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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?

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“It’s kind of like the Wild West out there, and that’s why we’re glad that there’s this credible certification program [Green-E],” says Julia Bovey, media relations manager for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “That’s why we have to reiterate to people that purchasing offsets is not a panacea, and the first course of action for those who want to fight global warming or save energy or save the planet is to make changes in their daily lives.”

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The green incentive process is multi-tiered. Most companies partner with a nonprofit organization or other entity that actually does the good works for which consumers are paying. Programs may offer to plant a tree on the customer’s behalf or to work with a carbon-offset provider to make the purchase as carbon-neutral as possible.

At Expedia.com, for example, customers can add $6.99 per person for a short-haul flight or up to $28.99 per person for an international trip to have TerraPass use that cash for offsetting programs. Though an Expedia representative says the program is not its most popular product, it has grown steadily. In the two years since the company first offered the program, customers have booked 88,843 flights with the TerraPass option – a tiny fraction of the close to 17 million tickets Expedia sold in the United States last year.

Activists like Ms. Bovey are concerned that consumers could take these incentives as a cure-all for issues such as global warming. “If you’re really toying with whether or not to spend this $15, I think the first thing you can ask yourself is ‘what if I bought $15 worth of highly efficient light bulbs?’ ” she says. “Now if you already have a pantry full of efficient light bulbs and recycled paper towels and toilet paper, maybe you want to spend the $15, but it makes a lot of sense to do the really real actions in your daily life first before you talk about doing offsets.”

For Winks, his Expedia purchase was one of many steps he’s made to reduce his carbon footprint, such as buying a fuel-efficient car. “At least for me, this has got to be part and parcel of a more integrated approach,” he says.

Consumer attitudes, company response
Bovey states that NRDC research shows that companies aligning with a green message are raising their image with consumers as knowledge and concern about issues like global warming rise.
Dell launched “Plant a Tree for Me” in the US in January 2007 and has since rolled it out in Europe and Canada. Customers can add a donation of anywhere from $4 for a laser printer to $40 for a server, and Dell’s fulfillment partners, The Conservation Fund and Carbonfund.org, will use the money to plant trees that offset the carbon dioxide produced by powering the equipment.

“This program is consistent within a much larger framework of commitment that we have towards climate leadership, and it’s not a gimmick at all,” explains Mark Newton, Dell’s environmental policy manager. “It’s a way for us to tee up a really meaningful conversation with our customers, and they have responded extremely well towards it.”

Dell will not disclose how many customers have signed up for the program; instead, they quantify its success in trees planted. The year 2007, the firm says, netted donations to plant over 100,000 trees.

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