What do you need to be a “greenlancer?”

Tom TumbushIn late 2009 I made sweeping changes to my freelance writing business. I not only renamed and rebranded the company, I added a major focus on sustainability. It’s one of the most satisfying choices I’ve ever made and I’ve never looked back.

Ever since I made the switch, I’ve received occasional inquiries from other solopreneurs who are interested in pursuing a similar career path. In this first of several posts on “greenlancing,” I’ll talk about what you need to get started.

Are you “green” enough?

Many creatives who want to get into green marketing are skittish about making the jump because they worry their lifestyle won’t bear the scrutiny of more sustainable colleagues and neighbors. They fret about being branded as a fraud unless they eat a strict vegan diet, do all business and household errands on a bicycle, recycle every scrap of household waste, flush only under certain circumstances, and water a 4-acre organic garden with greywater from their solar-powered homes.

If you can live that way, great. But if fear of having your home office picketed by greener-than-thou protestors is the only thing holding you back, I give you permission to let this anxiety go right now. A sincere desire to walk the talk is a good thing. Unearned guilt is not.

First of all, if you work from home, you’re already greener than the vast majority of the workforce because you’re not commuting. About five years ago the American Electronics Association estimated that telecommuting could save 1.35 billion gallons of gas every year if every worker who could do it stayed home just 1.6 days a week. Work from home every day and you can legitimately claim substantial green cred out of the gate.

With that as your baseline, make at least one additional commitment. My first lifestyle change was an Eco-Drive wristwatch: eight hours of direct sunlight provides enough power to charge the battery for a year. It cost a bit more at the time, but I haven’t had to buy a new watch battery since 2007.

Small commitments, then larger ones

Once you’ve made your initial commitment, periodically take things up a notch. Incremental changes are easier to stick to, and they make larger changes more, well, “sustainable” later on. My solar watch led to a backpack solar charger, which I use to juice up my phone and other small devices as often as I can. Sometime after that I switched my e-mail and web hosting over to a solar-powered ISP. Every month or so I try to find some new way to reduce my impact.

Again, it’s okay to start small. Any effort that you make to decrease your impact has value, and we can’t all afford to install geothermal heating systems on day one. Switch to paperless invoicing. Set up your home office to make the most of natural light. Recycle as much as possible. Replace auto travel with walking or riding a bike when you’re able. Make do with the Apple gizmos you already own as long as you possibly can.

One of the best places to get ideas is Practically Green, a free website that suggests ways to make your personal life more sustainable based on what you’re already doing. (Update: Just prior to publication, I learned that Practically Green will soon launch a business-oriented service as well. You can request a demo on their website.)

Whatever you choose, you don’t have to be perfect.

Let me say that again in big green letters: YOU DON’T HAVE TO BE PERFECT.

Seriously, don’t beat yourself up if you slip once in a while. You won’t have to. Once you commit to a green lifestyle, life will send you plenty of gentle reminders to keep you on track. Today I had to pay 50 cents extra for my coffee because I forgot to bring my travel mug to the shop where I’m writing this article. Use lessons like these as reminders to solidify habits, not judgments, about your value as a person.

Decide what green means to you

Just because you promote yourself to clients who value sustainability doesn’t let you off the hook from defining your target market. “Green” is a nebulous term that is used to refer to everything from electric vehicles to organic food, and if there’s one thing you’ll find in this market it’s diversity. The marketing needs of a general contractor working with the US Green Building Council are vastly different from those of a non-profit charity protecting coral reefs. Trying to be every shade of green will drive you crazy.

Here’s another tip: not all of your prospects will be neo-hippies, liberals, or Democrats. They’re still the majority, but today’s major sustainability advocates also include the U.S. military, corporate behemoths, Libertarians eager to get off the grid, and even some evangelical Christians.

Passion isn’t just for purple anymore

One final word about making the switch to greenlancing: don’t do it unless you sincerely believe in it. Green proponents may not hound you if they doubt your credibility, but they can still smell “greenwashing” miles away. Don’t try to green your business just to look hip and responsible. Do it because it enriches your life on some primal personal level.

Put more simply, don’t go green because you want to, but because you have to.

You can waste a lot of time splitting hairs about whether you should pursue the green market, but the bottom line is that enthusiasm, a few small commitments, and a willingness to learn more are enough to get you started.

In upcoming posts I’ll talk more about the state of the green market and some of the resources available for aspiring greenlancers. And at the Creative Freelancer Conference this year (June 21-22 in Boston), I’ll probably be doing a short presentation on the topic.


Tom N. Tumbusch writes copy that creates action for Green businesses and creative agencies. His tiny solar-powered corner of the Internet can be found at www.wordstreamcopy.com.

3 thoughts on “What do you need to be a “greenlancer?”

  1. Barbara

    Wow Tom, you made my day with this post!! Love the terminology “greenlancer” and I suppose I consider myself a definitive one!! In fact I bill myself as an eco-conscious graphic designer and my tagline is “Design with the Planet in Mind”. No environmental poser here! It’s truly my passion and many of the things you mentioned are things I already do. Marketing myself as a “greenlancer” (hope it’s ok to utilize that terminology into my site) and reaching the correct audience is still taking some work – but I am passionate about my intentions and what I can bring to the table.

    Within my website I even created a section called eco-info with a page dedicated to tips on how to “green your small business”. And I even created a page on where to recycle locally within my community which continues to be one of my most highly visited pages to date!

    The recycling page was born from my frustration that the condos where I reside had no on-site recycling bins. Coming from Boulder where this was standard practice I found it unacceptable. Nor did it align with my business model – so I led the charge to make the changes happen. I call it my latest enviro action accomplishment. Little did I realize what was involved!!

    After consulting with the local Sustainability Board I came to find out that I would have to go head to head with the HOA board – NOT FUN!! They did not seem to share my passion or the value this could bring to the residents of the community – but I refused to back down….

    I set about utilizing my skills by doing my own market research – talking to residents (who were already participating in off-site recycling and were also frustrated at our lack of on-site options) and I created and put up posters all around the community to get a sense of folks interest. I included those little tear off pieces of paper so that they could go to my Local Recycling page for options and I monitored the traffic via my Google Analytics. The interest was definitely there!! Still getting the HOA board to move forward was a whole other thing. But after months and persistence it finally came to be! By August 2011 we had on-site recycling bins for the community residents. I then created NEW posters that were put up around the community announcing our new on-site recycling bins! We even had an informal ribbon-cutting ceremony (have pictures of that one)… even got a write up in out local monthly magazine (ok they were totally slow on publishing the article – but better late than never).

    In closing, every week those recycling bins are full and more than one resident has thanked me for my efforts.

    I AM a “greenlancer”!!

    Thank-you again for your post!! And looking forward to your other ones on the topic.

    1. Tom Tumbusch

      Thanks, Barbara. You made my day with your enthusiastic comments! Congratulations on your triumph over the HOA.

      I’ll have another post on this topic here soon. In the meantime, you might enjoy the newsletter I posted earlier today on a related topic: eepurl.com/kn9iL