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]

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Ecopreneur Gets Political

It has never been more clear to me that history really does repeat itself. With each passing day I feel more and more like I’m living back in 1990. In April of that year, I was at an Earth Day celebration in Washington, D.C. Tom Cruise was there, Cindy Crawford and Richard Gere were there, R.E.M. and the Indigo Girls performed, politicians from all parties were vying for spots on the mainstage, vendors and eco orgs were out in strong numbers, and hundreds of thousands of people filled the National Mall & Memorial Parks for the annual tree-huggin’ love-in. I couldn’t help but be inspired…

Fast forward to 2007 -- the environment is the number one political issue; you can’t scan the headlines of a daily paper without reading about the environment; Vanity Fair, Canadian House & Home, Wish, Chatelaine, Post City Magazines – have all published “green” issues. Hollywood actors are super-visible advocates for the environment and interest in their green lifestyles dominates the entertainment media. Rock stars are touring in biodiesel buses and offsetting their carbon emissions. I can’t help but be inspired…

I keep finding myself comparing these two points in time.

Journalists are now scouring their rolodexes – oh that’s so 1990 – I mean their Blackberrys, in search of green products, tips, services, and facts about the environment and, thankfully, my phone is ringing off the hook. One question that I am repeatedly asked is “Have you noticed a spike in business in the last 6 months?” Well, no, I haven’t. Don’t get me wrong, business is very strong and it has been for the past 3-4 years. Which leads me to conclude that Grassroots customers, and people in general, are way ahead of the media, and even further ahead of the politicians.

So, as inspired as I am that the (LED-powered) spotlight is shining brightly on the environmental movement, I have to ask -- WHERE is the political will in this country to effectively adopt a truly green agenda? The Stephen Harper Tories are scrambling around the country, flipping through the Green Party playbook for ideas and introducing watered-down new program initiatives that are strikingly similar to programs they previously gutted; see Energuide/ecoEnergy for more information. They are looking even more disorganized than the Liberals did on the environment. Speaking of the Liberals, could someone wake up Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty and tell him that it isn’t 1960 and that Nuclear power is not the answer to a clean energy future? Billions of dollars in cost over-runs, insurmountable debt, constant maintenance, and no safe way to store the waste that never breaks down – this is what he’s investing public money in? Let’s focus on demand-side management (eg., conservation measures) before we mortgage our grandchildren’s economic and environmental future on a proven boondoggle.

Why don’t our elected representatives see that we want change? We want clean air to breathe, we want clean water to drink, we want clean soil to grow our foods, we want clean energy to power our energy-efficient homes, and we want clean communities to live in. If we use Grassroots as a social barometer, it would be safe to say that we are all beginning to make changes in the way we live our lives. We are all choosing to be more environmentally responsible in our lifestyle choices. Unfortunately this grassroots movement hasn’t made its way to Queen’s Park, Parliament Hill, or the White House.

Not only do we want change, we want to be able to count on strong political leadership to take us there: politicians who lead, not follow; innovators, not imitators.

We are all capable of taking action to help fill the leadership gap – we can use our power as consumers, voters and volunteers to sustain the green momentum and change the political, social, and environmental landscape forever. We just might be able to prevent the current groundswell of support for the environment from fizzling out like it did in the mid-1990s. Here are some ways to help keep THAT part of history from repeating itself.

*Engage with your elected representatives. Send emails, write letters and call your municipal, provincial, and federal politicians and let them know what you value and ask them what they are doing to support your values; tell them what you would like them to do. And hold them accountable! They are followers – give them direction.

*Get involved in your community. Volunteer. Pick up trash. Reduce the amount of waste you put on the curb. Compost. Re-use. Recycle. Use public transit, walk or ride your bike whenever possible.

*Speak up and be heard. Help forward the green agenda by writing letters to the editor, emailing broadcasters, producers, and programmers. Write a blog. Join or start an environmental awareness group or committee at your school or office.

*Request more environmental reporting – why isn’t there an environment section in every newspaper? There are sections dedicated to sport, business, fashion, lifestyle and entertainment; why not more environmental content?

*Get involved in a political campaign. Help elect people that support a green platform.
And if you live in Ontario, remember to remind the McGuinty government that you want to see concrete action before the fall election.

*Run for political office. If your current representative isn’t supporting the environment, put someone into office that will – YOU.

As I interact with our customers everyday I am inspired by the great things they are doing in their lives to help make our communities stronger and our environment healthier. I remain positive because I see the change that is occurring each day. Significant changes have been made at the grassroots level and we are starting to see those changes being adopted by businesses and the media, so eventually the politicians will follow. Our challenge is to sustain the movement and inspire political will and keep the environment as the number one political issue forever. We are closing in on the tipping point and without continuous support for the environment we will fall back the way we did in the early 1990’s. History doesn’t have to repeat itself -- here is an opportunity to learn from the past, don’t ignore it.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
-Charles Dickens – A Tale of Two Cities

Monday, April 9, 2007

The Ecopreneur Makes a Difference

As much as I wish Grassroots could carry on business without relying on a motorized vehicle, the fact is that we have to shuttle more items around than we can manage with a bike trailer. The decision to use a van brought with it some serious thinking about how to minimize its impact. So, I bought a used van instead of a new one, use it as efficiently as possible by pre-planning loads and routes, started purchasing carbon offsets to neutralize the environmental impact, and run the thing on natural gas.

