Is there green in green?

Web site hopes to profit from environmentalism

If you’re nice to Ed “Redwood” Ring, he’ll give you a tree.

If you’re nice to Ed “Redwood” Ring, he’ll give you a tree.

Photo By R.V. Schiede

Ed “Redwood” Ring likes to grow things—trees, mainly; big canopy trees, flagship trees: Valley oaks, Fremont cottonwoods, big leaf maples, gray pines, Western sycamores, bay laurels, coast redwoods, cork oaks, evergreen ash.

In the two nurseries he maintains on his spacious property in Fair Oaks, you’ll find examples of all of these species, in various stages of growth, from twig-like seedlings to wispy, 2-year-old saplings. Lots of people have goals, but few are as ambitious as Ed Ring’s: All he wants to do is reforest the planet by the year 2045.

“When I was 31 I bought a house in San Jose. It was the first time I’d had a yard since I’d lived with my parents,” Ring recalls as he tends to the baby trees in one of the nurseries. “I discovered I had a pent-up desire to grow stuff, so I started a vegetable garden. I liked that, but I wanted something that would last. The idea of growing big trees that are going to be around for thousands of years is very gratifying.”

But trees aren’t the only thing Ring, 43, enjoys cultivating. A UC Davis graduate with an MBA from the University of Southern California, he helped start Upside Magazine in 1991, a publication that covers the business side of new technology industries.

The start-up was successful, and Ring served as chief financial officer until 1997, when he started his own consulting business. He was soon recruited by Play, the Sacramento-based high-tech company that specialized in streaming media. Buoyed by the surging NASDAQ, Play began attracting national attention, helping to put Sacramento’s fledgling high-tech community on the map.

Then, in May of last year, the bubble burst. The NASDAQ tumbled. Demand for Play products began to decline. Investors became wary of tech stocks.

Ring saw the writing on the wall, and decided the time was right to pursue an enterprise nearly as ambitious as his dream to reforest the planet: a content-driven Web site that would become the global information repository for environmentalists, green companies and other like-minded people across the world. The project’s seed had been germinating in Ring’s mind for at least a decade, and, in October 2000, sprouted into being.

Growing a company is a lot like growing a tree. Ring knew that the soil of the vastly over-hyped NASDAQ was sooner or later bound to go fallow due to a lack of pecuniary nutrition. But his roots ran deeper than mere financial gain.

He’d been talking up the project for years, cultivating interest among like-minded peers in the business, publishing and environmental communities. He raised $170,000 in venture capital. Two of his colleagues at Play, Chris Mitchell, 39, and Mark Bernard, 36, shared his dream and joined the EcoWorld team, taking substantial pay cuts.

Like Ring, both are proficient multi-taskers, providing administrative, technological and editorial support to the Web site. All three have the grayish skin and bleary eyes that characterize those who gaze into computer screens for more than they probably should. Why would anyone work such long hours for such low pay?

“I believe in it,” says Mitchell, who turned green after a backpacking excursion through Asia introduced him to the environmental havoc the global economy was wreaking on Third World nations. Not that the founders of EcoWorld see capitalism as the enemy. In fact, they see it as the solution.

“We want to redefine environmentalism, make it mainstream,” says Ring. “We want to make it a prosperous, sustainable lifestyle that permeates our economy.”

He sees California’s energy crisis as a perfect opportunity to showcase companies that are working on solutions to our dependence on fossil fuels—even if some of those companies, such as British Petroleum, currently depend on the oil economy.

By welcoming industry into the green community, Ring hopes to hitch EcoWorld to a widespread environmental movement that he believes must occur during the next 25 years if the planet as we know it has any possibility of surviving.

But belief alone is not enough to sustain a business, particularly an Internet-based company in a lagging technology market. In what amounted to a liquidation, Play sold off its main assets in February. By mid-March, the NASDAQ had plunged more than 60 percent in value, with no bottom in sight. No one wants anything to do with the Web.

Ring has been constantly working the phone, searching for advertisers to support EcoWorld. He’s got one client so far, China Depot, an international importer of windmills. He’s called unlikely firms such as Clorox, DuPont, Dow Chemical and DelMonte for support. No response. Even green-friendly companies such as Ben & Jerry’s don’t return calls.

“Hi Gina, this is Ed Ring from EcoWorld,” he says, trying the ice cream company one more time. He’s talking to a machine. He leaves a message and hangs up. He smiles. Or perhaps it’s a grimace. “So you know, it’s pretty easy, I just leave messages … ”

The site has grown exponentially since it first went up. It receives more than 5,000 visits a day and has won numerous awards. A searchable database containing thousands of species of plants and animals is nearing completion. But time may be running out for EcoWorld. The next round of venture capital funding is coming up, and, so far, Ring has few new investors. Is EcoWorld in danger of extinction?

“Call me in a month,” Ring says.

Maybe EcoWorld will still be there … if it hasn’t wilted.