07/19/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Greenopia: Eco-Consciousness for the Rest-Of-Us

If you've ever sat around and thought, "Gee, wouldn't it be cool if there was a Zagat-style guide to local green businesses?" then wish no longer concerned citizen, because a small, ambitious group called Greenopia publishes just such a guide for Los Angeles, San Francisco, and as of April -- New York City. I recently caught up with Janna Olson, who, in addition to being a lovely person, is also market manager for Greenopia New York. She had a lot to say.

Can you tell me a little bit about Greenopia?

Greenopia is a series of local guides to green living that take a neighborhood approach to finding those eco-friendly choices we might know are out there, but don't have time to research ourselves. It turns out that in New York they're really all around us.

The guide's founder Gay Browne grew up asthmatic in Southern California. In the early 90s, when her young son was diagnosed with autistic tendencies, she got serious about detoxifying her world. But she found the process of building a home in an eco-friendly, non-toxic manner to be a path with a lot of great solutions, but no comprehensive and accessible guideposts.

Were the guides a logical offshoot from that?

That and the fact that the few resources she did find were very "all or nothing." She felt that a need for something that serves the staunch green devotee and people new to the idea of making healthier choices in an increasingly toxic world. It's a continuum.

So, Greenopia's 50+ categories showing where to find more eco-friendly products and services in town is the result of one person's dedication to making this idea of "going green" an easy transition.

I would imagine that putting the guides together was a major undertaking, particularly in large cities like New York and Los Angeles. How much effort went into these?

Whew! Loads. The aim is to celebrate every businessperson who's opened the door to healthier options for people to choose from. These aren't paid listings; we're working to find businesses that are earnest in their efforts.

Greenopia engages three keys to building listings that are solid and trustworthy. We start with a questionnaire for each of the 50 categories with criteria composed from national certifiers, local experts, and industry best practices.

Next we hit the streets. In New York, for example, twenty of us walked the commercial blocks of all five boroughs... in the middle of winter.

Scoping each business that looks like a good candidate, our researchers then take out a 1-4 page questionnaire and ask to tour restaurant kitchens or speak with directors of operations and heads of housekeeping.

Finally, the lists of fully researched businesses -- in NYC, we found 1,425 out of 80,000 possibilities in all five boroughs -- are taken to an Advisory Council composed of local experts in each field. The Advisory Council reviews our lists to make sure we haven't overlooked key businesses and vet those who may not be as green as they appeared.

So, the interaction between our local Advisory Council and the researchers -- who can go back to a location to clarify questions when necessary -- is key to rounding out a constantly evolving process and ensuring our research is solid, which is crucial.

Wow, you guys must be in great physical shape, do you all go to green gyms?

The walking, cycling, and backpacks crammed with research kept us all in fairly peak condition last winter.

How does your rating system work?

We take a Michelin-style approach to 29 of the trickiest categories, rating them with 1-4 leaves which respectively denote 25, 50, 75, or 90+ percent eco-friendly product offerings and practices. Part of the continuum of building a healthier world is about providing a welcome place to start (so 25% eco-effort gets a business listed) and showcasing an ideal to shoot for (90% and above).

This applies to "front of house" products and services as well as "behind the scenes" practices. Some things businesses do behind the scenes can be more evident: The Fort Greene restaurant and Habana Outpost, for example, make use of their solar panels a point of welcome and education for their patrons.

On the other hand, at the Hotel Benjamin, you'd probably never guess that they're saving thousands of gallons of water each year with less glamorous, highly cost-efficient low flow toilets and shower heads in over 90% of their 209 rooms. The save even more water with a towel and linen reuse policy and reduce their draw on the energy grid using 90% Energy Star appliances with CFLs in their hallways, lobbies, and conference rooms.

What sorts of businesses do you rate?

Mostly businesses in categories where it's difficult to discern what makes them eco-friendly: hotels, restaurants, salons, garden supplies, dry cleaners (a particularly deceptive category due to the sometimes erroneous "organic" sign hanging in shops that still use carcinogenic PERC much of the time).

By contrast categories like recycling centers, eco-cleaning services, and alternative energy contractors are more obvious in their greener ambitions. But, even there, we state our basic evaluation criteria at the outset.

Do you do all the ratings yourself?

We do, and I like to encourage people to remember that Greenopia's guides are just that -- guides. We work really hard to put easy access to trustworthy options in people's own hands. And the guide is there to encourage your own investigation and curiosity.

We have a great online resource that exists precisely so you can evaluate and recommend businesses on your own. The site and the printed guides are packed with facts to spark your own explanation. So you end up in a position to start your own conversations with neighborhood shop owners and service providers to learn where their eco-friendly efforts are headed.

Can a company pay to be mentioned in your guides?

Absolutely not. With independent research, trust is everything. No one is charged because they may or may not be included once we're done. That's Greenopia's Michelin Guide or Consumer Reports element.

Our aim is to respect the businesses and organizations committed to building a sustainable society as well. Companies listed in the guides are welcome to sell them, which is a win-win in that they can make a profit, support each other locally, and encourage their customers to support greening the City's supply chain.

Where does your funding come from then?

Well, to borrow a phrase: People like you! It's really about people buying and using th guides. In essence, that's what keeps us going.

In all three cities, thousands of people have bought guides, are participating in as a social network, launching blogs, and subscribing (at no cost) to our online newsletter. As a result, companies are advertising on our website, and that also helps to fund our efforts.

Most Barnes & Noble and Whole Foods Market locations have them in New York, LA, and San Francisco, and there's a great list on our site's Buy the Guide Locally page that notes every local, eco-friendly business that sells Greenopia guides so people can support them by stopping in for a guide and learning more about what they have to offer.

