The Gort Cloud: An Interdependent Community of Green Businesses and Their Customers
Excerpted and abridged from The Gort Cloud, published
by Chelea Green Publishing, Vermont. A PDF diagram of the Gort Cloud can be downloaded at the bottom of this article.
I was some six months into the research and interviews for my new book, The Gort Cloud, before the light went on. Originally, I was going to write a book about ecopreneurs – the enterprising businesspeople who are launching green products and building more eco-friendly companies. It was going to be a book about the brand builders for the Age of Sustainability. As an expert in brand consulting, I believed this was the perfect subject, because it allowed me to use my knowledge and experience to explain how pioneering businesspeople are creating products, identifying customers, and getting the word out in the growing and hotly competitive green marketplace. The hope was that such a book would serve as a guide to other would-be ecopreneurs, encouraging more and more businesses to commit to environmental and social responsibility. As a person concerned about the planet, I thought this would be the perfect combination of career, experience, and passion.
Then I realized that the stories of the ecopreneurs I was interviewing had as much – if not more – to do with the larger community that supports them and on whom they are dependent.
My book is still about ecopreneurs and their experiences, but it is also a book about this growing but mostly invisible community of eco-conscious customers, partners, and other stakeholders who are also committed to a more sustainable economy. In an effort to make this green community more tangible and more visible to green business leaders, I call it the Gort Cloud.
Without the vision – and the risk – of this new breed of eco-conscious entrepreneur, we would not have today’s growing list of socially responsible and sustainable products. We wouldn’t have the residential wind turbine, the compact fluorescent bulb, or a gallon of low-VOC paint. Of course, anything short of pure asceticism may be bad for the earth, but we are much better off with business leaders who weigh the environment, humanity, and profitability equally, instead of viewing the planet as both larder and waste pile. My book describes the difficult decisions my subjects have made to balance performance and cost in the quest to meet the expectations of their customers and everyone – and everything – that shares this planet. It’s about how they have translated these benefits into brand positions and unique selling propositions that are designed to establish credibility and build market share – without stretching the truth, something we call greenwashing. It’s also a book about the marketing techniques these entrepreneurs and their partners have used to target audiences and raise awareness.
Discovering a network hidden in plain sight
As I was busy sourcing information on these companies and their markets, I continually came across families of similar organizations, all sharing some aspect of sustainability. They included individual green businesses and green business alliances; advocacy groups; NGOs; government agencies and educational institutions; green bloggers; trendspotters; social networks; certifying groups; technical libraries; news organizations; green guides and green shopping websites; sustainability authors; and so many others. Some deal with green building, others with organics. Some are focused on transportation, or energy, or water conservation, or waste. Some groups concentrate on a single focused subject, like the Slow Food movement or the development of next-generation car batteries. Others deal with broad issues, like global warming and climate change. While many of these groups are backed by large organizations or institutions with substantial budgets, others are one-person shows fueled only by personal energy. There’s a wealth of information in this network, and it comes in all forms and sizes and, of course, in different shades of professionalism. But the one thing they share is that they all have a bearing – greater in some cases, lesser in others – on the fortunes of enterprising green businesses. The network supplies a simultaneous source of credibility, endorsement, and echo effect, which is a critical aspect of viral marketing.
For each of these organizations, there are one, or ten, or hundreds of people contributing. On the receiving end, there are hundreds, thousands, even tens of thousands of people accessing this information – most often through the Internet. It’s a huge network when you include everyone contributing and everyone viewing, but we will never know how huge. It is rapidly expanding and, therefore, unquantifiable.
Despite the fuzzy nature of the beast, I realized that this vast network is connected. People know one another. They share information. The longer they’ve been there, the more organizations and people they are interconnected with. They form alliances and cross-discipline exchanges. The leaders in each of these nodes in the network know many of the others, either virtually or in person. On this point, the network is not limited by the Internet, but facilitated by it. The Internet provides convenient glue, but the contents spill out into the real world. Members of the community show up at the same conferences and trade shows. They collaborate on presentations and research. They weigh in on one another’s concerns, and they offer commentary on their thoughts and musings in a kind of ad hoc peer review process. They are called on to band together on certain issues. And . . . they have the power to make or break new green products by virtue of their collective oversight. Like the academic peer review process, citizens of this network offer critical reviews of new green products and technologies.
