INNOVATORS VS COVID 19
How Going Pandemic-Proof Could also Mean Going Green
We talked to Jelle Bekirovic of FlyGRN on how revenue goes directly into offsetting the carbon emissions of your flight and this is what he had to say.
First of all, how are you doing in these COVID-19 times?
Jelle Bekirovic: Thanks for asking! We have been fortunate during these difficult times. I am happy to be able to continue to focus on my business and my entrepreneurship.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded FlyGRN.
Jelle Bekirovic: I started as an internet entrepreneur building websites as a teenager, and I maintained this work as a side business for some years. I later studied for a Master’s degree in Energy and Sustainability in Amsterdam (the Netherlands), which helped me develop my thought process. The internet, a trillion-dollar business nowadays, has a carbon footprint just like anything else we humans do. I want to contribute to a greener world, and I set out to do just that by developing tech concepts like comparison websites.
One of the earliest websites I developed was Furn.nl, a furniture marketplace I set up in 2013. At the time, shopping online for clothes was up and coming, but almost no-one (save a few lone websites in the UK) sold furniture online. I think this was because consumers did not trust buying items so expensive and bulky online; the world has changed, and now shopping online for furniture and home goods is commonplace.
However, the furniture industry has not (yet) undergone the fashion industry’s transition, which has fought a public battle with its polluting roots and is very slowly transitioning to a more sustainable future. There was and is little specific information available publicly about the environmental impact of furniture brands. We decided to change and filter the available products on Furn.nl on sustainability metrics, including using sustainably-sourced wood, organic cotton, or recycled materials. We agreed that we plant one tree for almost every €100 worth of furniture sold on the website. A key aspect of sustainability is closing the loop. With this, in mind, we launched SecondFurn – a second-hand furniture marketplace with currently over 500+ pieces of furniture available from individuals all over the Netherlands.
The experience we gained in developing Furn.nl allowed us to progress towards tackling something which has a disproportionate impact on global carbon emission. Air travel accounts for almost 2-3% of all CO2 emissions worldwide. With FlyGRN, a flight search engine that automatically offsets part of your carbon emissions from its income, we sought to begin to address this problem in 2018.
How does FlyGRN innovate?
Jelle Bekirovic: We disrupted the conventional pattern by, as a company, using part of the fee we receive from flight ticket partners to pay for a part of the carbon offsetting of our customers. We believed it was necessary to help alleviate the problem of carbon emissions of the travel industry; only a tiny percentage of airline passengers offset their carbon emission. We believed that it was an opportunity for improvement. We chose to cancel (part of) the carbon emissions of travellers by investing in sustainable projects and having a social impact. Our currently sponsored project provides solar cookers in Chad in refugee camps.
The best way to reduce carbon in the airline industry, however, is not to fly. That is why FlyGRN also shows alternative routes via train, which has a far lower carbon impact than flying, where possible. Say you are looking for a flight from Amsterdam to London; FlyGRN will show you the train route as the first option.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Jelle Bekirovic: COVID-19 has made it so that almost no-one can travel anymore. Of course, as a flight search engine like FlyGRN, this means we have seen an unprecedented drop-off in users.
While travel may have dropped off, online shopping, on the other hand, has increased massively, especially in home and living. In 2019, I launched TreeClicks – an app and browser extension that plants trees (for free) when you make purchases from an (online) partner shop. To date, more than 40,000 shops are connected, including well-known global retailers. With travel reduced and, in some instances, completely shut down, I am happy to say our work can still affect change in the world of online shopping.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Jelle Bekirovic: When we first started our journey towards sustainability with FlyGRN, we thought our audience was “everyone”; I thought it was logical that everyone else, like me, would want a better, cleaner and more sustainable world. However, we gradually found that it was a specific group of travellers that was more committed to greener travelling at that moment in time. As a company, we decided to target this group first. The hope is that “everyone” will join later down the line.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and FlyGRN in the future?
Jelle Bekirovic: I find energy and positivity in the work I do. You are to focus on one project and invest all of your time and energy in that. It always seemed counter-intuitive to me to put all of my eggs in one basket, so to say. The COVID-19 pandemic has proven this to be true. I am happy that my entrepreneurship extends to industries beyond travel.
And there is still lots of potential in the field of green tech. Just imagine, if all US online shoppers would use TreeClicks, we can plant trees on an area with Ireland’s size. As online shopping has increased and will continue to grow, hopefully, so will awareness of sustainable alternatives. Despite everything that has happened in 2020, I think there is a glimmer of (green) hope in the future.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Jelle Bekirovic: All the other flight meta-search engines. Our commitment to greener living on all fronts (not just travel) is what sets us apart.
Your final thoughts?
Jelle Bekirovic: The pandemic has affected individuals and business on an unprecedented scale. I hope we can collectively take this precarious moment in history to rethink how we live, shop, and reprioritize what is important to us. I hope that as we all progress towards a pandemic-proof future, we make sure that this future is green.
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