Alumni Profileswinter2007

A Startup for “Light Green” Consumers

  ideal bite image

Illustration from www.idealbite.com

   

With Wal-Mart now the top purchaser of organic produce on the planet, and Starbucks the largest buyer of fair-trade coffee, the topography of global business ethics is shifting a bit. Still, having ever-more outlets selling PC products doesn’t solve a key challenge for eco-friendly companies and consumers: how to connect with each other.

Sara Rasmussen ’05, who graduated in anthropology, and Toshio Meronek ’05, who studied political science, are plugging away at a new business to do just that. Last year they joined the small staff of Ideal Bite (www.idealbite.com), a for-profit startup which they say encourages sustainable consumption that caters to customers’ desires and budgets.

Ideal Bite is a web-based venture that emails a free daily newsletter full of tips on products and companies that appeal to its target market of “light green” consumers. Light greens, according to the company’s press packet, are a leading edge of the environmental consumer market; they’re affluent and socially conscious, the folks who “drive their SUVs to Whole Foods.”

“Ideal Bite was made for people just getting interested in supporting more sustainable businesses,” Meronek says.

Each day, Ideal Bite’s morning email tackles a specific environmental issue, suggesting products and services that the consumer can buy to help minimize their impact on the planet. Take, for example, hair products. “We do the research so you don’t have to go out of your way to find the best paraben-free shampoo,” says Rasmussen. “There is no compromise on quality and style, and you can feel like you’re doing your part for the environment.”

The daily tips also include ways to advance an eco-friendly lifestyle without buying anything. Ideal Bite recently provided links to websites where people could remove their names from junk mail lists. By the company’s calculations, 393,584 pounds of junk mail didn’t get sent out as a result, saving more than 3,000 trees from the chainsaw.

Catering to the interests of eco-friendly consumers hasn’t been without its critics, though. In early 2006, Ideal Bite’s emails touted Starbucks for producing hot-drink cups from post-consumer waste. The newsletter said Starbucks was using its power “to not only amass wealth for its shareholders but also fuel long-term social and environmental sustainability.” Readers of the newsletter complained, but Ideal Bite stood by the endorsement.

“It is a controversial topic and a lot of people wrote in saying, ‘How dare you?’ But great conversations evolved from it,” says Rasmussen. “Starbucks targets a mainstream audience and they’re trying to give that audience a choice with new environmental initiatives.”

Ideal Bite started marketing to consumers who were already convinced of the need to be more eco-friendly and just needed a push in the right direction. Relying primarily on word-of-mouth publicity, the mailing list grew from 300 for the first tip, to over 50,000 subscribers in one year; the subscriber base continues to grow at about 14 percent a month. Over the next few years, the company plans to market internationally and to target specific geographic areas.

“We realize that people are going to eat meat and go to Starbucks—these things are a reality, so why not talk to those people?” Rasmussen says. “This is something not just Reedies and people in Portland are talking about. The trend towards sustainable business practices isn’t going to reach a wall, so the market will continue to grow.”

—Erin Coupal ’09