Making it Easy to be Green: Susan Hunt Stevens ’92 wants to help you live green in your home

“You can measure your carbon footprint, but that’s like stepping on a scale and asking, ‘What do my bones weigh?’” says Susan Hunt Stevens ’92, founder and CEO of Practically Green. “The footprint is only one part of the equation for green and healthy living; there are so many other factors—water usage, hormones in meat, chemicals in plastic.”

At PracticallyGreen.com, Stevens and her group have designed a platform that takes consumer green actions in four categories—energy, health, water, and the material aspects of life that she calls “stuff”—and assigns points, as a proxy for impact. The point values, she explains, help people understand, across categories, the relative importance of different actions in daily life. Additionally, expert content offers explanations on the importance of each action, as well as instructions on how to accomplish and incorporate the task.

Stevens began her move toward healthier, sustainable living in 2006, when her toddler was diagnosed with multiple allergies. At that point, Stevens had earned her MBA at Dartmouth’s Tuck School for Business, was SVP/general manager for Boston.com, and had spent nearly nine years in leadership roles with The New York Times Company. Involved with the then—new blogging phenomenon through her job, she started her own “mom-blog,” Practically Green: A Guide to Going Green without Going Berserk, chronicling her family’s progress. When she and her husband began renovations on an old home, she shared this, also, with her readers.

“We’re going to make it completely green,” she thought, but quickly learned that each decision is fraught with complexity and trade-offs. For example, insulation is one of the most important factors for an old house, but some products emit potentially harmful chemicals. “Finding the balance between efficiency, health concerns, and cost…I was spending hours researching this,” she recalls.

Eager to learn more, she enrolled in a sustainable design program at The Boston Architectural College, where she was introduced to the LEED—Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design—system, the scale that allows builders, designers, and contractors to quantify green decisions into point values and receive coveted public recognition.

“I sat there with my consumer-marketing, mom-blogger hat on and thought, Okay, this is a great framework, but the decisions in my life—bring bags to the store, buy all-natural lipstick—are not reflected in this system. What if there were a LEED system for daily life?”

She couldn’t figure out the social recognition aspect—the equivalent of the plaque on the building—which would be key. “We know from behavioral science that people make changes when their social norms change. Yet, green is something that is pretty invisible. You don’t walk into someone’s house and say, ‘Oooooh! Nice R-40 insulation!’”

About that time she noticed that her Facebook friends were eager to share their game triumphs. It was an Aha! moment: Use social networks to share what you’ve done to live a healthier and greener life.

The result is PracticallyGreen.com. Take the five-minute quiz when you arrive on the site and receive a rating on a 10-point scale, from “Barely Green” to “Superbly Green.”

Along with tangible and personalized suggestions for improvements, Stevens’s site provides users with several other tools to help create a personal green revolution:

Simplification of scientific jargon: “We take the complexities of the science around healthy and green and translate it to make it accessible to a consumer audience,” says Stevens. They cull their information from well-respected scientific journals and provide links to credible sources.

Clear Standards: Stevens says that “green-washing”—claims that products are more natural, organic, and more sustainable than they are—often make it difficult for consumers to make good choices. Terra Choice, a company that evaluates the veracity of companies making green claims, says that 95 percent of manufacturers’ claims are greenwashing in some way.

To help their users, Practically Green created standards for recommending products and services that are, as Stevens describes, “challenging but achievable.”

For example: “We made a decision about how much post-consumer recyclable material an item must have in order to be recommended on our site,” she explains. “When a company claims an item is compostable or biodegradable, we check to make sure that the item really is compostable or biodegradable in a consumer environment.”

Product Vetting: Stevens is a big believer in the wisdom of the crowd.

“Consumers know way more than anyone else about what is available, particularly in local markets,” she says. “You know who has a green housecleaning service, who has a green lawn care business.”

Once a product or service has met Practically Green’s standards, they will post the recommended product on the site and let other members react. Users’ feedback can root out the ineffective products or poor services.

“Just because it’s green doesn’t mean it’s good,” she observes, and notes that the efficacy of the green products is important for consumers making the changeover. Happily, the quality of green products is ever improving, as more companies—even large companies like Clorox—are entering the market and competition is driving up the quality.

Leading corporate/institutional programs: Another service that Stevens provides is developing programs for a corporation or business that wants to encourage employees or associates to make changes.

The enthusiasm for this service has surprised her.

In late August, the head of NBC’s Green is Universal group, who is responsible for all green initiatives at NBC Universal, asked if Practically Green could help them build a Facebook application for their Green Week in November. They licensed a set of recommended actions for each of their networks.

“We offered 18 different pledges that their viewers were encouraged to take,” Stevens explains. In return, NBC pledged to donate $10,000 to the Nature Conservancy for the points these pledges earned.

It was, says Stevens, “a powerful collaboration.”

In less than 48 hours of posting the challenge, NBC received the pledges they’d requested to make a $10,000 donation. They not only met a second pledge donation, but a third one, as well.

Stevens is amazed how her one-time “mom-blog” has morphed, grown, and drawn on her business skills.

“I felt so passionately that there needed to be a way for this process of going green to be faster and easier and way more fun for people like me.

“If we, as a generation, can look back and say that because more marketers and media people and entrepreneurs got involved, we were able to help more people live more sustainably—then I feel I was doing my part.”