The anatomy of a network
To understand this network better, I began to explore it and play in it myself. I started categorizing the various groups by type of site and by mission. I began to introduce myself to some of the key authors, and we began a dialogue. I participated with others via membership, or contributions, or literary exchanges – like this one. I attended their tradeshows and conferences. Some of the green business websites published my articles, and I made a point of reading their postings regularly. I bookmarked them, downloaded them, tracked them. Like a teenager trapped in Facebook or Dungeons & Dragons, I’ve become glued to this network with thousands of friends and colleagues who share similar ideals. When I see a promising site emerge, like the EcoMom Alliance, I make virtual introductions to other individuals in the network.
I began to think of this particular green network as something tangible with a mission and with a collective membership of like-minded people. It wasn’t a single community. It wasn’t a movement. It defied easy definition. And in my opinion it needed its own name.
The inspiration for the Gort Cloud lies in the Oort cloud, named after the astronomer Jan Hendrick Oort, who guessed at its existence. The Oort cloud is a vast field of stellar debris that orbits the solar system. It is a thousand times farther out from the sun than Pluto and mostly made up of comet nuclei, so, obviously, we can’t see the Oort cloud. We can only detect it electronically and view its effects, mostly in the form of the occasional comet it tosses back into our neighborhood. The mass of the Oort cloud is huge, greater than the mass of the earth, but it’s invisible to us. Totally invisible. This perfectly describes the Gort Cloud, a vast green network made up of untidy bits that is most easily detected through electronic means and that has a huge effect on the evolution of green business. Thus, a term was coined.
None of my business subjects interviewed in my book thought of this green network quite the way I have, but most have intuitively felt its existence and interacted with it. They have all been unwitting players in the Gort Cloud – this invisible network that connects thousands of environmentally aware people. In building their companies and developing their products, the Gort Cloud has played a role. For Spencer Brown at Earth Friendly Moving, now called Rent a Green Box, it has been trendspotters and green news channels that have spread the word about his eco-friendly alternative to the cardboard moving box.
Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm has used dialogue with the organic blogosphere to help explain the complicated trade-offs in sourcing organic milk, the chief ingredient in his yogurt. Both Portfolio 21 Investments and Southwest Windpower have hired egg, a Seattle-based brand communications company to handle their communications. Egg, in turn, targets participants in the Gort Cloud to deliver its clients’ messages, although it would deny knowing of a Gort Cloud by name – until I got the firm involved in this book, of course.
One of the most adept Gort Cloud navigators among my subjects must be Jeffrey Hollender, founder and CEO of Seventh Generation. He is profoundly aware of the players in this universe and regularly reaches out to them. The scope of his outreach touches Native American advocates, forestry and chemical industry watchdogs, various players in the health food and green grocery industry, and many others. Nearly as active but newer at the game is Tom Szaky of TerraCycle, who spends nary a dime on advertising, instead relying on an in-house PR team to mine channels within conventional media and the Gort Cloud, where he is rewarded with endless newsbytes.
In the automotive arena, I chose to profile Tesla Motors and a plug-in hybrid advocacy group called CalCars.org. Felix Kramer’s advocacy group divides its time between outreach to the real world and collaboration within the virtual world of the Gort Cloud. Tesla Motors has done a fantastic job of conventional PR, but for every print write-up, there are countless mentions on industry blogs and among automotive trendspotters that are also aspects of the Gort Cloud.
I’ll spare you a synopsis for every one of my subjects, but even the venerable Dr. Bronner, the magic soap maker who caught the train to sustainability in the 1940s, has unwittingly made use of the Gort Cloud in surprising ways. The backpacking community that often turns its passion for the outdoors into environmental action has long used Dr. Bronner’s as toothpaste, deodorant, insect repellent, body wash, and nonpolluting cookware soap. As modern outdoors lovers now use the Internet to search and share, praise for this product continues to echo around the Gort Cloud.
As far as business is concerned, the Gort Cloud is like a versatile multitool. On the one hand, it is an enforcer of credibility standards. Individual green businesses may argue about how extreme or nitpicking that oversight should be, but I think all would agree that the Gort Cloud functions as a watchdog against unwarranted claims or greenwashing. On the other hand, the Gort Cloud can be a partner. It can provide technical information and insights into consumer preferences; it can link manufacturers with respected distributors and retail partners; and it can help get the word out to a highly focused audience and the influencers within that audience.
Understanding the power and facility of this vast, growing but largely invisible network is critical to anyone interested in starting a new green business. It can provide access to partners and a market without relying on expensive traditional marketing channels, like print, broadcast, outdoor, etc. And when coupled with modern forms of social outreach, also called Web 2.0, a new media channel emerges that we might call the green web, or the green people’s media. The green web is a relatively new and powerful way to connect in the Gort Cloud. Green businesses, the Gort Cloud and new forms of social media are combining to usher in the Age of Sustainability.