Brighter Planet Rolls Out Social Web App to Lower Carbon Footprints

5/7/09

Most of us want to help curb global warming, but the tricky part can be how to do our part without splurging on a shiny new Prius or some other expensive measure. Vermont’s Brighter Planet has spent the last few years building a business around providing products and services that help people and businesses cut down on their carbon emissions without breaking the bank. The startup is now close to launching a social Web application aimed at those of us who want to take steps to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide we’re responsible for emitting into the atmosphere.

I got an early look at the new app while visiting the home office of Brighter Planet in Middlebury, VT (an idyllic New England town that is home to Middlebury College and, less prominently, yours truly during weeks while I’m not working in the Boston area.) Patti Prairie, the company’s CEO, tells me that her technical team led by chief technology officer Adam Rubin has been working late nights in order to introduce a closed beta version of the app sometime next week. After the firm gets feedback from initial users, Rubin says, a public version will likely be launched in the next three or four weeks.

Brighter Planet is known mostly for its green credit and check cards issued by Bank of America. The Brighter Planet Visa cards enable consumers to apply the points they accumulate through everyday use of their cards toward the purchase of carbon offsets that fund renewable energy projects. The new Web app could vastly expand Brighter Planet’s business, which generates revenue by acquiring carbon offsets at wholesale prices and selling the offsets to consumers and businesses at a retail rate, Prairie says. The Web app could encourage more people to conserve, buy the firm’s carbon offsets, and drive up the number of people who use its credit and check cards. There are now tens of thousands of Brighter Planet cardholders.

“One of the things that we had talked about is that our goal is to make everyone an environmentalist,” Prairie says. “We already have 100,000 customers that have done something about their carbon footprint through our products and services, so it’s not out of the realm of possibility through this [new Web] capability to reach millions of Americans.”

From what I can tell through a little test-driving, Brighter Planet’s Web app enables people to calculate their annual carbon emissions and measure their progress to reduce that footprint more thoroughly than other apps and carbon-footprint calculators online. That level of customization may set the firm’s app apart from what’s offered on green social networking sites such as Carbonrally.com, Edenbee.com, and others that are cultivating online communities and motivating them to live green.

With Brighter Planet’s new Web app, users can input information—such as the type of car they own, how often they travel by plane, and the cost of their home electricity bills—to get an estimate of their annual carbon usage. Based on peoples’ inputs, they receive tips on how to reduce their CO2 consumption. The person also has the option to purchase carbon offsets from Brighter Planet, or apply for the firm’s credit or check cards. That’s how Brighter Planet makes money from the site.

The social element of the app includes a Facebook-like dashboard where people can post comments, receive postings by others in their network, and view a progress bar to track how much they have offset their annual carbon footprints. The app is also integrated with Twitter, giving people the option to make their actions on the Brighter Planet site known among their peers on Twitter. Other interesting features include an option to rate comments made by people on topics such as climate change and a trend tracker that shows how many people in the community say they are reducing their CO2 emissions by, say, biking to work or buying local produce.

Prairie likened the functions of her firm’s Web app to those found on WeightWatchers.com, which offers dieters online tools to track their weight-loss goals and eating patterns. Just like people won’t lose weight by talking about running, Brighter Planet wants people to use its Web app as a launching pad for taking real actions to reduce their carbon footprints.

Indeed, the 12-employee startup grew out of a student project in an environmental economics course at Middlebury College, which is well known for its environmental programs. Two students who completed the project, Andy Rossmeissl and Jake Whitcomb, and the professor of the course, Jonathan Isham, founded Brighter Planet in 2006. The company has raised more than $3.7 million through two round of private financing, Prairie says. Also, the firm has attracted environmental leaders to its advisory board, including Bill McKibben, the author of the pioneering book on climate change “The End of Nature.” McKibben lives in nearby Ripton, VT, and is a scholar in environmental studies at Middlebury College.

Brighter Planet got an earlier taste of the power of social media, Prairie says, when it helped launch McKibben’s global climate change effort, 350.org, last May by encouraging blogs to put the firm’s 350 Challenge badge on their sites. (350 parts per million is considered the upper limit of safe levels of CO2 in the atmosphere.) The 350 badge spread throughout the blogosphere—beginning with environmental blogs and then to mommy blogs, political blogs, and others—faster than the team at Brighter Planet expected, Prairie says. At last count, 2,350 blogs wore the badge. The initial goal was 350 blogs.

“It’s like dropping a stone in a pool,” Prairie says, “you could just see where it was spreading.”

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