8 characteristics of Green Insurgents

April 27, 2012, 2:01 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Last week I participated in a panel on Green Insurgents at Fortune’s Brainstorm Green conference in Laguna Niguel, California. My fellow panelists were Adam Lowry, co-founder and Greenskeeper of Method and Jason Graham-Nye, dad/co-CEO of gDiapers.

The discussion helped illuminate what it means to be a Green Insurgent, beyond of course the obligatory funky job titles, (according to this TeaEO). Clearly, it starts with offering products that challenge mainstream offerings. Method hijacked the stale category of soaps and cleansers by combining fashion and style with high-performing, eco-friendly products. gDiapers changed the waste stream of diapers by offering a flushable alternative to a category that is the third largest contributor to landfills around the world. And my company rose to prominence by offering lower-sugar organic drinks first for adults with Honest Tea, then to the broader population, with Honest Ade and Honest Kids.

Once our products were launched, we each grew primarily through grassroots marketing. While it might be quaint to think this was a strategic decision, none of us had the budget for a real advertising campaign. As a result, we grew through word-of-mouth. Consumers adopted us as their own and became advocates for us – forcing our products on their friends, and occasionally harassing store personnel who failed to restock our products.

We’ve each taken the special relationships with our consumers beyond just the transactional relationship of selling and buying product. For gDiapers an office open house turned into a slumber party, with moms and babies, flying into Portland, OR from all over the country to celebrate their shared commitment to a lighter environmental footprint. For Method, it means a daily dialogue with thousands of their most passionate advocates, the People Against Dirty. Recently, one advocate decided the perfect place to propose to his girlfriend would be in Method’s offices in San Francisco, in front of the whole company (he did, and she said yes!).  For Honest Tea, our Great Recycle in Times Square on April 30 (complete with 30 foot high recycling bin) will engage thousands of consumers in NYC and around the country as we seek to boost recycling rates.

Not coincidentally, we were all supported by angel investors during our start-up phases. This kind of patient, non-invasive capital helped give us the confidence to go out further on limbs, whereas the general trend of institutional investors is to steer management toward more conventional paths to growth. Honest Tea would have grown faster if we had created sweeter and cheaper recipes, but because we stuck to low-sugar, organic formulations, we developed a meaningful point of differentiation on congested beverage shelves.

We have all served as unofficial R&D units for our competitors. Method has seen a wave of conventional cleaning companies enter the green space, and the entire laundry detergent category has now concentrated to a greener format in part due to method’s innovation. gDiapers started the idea of designer nappies (as the Aussies call them), and saw Pampers and others follow its lead. And CapriSun lowered its average calorie count from 100 to 75, and supported drink pouch collection brigades, once our innovations started to gain traction. We all agreed that mimicry is not only a form of flattery, but consistent with our broader goals of steering our industries toward a more sustainable path.

So that raises the question, if the larger companies copy or (in Honest Tea’s case) acquire us, can we still be considered insurgents?  Yes, as long as we keep innovating. A few years after Honest Tea became the first brand to launch an organic bottled tea, other large companies started including organic ingredients in their drinks. Rather than wring our hands, we were expanding our portfolio to include Fair Trade ingredients. This year we are raising the profile of new ingredients, such as tulsi, known as India as holy basil, which makes an amazing tea.

We often see large companies dip a toe in the water to explore what we’re doing, but they often give up when the going gets tough… insurgents don’t bow out so easily, partially because we don’t have a conventional business to fall back on, but mostly because we share a passion – we’re not just out to capture a market opportunity, we actually believe that we are changing the world in our own modest (or not so modest) way. Each of us has stared business bankruptcy (closely tied to personal bankruptcy) in the face, but were unwilling to let our dream die, and managed to scrounge up enough capital to keep the lights on.

Finally, insurgents still bring a by (almost) any means necessary mindset to make things happen, and our entrepreneurial roots run deep. Although the conference was held at the beautiful Ritz-Carlton overlooking the surfers on Laguna Beach ($347 per night), I opted for the Econo Lodge down the road ($83 per night). Honest Tea may be part of Coca-Cola (KO), but I still run the enterprise like I’m spending my own money.

Seth Goldman is President and TeaEO of Honest Tea, the company he co-founded in 1998.

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