The TH Interview: George Polisner, Alonovo.com CEO and Co-founder

George Polisner is CEO and Co-founder of Alonovo, an online marketplace that rates companies on corporate social responsibility and encourages responsible consumerism (see our previous posts here and here). The company recently modified their revenue model so that they donate 100% of the revenue earned to active beneficiary partners (organizations that are informing their constituents about the Alonovo.com community and mission) and 50% to passive partners (those organizations that are precluded from endorsing Alonovo), and are sponsoring the "People Before Profit" film series (beginning February 10), a series of nationwide house parties, each of which will be followed by a 30 minute conference call with the filmmakers, authors and/or subject matter experts. We caught up with George Polisner to chat about the new developments and to learn more about the way the company is trying to leverage social change and corporate transparency.

TreeHugger: Alonovo has just announced the "People for Profit" film series. What are you hoping to accomplish by branching out into the film medium?

George Polisner: I probably wouldn't have moved in this direction on my own, but I was contacted by the filmmakers that have just delivered some very compelling content on a film called Money Talks: Profit Before Patient Safety and it's an exposé, in many respects, of how the pharmaceutical industry is impeding the ability of Americans to get quality health care, and what the pharmaceutical industry does to drive profit. I was speaking with them and becoming more excited about the possibilities, considering our mission, which is fundamentally to connect corporate behavior with the profit motive, which we believe will lead to the significant improvement in quality and dignity of life around the world. A huge part of this is the creation of an informed, well-educated market force demand, whether that market force is individual consumers, or institutional procurement, we want people to ultimately be very knowledgeable without having to be economic experts. We want them to fully understand that there is a very important expression of power in the transfer that occurs when somebody purchases something. So, in keeping with our mission, and as I was speaking more and more excitedly with the folks that surrounded this film effort, it occurred to me that there was a real opportunity to work in conjunction with many of the terrific organizations we're already working with, like United for a Fair Economy, the folks at Popular Economics, Citizen Works, essentially building a sense of community engagement and involvement around the issue of corporate behavior both from good and bad sides. We wanted to build a compelling series of films that not only are exposing some of what Joel Bakan would call "the pathological pursuit of profit" but also some of the inspirational leaders that are taking a role in society to drive the concept of corporations properly balancing people, planet and profit. So, the idea for the series was born, and, since I typically remain very heavily caffeinated, it doesn't usually take long for things to go from concept to implementation.

Because of our unique position, in the respect that we end up working with many amazing people who are working to address this subject matter, the opportunity to engage with some of those people in post-event conference calls to really benefit the community and the mission around information and education, was readily there for us. We wanted to initiate the series, which begins on February 10, with what I consider to be the flagship film, in terms of exposing corporate behavior, is "The Corporation" by Prof. Bakan, who's an amazing man, a constitutional law professor up in Canada. I had discussions with some of the filmmakers, and email threads with Joel, and he really like the idea right away and said he'd participate. We have some relationships with the folks at Brave New Films, and they were interested in being engaged in this effort, and then through some of the other relationships that we have with the real pioneers in socially-responsible consumer space -- people like Alice Tepper Marlin and her husband, who really founded this effort many, many years ago -- turned us on to Ashoka and the film series that they have, and so it really came together very quickly. Instead of the normal "bake it in the oven for four hours," I guess this was more of a microwave idea from concept to implementation.

It's something that I'm very excited about; it has potential to really help build a sense of community around what corporations do, and, again, it's not really geared toward being anti-business or anti-growth. I think that there really is an opportunity to foster an intelligent approach to economics and growth that is not completely at odds with people and planet issues, which is why we didn't want to just make this series about bad things that corporations do. We want to tell some of the stories of the visionaries who I believe are really leading business to what many are calling "the next release of capitalism" in which many of these problems are fixed. People like Jeffrey Hollender of Seventh Generation and Ray Anderson at Interface that have built models that are much better in terms of sustainability and equity, treatment of labor and other issues that we should all care deeply about as a society.

The other big news from Alonovo recently is that you changed your revenue model in mid-December. What led you to that decision, and what changes in the business have you seen from it?

GP: That was something that caused several people to want me to check myself, I guess, in for a 72-hour period of observation, after shifting the model to that. Several different factors really led to the shift; the most compelling is that we recognize that without scale, without a significant part of society essentially directing the way that they spend their money in an informed way about the business or corporations that they're empowering with their money, we would always be somewhat marginalized. Some of the smaller to mid-sized organizations that we work with love our mission; they feel that there are a number of different cause-based shopping sites that are becoming available or are already available but they like the fact that we have an underlying mission, that we're not just about shopping and not just about monetizing their constituents through shopping.

The problem that we have faced since our launch in August 2005 is that some of the larger-scale organizations are very slow to adapt any kind of new model, especially when it's coming from an entity that's external to themselves. With several different shopping sites that offer various benefits -- some may be a percentage of profit and some may be a percentage of revenue -- I felt that in our approach to achieving scale, we could eliminate a lot of the confusion by simply having a directed program, so if Oxfam or Habitat for Humanity, or UNICEF, were to become an active Alonovo organization, then when their base or their constituents shop online with us and complete transactions, then they get the total benefit from that transaction, and we'll make our money in a different way.