The real service being provided is two-fold: Each new person that starts using Greenopia has the combination of facts about what makes for a healthier choice as well as access to places a block or two from their home that allow them to make those choices. Oftentimes it can be just as easy to pick up a healthier habit then simply doing it the old way.

Have you noticed that there has been more interest of late?

Yes! So much seems to have happened since the so-called tipping point of early-2006 when Yanklovich polling reported that Americans now worried about their country's dependence on foreign energy sources with more believing that energy independence was a necessity.

To what do you attribute this new sense of eco-friendliness and awareness? Surely it couldn't all have been Al Gore right?

Well, there are lots of external signals that are shaping our shift in a greener direction: We've got Big 10 schools offering degrees in sustainability, off the charts oil prices, the new realm of business called social entrepreneurialism, intensified storm systems and vanishing polar ice caps, large corporations realizing significant savings from energy efficient choices plus big profits and averted fines in the carbon emissions trade. There's also been a trend in reinsurance companies refusing to cover corporations that ignore effective risk management policies to mitigate further eco-system collapse.

Of course, these macro factors seems pretty far removed from choices we make as individuals, but it's a good part of why we have increasingly seen local and organic food choices at the grocery store, and compact fluorescent bulbs on every hardware store shelf and even at Wal-Mart.

What I really think is driving this new "eco-friendliness" is the unacknowledged internal stress that comes from knowing that the way in which we collectively consume resources is unsustainable. It's taxing to constantly read and hear about the destruction of the environment and the loss of species. And it feels better to make proactive choices.

So I know that you guys keep track of businesses that are doing really great things for the environment, but do you also rate businesses that are killing us (Exxon-Mobil, Wal-Mart, Halliburton, Dow, R.J. Reynolds, Northrup Grumman, I'm looking at you)?

The evils of large corporations are probably more well known to us than the solutions that exist right around the corner from where we live. Engaging those solutions and shifting our dollars away from those businesses you mentioned and others is the quickest way I know to get a message into corporate boardrooms. To me, that seems more powerful than Greenopia rating the "bad guys."

Too bad, that could be a fun blog maybe.

Hey, Greenopia will host it if you want to launch it. Or you could just rent "The Corporation" and keep moving towards solutions.

Why does the San Francisco guide cost a dollar less ($16.95) than the New York and LA ones? I'm dying to know.

That's an easy one: LA and New York are bigger. So, you actually get more bang for the buck with a broader base of businesses and locations to choose from. Also, our guides are printed on 100% de-inked recycled paper with the highest concentration of soy ink possible. Carbon offsets are engaged for research, production, printing, and transport of the guide. So, the San Francisco guide provides one with additional green savings simply because the city is smaller. Otherwise, production is a costly endeavor... for us, but thankfully not for the earth.

So you guys really walk the walk then, huh?

We're always striving to do better. Going green is an education for us and everybody - that's why it's exciting.

I noticed that Greenopia has ambitions plans for expansion. When are you going to make it to Hartford and its suburbs?

In my vision for the US, every town is part of Greenopia country. Right now, we're ready to roll into more than ten cities at once. Greenopia has a city-by-city plan -- based on demographics and sustainability rankings -- for the release of our guides and we're expanding our web presence to incorporate cities in secondary markets like Hartford. Be patient, there's no question that the demand is there.

What can I do until then to assure that I'm choosing the greenest businesses to patronize?

Use the fantastic wealth of green blogs, books, and websites (like ours) out there to education yourself and get in the practice of asking some polite inquisitive questions of local business owners and their staff.

How can I make more green?

Hmm, shift your career aspirations to solar or wind, local organic farming, or other green growth industries?

Excuse me, what I meant was "How else can I make my life more green?"

For personal health, try shifting to locally grown foods that come from farms devoted to sustainable practices. Fresher food is higher in nutritional content and better tasting, too. When it's local, you're also cutting your carbon footprint by not contributing to the average journey of 1500 miles that grocery store produce on American dinner plates usually travels.

For greener energy and greener pockets, remember it's true that a CFL uses 25% the electricity as an incandescent bulb. Also, keeping relying less on heat and air conditioning, and monitoring idle appliances really makes a difference. You can even arrange for an earth-friendly burial service (which we describe in our guides).

OK, before it comes to my burial, what about making green decisions at work?

Check into how recycling works in your building and do one key thing to help that process along; recommend or arrange an energy audit of the company's offices; advocate for double sided copies which save trees and money, and could allow you to switch suppliers and purchase 20% or higher post-consumer recycled paper.

The short answer is to look in the guides: there's a ten point section devoted to what you can do to save coal, chemicals, air quality, and water by changing little things on the job.

Can I, alone, actually make a difference?

If there's a lesson of the marketplace to be taken from Greenopia's pages, it is that small efforts magnify. Taking one -- or several -- green actions immediately changes your world. And your world is The World.

OK, last question: Are we all screwed?

That's the looming question in the back of all our minds now. If we translate it into a hypothesis, the answer becomes our shared challenge. The answer is in the doing, and that's what this guide is for.

I hear nay-sayers all the time tell me: "These little things are just tragic ways of deceiving ourselves in the face of our own extinction." I disagree. Finding solutions in your neighborhood, talking with and buying from a problem solver, these things go a long way to relieving the stress of that question so you can sleep easier at night.

The more frequently you join with people living life on the solution side, the clearer the power of our own actions to shape that answer becomes. I think "going green" really just means you can envision a future.

Thanks for bearing with me, and thanks so much for your time.

It's been a total delight. Thank you for exploring life in Greenopia.