Sharad Agarwal, CEO, Cyber Gear. Image Credit: Stefan Lindeque/ANM

It was while reading a news report on environmental awareness one morning three years ago that the idea formed. The report said that the UAE was among the countries with the biggest carbon footprints in the world. For Sharad Agarwal, CEO, Cyber Gear, it made him feel uncomfortable. As an entrepreneur heading an e-business company he set up in Dubai 15 years ago to develop e-commerce, websites and e-marketing applications, Agarwal need not have been overly concerned with the news report's content, particularly because it was regarding an environmental issue. But he became concerned.

It also happened that in 2008, the heat wave was unusually fierce with "temperatures hovering around 48°C-plus and touching 50°C in some parts of the UAE," Agarwal remembers. "This set me thinking: why aren't people taking the change in environment seriously?"

He mulled over the idea and wondered what he could do to make a difference. Eventually, he decided to utilise the potential of the medium he knew best rather than looking to reinvent the wheel. "Since I was in the internet business, I knew precisely how to reach out to the community. We had a database of real people, and this I thought was the ideal platform to spread the message of eco awareness."

Having decided, he wasted no time: he sat down to work with two of his team members that very weekend, registered the domain, came up with the brand name, designed the logo, coded and hosted the website and the next day sent out an electronic Go Green newsletter to people on his company's database.

"From concept to design, generating content and actual implementation, www.go-green.ae was the fruition of labour of a two-day weekend," says Agarwal. "The idea was to put out content on environment-related stories that would interest residents in the UAE. I began by browsing the web and got familiar with environmental issues of topical interest. Soon, I began to talk to people across continents and conduct email interviews. Later, I started writing my own green column based on my take of what the common man can do to make a difference to the environment."

When the site was first launched in July 2008, it was probably the first "Go Green" initiative in the region, he says.

"People were talking about protecting and conserving the environment but there were no popular forums or groups that one could be part of. On the launch day, we received around 150 hits - that was encouraging enough. I decided to invest more time and money into the endeavour. Soon enough, I started receiving calls from schools and colleges to come and speak at their morning assembly."

It all starts with a small step

However, the turning point occurred when, within months of launching the website, it won the ‘Best Green Initiative Award' at ADIPEC in Abu Dhabi. "I was presented with the award by the Masdar CEO and I thought that if we are being recognised, there must be something right in what we are doing. Winning this award was certainly a great motivation. It reinforced my commitment to the cause."

At this point, Agarwal is quick to place things in perspective. "I am no environmental expert," he says. "I don't have any formal education in this field but I have the deep conviction that if you start something and do it with passion, it can become a movement. This is what kept me going. I firmly believed in the value of what I was doing, and never once did I stop to think, ‘Is this worth it?'"

All registered members (registration is free) receive the go-green.ae newsletter twice weekly which highlights the top green global news stories. In addition, there are handy tips on how to think, act, shop and eat green. Interesting case studies or success stories of how individuals or organisations have used environmental-friendly technology/products/community programmes have been included with the belief that perhaps "people would be inspired by reading these stories and implement something similar within their local communities."

Agarwal had begun the website with a focus on the UAE but the responses it generated came from people across the globe. "The feedback was from all age groups and the most comforting trend we spotted was that a lot of students were getting involved."

Given that the internet is the preferred medium for youth, it was a morale booster to know that his initiative was on their radar.

What was initially a one-way traffic with content just being pushed out had now morphed into a two-way encounter on the internet highway. "Even though www.go-green.ae was a local initiative that started with a local audience in mind - and with a domain that is UAE-centric - the time was now ripe to take it global considering the immense response from organisations, companies and individuals from beyond the borders of the GCC or Middle Eastern world," says Agarwal.

"We were approached by major US companies wanting to plug them into our daily newsletter, by organisations involved in reducing carbon footprint who wanted to reach out to a new audience, and there were individuals seeking content for speeches and other activities on eco-awareness events in their local communities," he says.

"Though we operate from Dubai, I would say that 80 per cent of the present content is generated largely from the US, Europe, the Far East and Australia. This is chiefly because these countries are leaders when it comes to investments in solar energy, wind power, geothermal energy or any form of alternative energy sources. Hence, success stories are arising from these regions, and as people are coming out with new products and technologies, they are also seeking new ways to reach out to people to change their minds."

Going green is really easy

Agarwal believes that individuals do not have to invest "big time" to go green. "I always tell people that green is not a colour; it is a state of mind. This gets them thinking and that is precisely what I want them to do. ‘Going Green' means you have to start making small changes in your daily lifestyle because it all adds up. If each one of us does our own little bit, the planet becomes a better place to live in and that is what this whole eco-movement is all about."

