Dialing for Dolphins

Activist Phone Companies Give to the Cause and Reduce Rates, Too

The FAX machine, the World Wide Web and email-all tied to telephone lines-have made possible a revolution in American work habits. The convenience and cost savings of working from home means even the environmentally unaware are increasingly trading in their driving shoes for stay-at-home slippers. Some experts estimate that 20 percent of the workforce will be home-based by 2004.

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But even if you already telecommute, FAX instead of FedEx, and call your congressperson whenever an environmental issue appears in Congress, there’s more to be done. Environmentally correct telephone users are hooking up with eco-friendly (and socially responsible) long-distance services. While AT&T, Sprint and MCI badger and bribe you to sign up, less-expensive, environmentally progressive services are available that use the same high-quality fiber-optic networks as the big boys. These “alternative” phone companies also offer excellent, full-service customer support.

The Movement’s Pioneer

The granddaddy of these services is Working Assets Long Distance (WALD), which launched the socially responsible phone business more than 10 years ago. One percent of all billings generated by WALD’s 250,000-plus customers goes to nonprofit groups such as Greenpeace and Amnesty International. In 1996, WALD’s phone service generated almost $2 million in nonprofit donations (and another $500,000 is kicked in from the credit card division).

In some ways, this money is insignificant compared with the influence WALD wields with its Citizen Action Program. In each phone bill, WALD informs its customers on two issues that deserve their attention-usually, bills before Congress or the president. “About half those issues are environmental ones that we develop in conjunction with widely respected environmental groups,” says Michael Kieschnick, WALD president. “Typically, each alert we mention generates between 30,000 and 50,000 calls and letters,” says Kieschnick. “We believe this makes us the largest progressive citizen action program in the country.” The impressive response of WALD users can be partly attributed to the company’s standing offer of free calls to decision makers.

Although introductory come-on deals and six-month specials make it difficult to directly compare rates, WALD’s standard rates are about a penny cheaper per minute than AT&T. Further discounts are available for volume use. (Customers typically receive a 25 percent discount when their bill goes over $25, and a 30 percent discount when it tops $50.)

Dedicated Dialers

The most environmentally pure long-distance company is Earth Tones, owned by a consortium of seven grassroots nonprofits such as the state Public Interest Research Groups (PIRGs), The National Environmental Law Center and Pesticide Watch. “One hundred percent of our profits go to funding environmental advocacy work,” says Earth Tones director Alex Maws. “And we’ve been profitable since our second year.” Earth Tones encourages its customers to get involved in environmental issues by informing them of a different pressing environmental issue on each bill and by offering free calls to the Congress or the White House. Naturally, bills are printed on double-sided recycled paper.

Earth Tones offers excellent rates: Residential charges are a flat 15 cents per minute, no matter what time the call is made. Earth Tones also offers six-second-interval billing, which means that if you’re on the phone for one minute and one second, you are billed for a one minute and six-second call-not a two-minute call, as is common practice at the Big Three. This feature alone can typically save callers five to 10 percent a month.

If you’re interested in supporting a small, regional environmental group, consider Affinity Corporation’s long-distance service. “Affinity works as a fundraiser for 3,000 nonprofits nationwide,” says Larry Jeffres, director of general services, “including about 60 to 100 environmental groups such as Positive Futures and The Ecology Center.” (For a full listing of its affiliated eco-groups, contact Affinity directly.) Nonprofit groups that get their members to sign up with Affinity receive five percent of the members’ total phone bills. “Many organizations sign up enough members so that the check they receive from us makes their own phone bill basically free,” says Jeffres.

Affinity’s rates are also a good deal: Residential customers are guaranteed 10 percent better rates than whatever they are currently paying. Business customers save five to 20 percent, depending on their present arrangement. While Affinity’s bills don’t include updates on political happenings and incentives to call government officials (as WA and Earth Tones do), they do have a lot in common: all three print their bills on recycled paper with soy inks.

The best thing about the progressive telcos is that green consumers can put their money where their mouths are-while also achieving significant savings on long-distance calls.