Thus far, since the introduction in January, it has started some new dialogues with some large organizations, and I believe it will lead to some new relationships, and has directly lead to several good-sized organizations engaging with us, so I'm very excited about the potential of it, I think that the ability to not only gradually solve some of the major problems that face society through our underlying mission -- our ability to provide resources in a thoughtful way, not just shop for the sake of shopping to our benefit, but to really create informed and educated consumers. I think that it really helps mitigate some of the call for hyper-consumerism that leads to a lot of problems in America and the rest of the world as well. I think it's a thoughtful approach that will lead to a higher level of resources for organizations and will help us achieve scale, so it's something from which I think we can all win.

TH: Obviously, Alonovo makes it easy for customers to see corporations' relative social and environmental responsibility, and that's great, but how do you think we can get more people to care about that, and connect their purchasing decisions with the general health of the planet and its people.

GP: I think that's an excellent question. In many respects, the challenge is ours, along with similar organizations, to make it incredibly easy. One of the ideas that we've been working from at Alonovo -- and we still have a ways to go and are very early in the evolutionary scale of Alonovo technology -- is that we understand that we're an intersection of economics, technology and human behavior, and we have to make it easy. One of the things that we've tried to do is integrate the ratings information directly into the scope of the purchase transaction, so people aren't having to research first and then go somewhere else to shop; they're doing it directly in their session, and it's a pretty well-integrated model.

So part of the challenge in ours, but to your question about catalyzing this reaction: the TreeHugger community certainly gets it right now, but what to we do for the people that are still filling up the parking lots at Wal-Mart? I think, in many respects, the people at corporations like Wal-Mart and Exxon Mobil are doing an excellent job of that for us; their behavior is such that they're really showing society the impact that corporations can have in a negative way. When we look at the labor standards and treatment of the worker at Wal-Mart, and at the impact on the environment from Exxon Mobil, I think that, unfortunately, the companies that have the most egregious behavior are providing great examples for why, as a society, we should care. If we were supporting a political candidate, we'd certainly wouldn't hand our money or our vote over to just anyone; we'd want to learn a little bit about the candidate because when we vote for someone or provide money for their campaign, we're transferring power to them. When we consume, it's the same transfer of power, so we can't do that blindly anymore. We can't perpetuate behaviors that are contrary to improving the quality and dignity of not just our own lives, but our neighbor's, our community's and, really, the entire world.

I think that raising the level of awareness is extremely important; media entities like TreeHugger, or some of your peers, like Grist, are doing a tremendous job of making this information available and compelling to society, so more people are learning about it, from both positive and negative perspectives. I'm optimistic that we're seeing a new sector of society that wants to be engaged, but it remains our challenge to make it as easy as possible for as many people as possible to engage in this kind of responsibility. Ultimately, an effort like Alonovo needs to go beyond an online presence -- we need to be able to enable this information in a mobile way, so that someone could be at a mall and wonder "Gee, is this a store that I should be shopping in" or maybe they're in a store and want to know "Should I be buying this product?" Beyond that, we need to cross the digital divide; we shouldn't make the assumption that everyone has the good fortune to have a computer at home, or a PDA or other mobile device, and so eventually, whether it's Alonovo or someone else, needs to tackle product labeling, so people can look at a product and see that there's a certification, that product came from fair labor and from a company that's mitigating their environmental footprint, conserving energy, etc., and doing the things that we expect in terms of good corporate behavior.

TH: It sounds like "making it easy" is pretty much the bottom line, which is something that TreeHugger can identify with, but something that's definitely easy for most of us is continued consumption. There can be a fine line between sustainable consumption and conspicuous over-consumption; where does consumption fit into your notion of a "sustainable lifestyle."

GP: That's another excellent question, and a treacherous question, too. Not everyone agrees with me on this, but I love the work of the folks over at Adbusters. We're one of the few e-commerce sites that basically "goes dark" in terms of shopping transactions, on Buy Nothing Day; we aren't open for business. What we see our role in all of this, is, in a fun and compelling way, to show corporate behavior; we want to show examples of what we consider to be corporate social responsibility. We believe that by education people about corporate behavior, the next logical question the mainstream will ask, "What are the things that I can do as an individual? What is my role in all this, and how can I be more responsible?" So, the interesting thing is that the TreeHugger community already gets that; I mean, the TreeHugger community might look with skepticism at a shopping site like Alonovo because it's just that -- although I would argue that we're really media in many respects, because we're about information and education and the shopping is something that we happen to do that now is providing a greater benefit back to non-profit causes -- but I see a natural evolution. I don't think you can change people's behavior overnight. The people that I mentioned before, that park their cars at Wal-Mart without thinking twice, aren't going to suddenly get it overnight. So, in that evolution, first, we have to have a discussion about corporate behavior and what makes a corporation good and what makes a corporation bad, and out of those discussions, there's a progression that we'll see in individuals where they'll start to think about smart consumption, first in terms of corporate behavior and second in terms of individual responsibility.

TH: Okay, so from your perspective, what would you tell our readers to do every day to make the world a better, more TreeHugger-friendly place?

GP: Well, that's a good question. I would say there's an element of reflection that's probably more inherent in the TreeHugger community that outside of that community. It's a tough question because I'm usually thinking about what we can do for everybody that sitting in the middle, that doesn't really know what to do, and in many respects, it seems that the TreeHugger community is already there. My hope is that a large, mainstream demographic begins to really think about quality of life issues and what we all do as individuals. Many of us now are working harder, working for less, have fear and anxiety about our jobs, so I really hope that people start to think about quality of life and real values, and start to think about their approach to consuming and buying -- do you need the bigger car, the bigger house -- and they need to value time, and pay more attention to their families and communities and really begin to give America a real sense of community again.

George Polisner is CEO of alonovo.com.

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