He is happy to bust one of the more common myths about environmentalism - that it is an expensive cause to take up. Going green is not about using expensive products, he adds. "It is about making those little changes and these could be as simple as switching off lights when you leave the room; putting your computer in hibernation mode when not in use; using stainless steel water bottles, for instance, instead of plastic ones. Every waking day, at every moment in our lives, we have the opportunity to go green - all it takes are baby steps to change our environmental behaviour."

While this belief boosted his commitment to the cause, the encouragement to take it to the next level came from the constant feedback the website generated, he says. When people expressed an interest in getting involved and he began receiving calls from schools and colleges to reach out to the student community, Agarwal realised the limitations of meeting these needs individually. It was then that he got another idea - of marshalling like-minded people who were willing to spare their personal time to help spread the message.

The Go Green Ambassadors were born.

"This is a voluntary programme," says Agarwal. "There is no money involved. It is about using your spare time to visit schools, colleges, companies or other organisations, and talk about some of the most compelling issues of our time, namely, the need for conserving the resources of the planet and protecting our environment."

You don't have to be an expert environmentalist

Becoming a Go Green Ambassador is easy. "When you register online at www.go-green.ae to be a volunteer for this initiative, you will have to specify the city you live in and the number of hours per week or month that you can spare for this cause. Volunteers have access to the Green Resource Guides that can be downloaded from the website for free. These will enable you to get first-hand knowledge of how one can go green at home, in the office, measures to reduce carbon footprint and so on. When organisations or institutions approach us, we search our comprehensive list of registered ambassadors to find the right candidate available in that area for the specified day and time."

There have been 24,000 downloads since the initiative began with 900 people in the age range of 9 to 72 having registered so far from 82 countries. "Some are from places I have little idea where they are on the map," he says. "Once people register to be a Go Green Ambassador, they are constantly updated with new information and can partake in an online quiz to monitor their awareness levels. The programme is not huge; but it is working and helping make a difference in building a positive and sustainable future."

In his interactions with students, teachers and parents, Agarwal says he has been fascinated by the fact that more often than not, it is the younger generation who is clued in or evinces great interest in what they can do to save the environment.

"There are students who come up to me and say ‘my father leaves the light on' or ‘my parents do not turn the AC off while going on vacation'. What such statements are telling you is that when you target the youngsters, you can influence the old generation."

Agarwal firmly believes in the ‘complete circle theory' that can be applied to many areas of our lives - for instance, in the case of the environment, he always tells both parents and teachers that "just as we prepare our children for the future, we also have to prepare the future for our children."

As parents, he says, people go to extreme lengths to ensure that their children enjoy successful careers. But what they fail to figure out is the conditions of the society in which their children will have to work.

"Our children still have to go out in the sun to do their work or breathe in the toxic fumes in cities or worse still, face acute shortages of water because of the way we are currently using the earth's resources."

The wider the circle the more the ripples

His plans for the immediate future are to partner with other like-minded portals, largely in the West, to create the synergy effect. Strategic partnerships, he believes, will help to hold better content and to reach out to larger audiences as well. This will also, he believes, enable Gulf success stories to reach out to a new audiences in the West and vice-versa.

"In the UAE, we've already partnered with the Emirates Wildlife Society, which has opened lots of doors for us," he says. "We are currently running an online campaign on www.go-green.ae to promote the Marine Turtle Conservation Project."

Agarwal also introduced a free-to-attend Go Green networking event last year, the first of which was attended by over 100 people including multinationals and senior government officials. "Several companies showcased their products, and one businessman who flew in from Malaysia just for the event, tied up with a leading school for supply of his range of eco-friendly tableware products. He got his first order signed up in a matter of a few hours!"

His idea behind such networking sessions is to enable people to exchange information and meet organisations that could develop into long-standing associations. "However, as these involve a cost - the networking sessions are conducted at a third-party venue - I am currently looking for sponsors to host the subsequent events," he says.

An interesting offshoot of Agarwal's passion for the green cause has been the launch of The Green Ecostore (www.TheGreenEcostore.com), masterminded by his wife Anu in 2010. This online portal sells affordable, environmentally safe, earth-friendly products that are reusable, natural, biodegradable, recycled, organic, or use solar energy. The product range includes shopping bags, sandwich bags, BPA-Free water bottles, rechargeable batteries, solar chargers, eco-hampers and recyclable paper.

Despite all the initiatives worldwide that are seeking to raise awareness on the state of the planet, the most important factor that will bring about a major change, Agarwal believes, is "belief in the fact that an individual can make a difference. Most people think global warming is a global phenomenon and that an individual is too small to do anything about it.

"We are wrong. Each one of us can make a difference."

Making a difference

Go Green Ambassadors Programme (GGAP), an online platform that provides tips on how to lead a more eco-friendly lifestyle
Who: Dubai-based Sharad Agarwal, CEO of Cyber Gear and Founder of GGAP
How: By providing practical info on how to lead a greener life for individuals and businesses