A couple of weeks ago I asked for some questions to have answered by a green entrepreneur. Mark Caserta runs 3R Living with his wife Samantha in Brooklyn. He has been kind enough to provide detailed answers about operating a green business. I want to start by thanking Mark for taking the time to answer these questions and we appreciate him sharing his experiences.
1. What is your definition of a green business?
Such a difficult question. I mean, a business can be anything from an architectural firm to a manufacturer to a retailer. The common thread that would make these different businesses "green", in my opnion, is a belief, at the core mission of the business, in sustainability and protecting our planet while making a profit. To me, a green business should be about more than
offering green as a choice to customers (ie. “Here is our green product line, here is our regular product line.”) A green business should be about striving to be green in every facet of their operations. For 3r Living, our only reason for being is to sell products that are based on the principles of reducing waste, reusing unwanted or discarded materials, and recycling in mind. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle. 3r. Living. Get it?
2. What experience did you have in the environmental field prior to opening your business and how did you leverage it to your business?
Samantha is a retail guru. She has managed major Manhattan chain stores and really knows the retail business and how it all works. My background is in Political Science/Public Policy. In 2003/2004, when we started to think about opening our store, I was a lobbyist for the New York League of Conservation Voters, fighting for stronger environmental laws in New York City. After a lot of thought, we agreed that any business that we opened together had to be sustainable, marrying Samantha’s retail interests with my environmental concerns. To keep myself “in-the-know” (and to make a little extra money) I still lobby for groups seeking funding for their local parks, etc., as a consultant. Old habits die hard.
3. What skill/knowledge did you find out you didn't have when you started your business?
I think we had an advantage over a lot of other green retail business at the time that we opened because Samantha really understood the retail world and I had a decent grip on the environmental issues we were trying to address. I have heard other green retailers complain about the hours and workload. We already knew what to expect. What we really didn’t understand, fully, was the difficulty in running an online webstore at the same time. A lot of people think that you just throw a website up and then money comes pouring in. What they don’t realize is that there is just as much hard work behind it as running a physical store. I think we’ve gotten better at running our web store, over time, and I’ve certainly gained a lot of new skills: photography, Photoshop, Html, blogging, etc.
4. How do you define green/environmentally friendly in your business and how do you convey it to your customers?
As I noted above, 3r Living is based on the principles of reducing waste, reusing unwanted or discarded materials, and recycling in mind. We look for the best quality and price in eco-friendly products. That means we favor manufacturers and artisans who dedicate their talents to creating clever, modern, and earth-affirming products out of unwanted everyday items. In addition, we look for fairly-traded products and those made from organic ingredients. We encourage manufacturers to use environmentally-friendly packaging and sustainable manufacturing techniques.
From the very beginning, we were looking for ways to convey our mission that didn’t sound like our store was for hippies. Nothing wrong with hippies (okay, that depends on your opinion) but we felt like people would never buy green products from us if:
-our company was too preachy
-the products were tie-died or made of itchy hemp or lacked style
-concentrated on a specific political philosophy (we don’t sell “Fuck
Bush” t-shirts because we want Republicans to feel comfortable in our
stores and to embrace the message, not walk away saying “stupid
liberals”. Ultimately, we all breathe the same air.)
Samantha came up with the tag line “Future Friendly Products”, which I think says it all. The “reduce, reuse, recycle, fair trade” circles in our logo were meant to aid our customers in choosing goods, ie. A “recycle” circle would be on the price tag of the product that was made from recycled materials. I have to admit, that is a lot of work and we’ve failed at it thus far. Luckily, we are very knowledgeable about our products and our staff is well trained to be able to talk about them.
5. What determines that a product is green? How do you ensure that what you sell is environmentally friendly? Do you consider other factors like labor practices?
This is still a difficult question to answer. Are the recycled magazine coasters that we sell environmentally friendly because they are made of recycled paper or are they bad because they are made in/shipped from Vietnam? Is selling goods made certified Fair Trade in Africa good for the environment because it encourages a sustainable living for people who have no where to turn for economic development, or should it be rejected because shipping goods from Africa uses way too much fuel? Here’s what I can say for sure:
A) Some of our products are greener alternatives to products we all use. For example, Natural Choices and Mrs. Meyers cleaning products are much healthier for our customers and the planet. You only have to try them to understand that.
B) Some of the products we sell have more of an educational value. This happens every day at our stores: a customer picks up the coasters mentioned above and says “Oh my God, these are made of recycled paper! It’s amazing what you can do with recycled goods. We really do waste a lot of stuff.” Every time I hear that, which really is every day, I know we’ve done something positive and opened some eyes.
C) We do all that we can to research the products we sell. We try every cleaning product, soap, etc. at home and, if we find out things that we don’t like after the fact, we take them off of our shelves and send them back to the manufacturer. We don’t accept being lied to by our suppliers, even if the products make us a lot of money.
D) We try not to sell too many expensive products because we don’t want our message to be “green is for the rich.” Unfortunately, when you seek green products that are competitively priced, you often find them made in China. Again, is it okay because this will encourage economic
development and, ultimately environmentalism in China (it has) or should we be concerned about the low wages, high fuel use and stories of questionable manufacturing processes? This is going to be a struggle for green manufacturers and retailers for years to come.
6. Are all “green” products made of sustainable materials and how are they certified?
Not necessarily. Think about Compact Fluorescent Bulbs. They use WAY less electricity than standard bulbs but they contain a bit of Mercury, which is a dangerous poison. This always drives me crazy: we have local municipal marketing campaigns to get people to switch to CFL bulbs, but the city offers no safe, easy way to dispose of them. Why did I go on this tangent (other than to get that off of my chest)? Some green products save energy but are made of less-than eco-friendly materials. Some green products are made of Organic Cotton, which can be certified by the federal government (or not). Some green products are made of “recycled” materials, and you’ll need to do some digging to make sure it’s true. It’s a complicated business.
7. How do you get your business approved as a green business? Is there a certification or standard of sorts for yourself or other businesses?
As far as I know, there is no “green business” certification in the U.S. I think there are trade groups we can join, and such, but that’s about it. Wouldn’t that be nice?
8. What steps do you take that your operations are environmentally friendly?
We set our stores up as green:
-we used Low-VOC paints on the walls and ceilings
-we use 100% wind energy to power our stores and at home (aka our world
-most of our fixtures were reused fixtures from older stores or antiques
-we use recycled content paper bags only and we ask customers if they need them before giving them one
-we offer recycling of batteries, ink cartridges, compact disks, cassette tapes, dvd’s, vcr tapes, small electronics, cell phones and crayons to our customers for free. It costs us tens of thousands of dollars every year, but I think it’s worth it.
-we use an optional carbon offset program for our online customers. It is optional because it forces the customers to think about the co2 their order is contributing to the planet. Yeah, offset programs are not perfect. But, if the company we work with is doing half of what they promise, it’s more that what our customers would have done for the environment, making purchases at any other site.
9. What advice would you give to someone wanting to start a green business?
I would say that it is critical to do your research, write a business plan and take your time planning. That’s what we did and it really made a difference. You can have fun with it all. Take some trips and visit businesses that are similar or that inspire you. In the end, though, you need to take a leap of faith and decide to either go for it or not. If you decide to go for it, realize that your new business will be the center of your life for years to come and that you’ll be working your ass off for a long time with very little pay to show for it. The good news is that you’ll be working for yourself, rather than “the man” and, hopefully, you’ll be doing something positive for planet earth.