Wednesday, May 2, 2007

The Ecopreneur Goes to the Market

I always maintain that an educated consumer is a green consumer. Once you are aware of the issues, you are compelled to make the environmental choice. So at Grassroots I have always focused on training my staff, not just about the products, but about the issues behind the products. I’ve always maintained that there is a story behind every product in a Grassroots store. That story could be about unsustainable logging practices, chemicals in the environment, air pollution or water pollution. With each of our products there is an environmental issue that we can talk about. Which makes Grassroots a very interesting shop. The level of conversation is very high – it gets very political, sometimes controversial, but mostly it is educational. This isn’t the Gap…

As I mentioned in an earlier blog posting, the social and political climate of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s very closely mirrors what is happening today – except I believe we are in a much deeper crisis. In 2007, the environment is again the number one political issue. The consequences of human-accelerated climate change is on everyone’s mind. Every publication out there has a Green issue. “An Inconvenient Truth” won an Oscar. Hollywood's car of choice is hybrid-powered. Oprah is flogging compact fluorescent light bulbs. This Green Living Show is a phenomenal success. All politicians are running around trying to paint themselves green, and, once again, corporate Canada is putting a green spin on their business.

I have never seen as much corporate greenwashing as I have in the past year. Companies making outrageous claims about their products, products being re-branded as green, misleading advertising, and outright lies. I honestly feel that there has never been a greater need for a business like Grassroots. Grassroots is more relevant today than we ever have been. Grassroots has always acted as a filter for its customers, weeding out the posers and promoting the companies and products that are legitimate.

After almost 15 years of looking at products for our stores I have become pretty wise to many of the claims and much of the hype surrounding environmental products. I will do my best to be diplomatic and not name names and hopefully by the end of this blog you will walk away with a better sense of what is the real deal and what is misleading.

As consumers, I am totally sympathetic. We are being bombarded with advertising every waking minute by companies that have ad budgets larger than the GDP of most small countries. We are constantly multi-tasking, we are busy at work, we don’t have time to investigate every product, every claim, every company.

So what can we do to be more conscious mindful consumers?

CONSUME LESS. Well my first recommendation, and this may be a bit of a surprise coming from a retailer, but we have to start consuming less. Most companies cringe when they hear this, but we must start buying into quality of life not quantity of products. We must reduce our consumption and increase our happiness.

FOLLOW THE 3R'S. 1-Reduce, 2-Reuse, then 3-recycle. We have all become very adept at recycling. When I am introduced to people, 9 times out of 10 they tell me about how they are really into recycling, they bring their blue box out to the curb every week, which is great, but we have to remember that recycling is the last of the 3R’s. Recycling doesn’t address consumption at all – it can actually be argued that it perpetuates consumption because we feel like good responsible citizens throwing packaging into the blue box. Let’s all begin to look at recycling as our last resort and start focusing on reducing and reusing.

VOTE WITH YOUR DOLLAR. If you’re going to spend money, spend it on companies and products that support your values – every dollar you spend is a vote – everytime you choose to spend money on a product or service, you are essentially telling that company that you agree with what they are doing and you want to support them. If products aren’t selling, companies discontinue them. If products sell well, companies will make more of them. So be mindful of what, and who, you are supporting with your voting dollars.

SHOP FOR VALUE. Don’t shop for price, shop for value. As a retailer I am bombarded daily by people trying to buy products at a cheaper price. I understand that everyone likes a deal, but that always comes at a price. When there is consumer pressure to bring down the price of products the first places that manufacturers look for savings are in lower wages and ignoring environmental regulations. We see the results daily as companies move their manufacturing to countries with lower wages and little, or no, environmental controls. Large corporations enjoy the advantages of price pressure by consumers because they have the resources to source products internationally which gives them a competitive advantage. Low Everyday Prices come with a hidden price tag that we all pay.

BUY LOCAL. Support local businesses, support locally made products. It is not always possible to find products and services locally, but when there is an option, support your local economy. It pays to keep your money circulating in your local economy as opposed to sending your money to another country. Currency that stays in our local economy means a stronger economy – more jobs, better services, stronger communities, and healthier cities.

BUY QUALITY. Buy quality, durable products. We have created a disposable society where people buy products and throw them away after one use. This is not a sustainable way to live. Disposable products clog our landfills and deplete our resources so we must focus on supporting products that are durable, long-lasting, and repairable. Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten.

