment. I feel it answers the problem of remembering to bring your own bag even when you run out to buy milk, bread and PB&J. At MakeMeSustainable we’re going to try and start incorporating them in with our site. I used mine just the other day to carry about 5 pounds of peaches back from the farmers market…no problems.

Finally let’s think about cell phones. Motorola applied for a patent on a cool solar powered phone in May. But for the rest of us there are ways to charge a phone without having an internal solar PV. Solio is currently the industry standard for solar chargers. The small, flower looking charger convert 1 hour of sun charging into 15 minutes of cell phone talk time or 4o minutes of MP3 music play. At $99 it’s not the cheapest thing on the market, but there are competitors fast on it’s heels. The Guardian UK reviewed the Freeloader, one of Solio’s competitors in the UK. At about $60 it’s cheaper and advertises more features then Solio. Unfortunately, it’s not yet available in the US unless you want to pay international shipping charges. I’m holding out for the solar cell.

Improving the road ahead
September 15, 2007, 11:07 pm
Filed under: transportation

The Frankfurt auto show 2007 is underway. Souped up Ferrari’s rub shoulders with BMW’s 1 series and Bugatti’s $1.4 million Veyron. One very good sign is the omnipresence of “green” and eco-friendly cars coming to the market. In a New York Times article (sorry, you’ll need Times Select to access this one), the centerpiece was the Mercedes Benz F700 concept car, which manages to churn a whopping 295 ft lbs of torque from just 1.8 liters…sounds more like one of those after market Japanese suckers in the Fast and the Furious.

What I liked most about the Mercedes is that it highlights one pivotal point regarding the auto industry today. With existing technologies, without even hybrid drive technology, it is possible to achieve significant eco-positive attributes for automobiles today, not tomorrow. The Mercedes starkly contrasts the U.S. executive’s position on MPG standards. Here is a pdf of a U. Michigan study discussing the President’s proposed “attribute-based” changes to CAFE (Corporate Avergage Fuel Economy) standards. CAFE is what governs corporate fleets and is a key cog in the struggle for better fuel efficiency standards. Basically, the attributes model allows for issues like size and materials to come into play in determining MPG standards. The results of the proposed CAFE standards would allow the Detroit automakers to meet lower fuel standards then other manufacturers, lead to higher market share for the big three and higher profits. All of this while only having mild environmental benefits. I say let the free market system work and make all automakers conform to better standards.

Back to the auto show. My second favorite discovery was the Fiat/Microsoft software package called Blue&Me. The program allows users, via USB drive, to download data from their Fiat, upload it onto their computer and learn how they can change driving habits in order to maximize performance. This type of technology is worked into higher end cars, though the future is one universal device that can plug into any car via a Bluetooth or infrared port to download the data. So, can I save driving to and from work and in the rental car when I visit my folks.

Next time we’ll take a trip down biodiesel lane and take potshots at those silly U.S. ethanol pundits.