Natural-gas-powered vehicles are rare on the streets of Toronto, and places to refuel are in short supply. Often, when I’m filling up the tank, I end up chatting with someone who is either refueling their own natural-gas-powered vehicle, or who wants to know what I think about the stuff. What with rising petroleum prices, supply issues and increasing awareness about emissions, most people I talk to are really interested in learning about alternatives to using “regular” gas.

But a few months back, a guy filling up his van from the same pump looked at me and said, “It’s not really worth it, huh?” He kept talking and told me he thought having to use a natural-gas-powered van was useless and inconvenient (it was his employer’s truck), and we would both be better off driving petroleum fueled vehicles. I said I wouldn’t go that route, because even though petroleum and natural gas are both non-renewable fuels, natural gas burns much cleaner and pollutes less. I told him I actually sought out a natural-gas-powered van for the lower environmental impact. He thought that was pretty funny, told me I wasn’t making a difference, my contribution was so miniscule that it wasn’t worth it, etc. I said I figure we should always be looking to make the most environmentally responsible choices possible. Seriously, I wasn’t looking for an argument, but I get really frustrated when I talk to people who refuse to see their own potential, or the power they have to inspire others through their actions.

So I took a deep breath and smiled, and asked him if he had kids, or grandchildren – and he said he did. I asked him if he thought maybe it was a good idea to try to lessen his impact on the environment – if only for his grandchildren. I told him I honestly believe the thoughtful actions of individuals can add up to major environmental improvement. Didn’t matter -- he was just as firm in his belief that there is no way one person can make any difference at all.

This exchange lasted maybe 5 minutes, but it stays on my mind. I wanted to share this story, because I know a lot of you probably wonder from time to time if your efforts to live more sustainably are making a difference. I don’t know how to measure it, and I don’t know how to reassure you, but I do know this: you will never make a difference if you don’t try.

"Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."
-- Margaret Mead

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

The Ecopreneur Makes Waves...

Welcome to the first installment of the Ecopreneur blog – an informal and personal extension of the business side of my life you’re already familiar with if you shop at Grassroots or attend our workshops. I hope you’ll enjoy getting to know me on a more casual level, join the discussion, share your views and experiences.

So where to begin? What the heck is an Ecopreneur anyway? And what makes me one?

In my mind, an Ecopreneur is anyone who, through a combination of imagination, idealism and integrity, creates a new way of doing business while being committed to a three-part bottom line: environmental, social and economic.

I wasn’t bred to be an environmentalist. When I was a kid I didn’t dream of being an activist when I grew up. It never really occurred to me that I could make a difference, in either a negative or a positive way. I grew up in Scarborough, a suburb of Toronto. My “developmental” years were pretty standard. There weren’t any early warning signs that I would become an ardent crusader for the protection of our planet. My folks were loving and supportive, but not political at all. We didn’t compost let alone consume much in the way of fresh food. I don’t think I tried granola until I was in University and I didn’t get my first pair of Birkenstocks until I was twentysomething. My main connection to the outdoors and ultimately, my desire to protect it, came from how I spent all my childhood summers – a couple of hours north of Toronto at our family cottage. Come to think of it, there might have been some low-level activism brewing then, or at least an increased awareness of human impact on the environment -- every summer there were more cottages built, more boats on the lake, more cars on the highway, more commerce catering to seasonal residents – was there a point where it would have to stop?

In 1989 I was in my last year of University. My life plan was to go into business, probably work in a brokerage firm, build up my stock portfolio, make some money and live well. Then one day I read an article in the Toronto Star that changed everything. It was called “In a Sea of Pollution, One Can Still Make Waves” by David Suzuki. I credit that column with getting me on the environmentally-conscious path I’ve taken ever since. I was so struck by the article that I cut it out, read it and re-read it, and I still have the original. Suzuki was writing, as he probably has countless times before and after, about empowerment, making a difference, having the will to make simple choices in aid of the environment. His ideas were thoughtful, accessible, exciting, conscientious, honest. Reading the article helped me see that even if I made some small changes in my lifestyle they could add up to a positive effect on the environment. The message resonated: it was simple and effective.

I graduated, I worked and traveled, I volunteered with a number of environmental organizations, I protested and petitioned, and finally, I opened up Grassroots.

Encouraging Personal Empowerment. Making a Difference. Offering Accessible Ways to Effect Change. Being Conscientious and Honest. I believe these are the hallmarks of Grassroots.

I have been running the business for almost 15 years now. I make decisions every day that, I hope, honour the vision Suzuki wrote about back in 1989. Grassroots has developed into more than just a business – it is a community, a gathering place, an interactive information centre, a place of action, a forum for sharing ideas, it is philanthropic, a pioneer, a passionate and ethical leader. I followed Suzuki’s advice and looked for ways to make a difference. I put both my feet firmly on the path of Ecopreneurism, and hope my enthusiasm might influence others the way I was affected by that Suzuki article.

Now if I could only meet him in person…