READ LABELS. Find out what is in the products you use. Many manufacturers are quick to tell you what isn’t in their products, but they aren’t too quick to tell you what is in it. Ask for ingredient lists, find out where the product is made, inquire about the manufacturers environmental policies. Ask about the working conditions where the product is manufactured. One caveat, just because it is made in Canada doesn’t mean it is produced in a fair and ethical manner. Conversely, just because it is made in China does mean it has been made with unethical labour.

AVOID EXCESSIVE PACKAGING. Overpackaging is out of control and we have to start making manufacturers aware that we will not stand for unnecessary packaging. I was recently given a box of organic cookies from one of our country’s largest grocery stores. Yes, the cookies were labeled organic but the cookies were packed in a plastic tray which was inside a plastic bag which was inside a cardboard box – all this for cookies! We aren’t transporting nuclear waste guys! There is absolutely no producer responsibility in this country and that must change. If manufacturers were responsible for the packaging they produced, we would see an incredible reduction in the amount of packaging waste. This would also bring down the cost of the actual product. One industry that has made great strides toward reducing packaging is the music industry. Rarely do you see excessive packaging of a CD. Many of today’s CD’s are packaged in recycled paper or hemp paper and wrapped in plastic – they just have to replace the plastic wrap with biodegradable starch-based wrap and we’ll be even further ahead. But take a look around at the products you see and keep in mind how much packaging is used. With more thoughtful design, consumer support, and innovative packaging material we can significantly reduce the amount of garbage going to landfill.

DO YOUR RESEARCH. Read company websites to learn more about them. It is amazing what many companies print on their packaging and on their websites. Quite often companies are their own worst enemies, implicating themselves through their website and corporate literature.

GET INVOLVED. Be active – contact companies – ask questions, give them feedback. If you have decided to use your dollars to vote for a company, you are, indirectly, a partner. Take ownership -- talk to companies about their products, their ingredients, etc. Give them both positive encouragement for a job well done, and constructive criticism on how they can improve their products and service.

BUYCOTTS & BOYCOTTS. Participate in 'buycotts' and, conversely, participate in boycotts. Support and encourage businesses that agree with your values, and vote against companies that insult your values.

SUPPORT INNOVATORS. Support the innovators, not the imitators. Once again, we are seeing so many companies desperately trying to paint themselves green to win over the consumer. Be wary of their claims, make them earn your trust, ensure they are walking the talk. There are so many companies out there that talk a great game, they talk about making a difference, but hold their feet to the fire and make them prove that they are sincere. Take a look at the past records or history of some of the companies out there. Have they shown ongoing commitment to their environmental programs, or do they abandon them when the environment is no longer the number 1 issue? One of Canada's largest grocers is a great example of a company that abandon their “green” program in the early 1990’s as the environment fell as the number 1 political issue. Now that the environment is the number 1 political issue in 2007, guess who just re-launched their “green” program? Are they committed to the environment and worthy of your support? Not according to past history.

BE HEARD. Support political parties and politicians that share your values. Contact your elected representatives and demand their commitment to the environment. Although we only vote every 3-5 years, you should always have access to your elected representatives. Make them work for your vote and make sure their values agree with your values.

YOU CAN MAKE A DIFFERENCE. Never forget that every one of us has an impact, and each of us can make a difference.

To wrap this up, I wanted to point out how the positions of power have changed throughout recent history. Centuries ago the power and influence came from the church. The church was the centre of every city, town and village and it was the church leaders that held the power. Eventually the state, or government replaced the church as the leaders, holding the balance of power; only to be usurped by corporations. Like it or not, business has held the balance of power and influence recently. However, I feel that the times are changing again, but this time it is the collective power of the people that are going to hold the influence over the church, over the government, and over business.

It is quite obvious to me right now that the green revolution is being led by the people. In North America there is absolutely no evidence of political will or leadership on the environment. There is no corporate responsibility being taken for the environment and the major religious leaders are showing very little environmental action. The green movement in the 21st century is being driven by you and I. Our challenge now is to sustain the movement, help launch the new green economy and alter our current course. Positive change begins at the grassroots…

[This blog is an excerpt from my speech on the main stage at the Green Living Show this past weekend - April 27-29, 2007]