One of the great perpetrators of the United States’ wastefulness is urban sprawl, which leads to SOV (single occupancy vehicle) disorder. Many Americans drive to work, and we usually don’t carpool. Beyond driving to work, we use our cars for other things – soccer practice, forgotten items at the grocery store, and trips across our giant country. It doesn’t need to be that way. If we could break ourselves of this habit of hyper-convenience, we could have better bike lanes, rail, and bus systems. Or we could share our cars. Zipcar is an innovative car sharing service that prides itself upon its convenience and accessibility. We recently caught up with Zipcar spokesperson Lesley Neadel to ask a few questions about the company’s green cred.
There are two ways for businesses to be green. The first way is by retrofitting; reformulating the company’s mission to include sustainability. A good example is Maid Brigade, who I wrote about two weeks ago. They took their existing product and tweaked it to make it greener.
The second way to be green is by innovating. This is crucial for a society that grew up too fast and too recklessly. Americans consume and dispose largely because of existing structures that promote wastefulness. Zipcar cuts down on car consumption by providing its members with access to conveniently located vehicles that can be rented by the day or by the hour. Insurance is included and so is the first 180 miles of gas. When you’re done using the car, return it to the designated spot and leave it for the next driver.
The Zipcar innovation was not the result of a commitment to the environment. The company’s CEO Scott Griffith told BusinessWeek that the “the core appeal of Zipcar is convenience” and “green virtues are fundamental, but they’re not how you build a billion-dollar business.” But the fact is, car sharing is inherently environmentally friendly.
A CONVERSATION WITH ZIPCAR SPOKESPERSON LESLEY NEADEL
Zipcar spokesperson Lesley Neadel wrote in an email that “Each Zipcar member consumes approximately 220 gallons of gasoline less than when they owned their own vehicle, resulting in significant oil conservation. At current membership levels, Zipcar will save 16 million gallons of gasoline and 150 million pounds of CO2 annually”.
Neadel also said that Zipcar now estimates that they have taken 100,000 cars off of the road: “Sixty-five percent of our 250,000 members tell us that joining Zipcar led them to either give up a car, or halt/change a purchasing decision”.
However, the company could have a greater impact by converting to an all-hybrid or fuel-efficient vehicle fleet. Zipcar uses customer surveys to decide which vehicles to include in the fleet. In 2006, only ten percent of Zipcars were hybrids. After the 2007 merger with Flexcar, Zipcar said one fifth of its fleet were hybrids.
Explaining these figures, Neadel wrote that “Zipcar is creating a mainstream behavior change, and as such must make the transition as seamless as possible for people – as well as make car sharing as good as or better than owning a car. As such, we need the best cars for the best types of trips – for instance, a higher-end vehicle for when attending an important business function, a pick-up truck for the trip to Ikea, and a Hybrid for when you are taking a trip to the grocery store.”
The bad news is, BusinessWeek reported in September that Zipcar isn’t making a profit even though membership is booming – up 80% compared to last year. But Zipcar says it needs to expand even more to survive. They face competition from established car rental companies, and high gas prices cut into their revenue.
IS IT GREEN?
Yes.The Zipcar option challenges the way we do business. Many Americans are dependent on their cars because other options just don’t meet their needs. Even if Zipcar doesn’t survive, they blazed a trail. We need companies like Zipcar to take these risks or we’ll never be cured of single vehicle occupancy and other disorders.
COULD IT BE GREENER?
Absolutely. But if humans want to scale back our damage to the planet, we need to start thinking like Zipcar.