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For consumers, more incentives to go green

Buy a computer, help plant a tree. Do such offers live up to their promise?

By Christianna McCauslandContributor of The Christian Science Monitor / September 29, 2008

Companies selling carbon offsets invest in projects like this wind farm in Kasigluk, Alaska, which is partially funded by the New Hampshire-based Native Energy.

Intertribal Council on Utility Policy (ICOUP) / FILE


Eliot Winks was buying a plane ticket when a chance to be environmentally responsible presented itself during online checkout. For an additional fee, about $25, offered to offset the carbon dioxide generated by his trip through its partnership with TerraPass, a carbon-offset provider.

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“It was a nice added bonus to using the Expedia website, which I couldn’t do if I’d bought the ticket directly on the airline website,” explains the Rev. Winks, an Anglican priest with a young family in Towson, Md.

After a little research, he felt confident that his donation was going to meet with viable implementation.

“At the end of the day, though, people can say whatever they want to say, and unless I go to Nebraska to see the wind farm, there’s a balance between trusting what you read and a leap of faith that your money is going where they say it’s going to go.”

The environment is the latest entrant in the field of cause marketing. Increasingly, consumers have the option to check a box and make a small donation to an environmental cause to offset the impact of their purchase. Companies such as U-Haul, Delta, Continental, Orbitz, and Travelocity all offer some form of incentive option. In Ticketing lets concert-goers plant “one tree per ticket” by adding $2.95 to their ticket purchase. From computers to cars, companies are greening their brands with environmental incentive programs. But in the absence of regulation, the onus is on consumers to make sure the company keeps its promise.

For some, incentives are an easy, affordable means to take action against large problems, such as global warming. Others are skeptical. Janna Howley, a marketing manager with FreshFarm Markets in Washington, D.C., skips the green-incentive option, though she describes herself as an avid environmentalist.

“If a business wants to become ‘greener,’ make it part of the core values of the company,” she says, “Don’t pander to me by attempting to convince me that the one tree you planted in my name is going to solve the problem. I’m perfectly capable of writing my own check to those local and national organizations whose track records of changing policy and making positive impacts are well documented.”

An unregulated market
Currently, the Federal Trade Commission does not regulate green incentive programs, although it is reviewing its “Green Guides,” an outline of principles for environmental marketing claims. There are some voluntary standards set for carbon-offset groups; the Green-E Climate Protocol for Renewable Energy, which certifies TerraPass, is considered one of the best.

But new standards and certifications pop up all the time, and it’s hard to track how many of these programs exist, how many customers are participating, and the effectiveness of the programs.