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An interview with Carbon CREW guide Tom Virden

The buying patterns of one person alone cannot manipulate a marketplace. But our free market, consumer society is indeed at the mercy of the consumer’s demand. 

I sat down with Tom Virden, high-tech marketer, entrepreneur, angel investor, professor, and CREW guide, who optimistically highlighted that our wasteful consumer culture is transitioning into a tool that will propel us forward towards the sustainable regeneration we are awaiting.

Just as Paul Hawken and Damon Gameau preach in their works, Tom asserts that “all of the technology needed to solve our environmental problems exists today.”

Ten years at Apple, the launch of his own health tech company, and years spent working in ecommerce drenched Tom into the world of tech. And his presence at a company that would make some of the greatest advancements in tech over the next thirty years sharpened his vision for technological and cultural developments.

“When I started nobody had personal computers or smartphones. I got to see first-hand how these technologies get adopted. And there’s a whole new and amazing world coming for sustainability on the same trajectory as these now common technologies!”

Not only are there new technologies available to encourage sustainable living, but progressive business models are hitting the mainstream as well. Tom highlighted a low-tech solution local to him in Boulder: Nude Foods, a zero-waste grocery store.

“They’re not changing the food people consume, they’re just packaging it in a manner that is so much better for the environment. You don’t have to be Elon Musk and invent Tesla. You can just take something that motivates you and reimagine the business model so it’s more sustainable.”

Now that the technology and tools exist, it is in the consumer’s power to choose them.

“If you deeply believe in this stuff, if waste upsets you, you have the power to say ‘I’m not going to fund it anymore. I’m not going to buy from that company.’ The younger generations are already starting to adopt these buying patterns, and we can all use the power of the purse to turn this thing on its head.

“The market, which has worked against sustainable living for so long, is now going to turn on itself and propel us forward with the incentives and the lower cost from sustainability. The power of the market and the power of entrepreneurship are going to accelerate this faster than the pundits are predicting right now.”

But if the market has thrived working against sustainable living as Tom suggests, is it really turning around? Can we trust that a consumerist market will promote sustainable consumption habits when exorbitant consumption drives revenue?

Yes, we can. Sustainability is not a concept founded by the younger generations—it’s just making a comeback. Tom is one of many inspiring this comeback.

“I was a naturalist when I was a kid,” he told me. “I spent all my time walking around identifying birds and trees and hiking… I was kind of a nature nerd.”

A nature-nerd turned “computer-nerd” turned high-tech marketer, he explains the shift that happened in the 90’s and 2000’s: “People in my generation were flower children. We wanted to make the world better, but we got so caught up in ecommerce and Internet and making money that we lost track of the things we wanted to do when we were in college.

“But when I saw all of the devastation going on in the world, I wanted to get back to my roots. I felt like I needed to be an example. I needed to start doing things because change wasn’t going to come from the government.”

Having the means to do so, Tom put solar on his house before it was cost effective, and he purchased an electric car long before the infrastructure was in place to fuel it.

So while young people are demanding a shift in our consumerist marketplace, the older generations of the counterculture and flower children—those who have the means to incite change in our supply with a new demand—are beginning to return to their roots and incite the regeneration they’ve been dreaming of since the oil crisis. 

The challenge is now activating that group, and empowering them to make the sustainable choices that will accelerate a regeneration within our marketplace. This is where CREW comes in.

“I think that CREW actually is the best way to empower people at a local level in a non-threatening environment,” Tom said. “The IRA and environmental policy finally getting momentum will be a game changer. But to get things happening at the local level you need Carbon CREW.

“People think about sustainability and they jump to buying an electric car and putting solar on their house. So a $60,000 and a $30,000 purchase. CREW says I can do fifteen low-to-no cost actions, feel good about them, and have a significant impact. I don’t have to make one massive purchase to live sustainably.”

There’s also a certain amount of unlearning that needs to occur in order to make this shift. Tom emphasized the importance of “giving up our mindset of ‘the world needs to be this way because this is how I grew up.’

“Everyone that says ‘gas is better than electricity for cooking’ is only saying that because it’s been drilled into their head by gas companies. A gas stove is highly inefficient: it heats not just the pot but all around it as well, it’s actually slower than induction, and there are studies that show that the air quality becomes carcinogenic. Only the food gets hot with induction stoves—and you won’t burn your hand on the handles!”

There are so many instances where sustainable practices are objectively better than traditional practices, not only for sustainability purposes but for sheer optimal functioning. And often these practices are cost-saving in the long run as well. 

“It’s about shifting our mindset and taking lots of little steps. Every single person and every single industry can do many things to improve their footprint.”

And taking that first step, whether it’s a small action or a small purchase, is the most important part. “There’s a real psychological phenomenon that happens when you do one small action that you feel good about. You feel empowered to then do the next one.”

Tom’s enthusiasm surrounding the future of sustainability is inspiring. As a marketer and entrepreneur, he’s lived inside the belly of the beast and gained a deep understanding of the American consumerist market. And while that market hasn’t done sustainability any favors in the last several decades, today’s consumers have the opportunity to change that.

“I believe in the power of the market, that when you see that all these sustainable products and companies are working to give people a better life at a lower cost, the shift will finally happen.”

This interview is the second installment in a series we are conducting on Carbon CREW members in an effort to highlight the incredible people in our community! Read last month’s interview with Sara Gordon here and be sure to stay tuned for next month’s interview!