Considering the revolving door of retailers in this city, I've always figured you'd have to be nuts to start a business here, especially one of those socially conscious hippie enterprises. Turns out I was wrong.
"Last year the hundredth monkey theory kicked in," says Sean Gallagher, owner of three-year-old Terroir Local Source Food. "We got a critical mass---with food scares, shortages in food and grain, an aging population and increased health consciousness, people are waking up."
Liz Crocker wasn't so lucky when she co-founded P'lovers (the environmental store) with partner Ann Caverzan in 1992. "We opened in the trough of a recession, on a side street. Part of our message was to consume less, and no one knew what an environmental store was," she quips. Sixteen years later, P'lovers thrives with two Nova Scotia locations and three franchisees across Canada. The key to success has been meeting customers where they are comfortable, intellectually speaking. "We offer a gentle invitation to start on the path" toward reducing one's environmental impact.
Beyond increasing demand and market size for businesses where green means more than money, Gallagher's hundredth highly evolved simian has made it easier to find suppliers. "What has changed in 16 years is that there are many more and preferable options available," says Crocker. "When we opened we could hardly find any baby clothes made with organic cotton, and they were monumentally expensive. There was no such thing as soy then. Now we only use organic cotton or hemp or bamboo."
"Bamboo is super-sustainable," says Ned Zimmerman, cafe manager at Just Us! on Spring Garden. "It is very renewable, you could watchit grow." Just Us! recently began using take-out containers made from bamboo. "It just became available last year---suppliers are starting to make a conservation effort," he adds.
He is equally excited about the move toward compostable coffee cups, and even innovations like 100-percent-recycled paperclips. These changes may seem like minutia, but no detail is too small for the Just Us! approach to sustainability. "We use the Natural Step model," Zimmerman says.
Natural Step is a framework for sustainable decision-making. It analyzes how a business's activities contribute to the release of synthetics, the harvest of resources and its social impacts. "It's a four-step, cost-benefit analysis to make sure we don't invest in something not sustainable," says Zimmerman.
It takes a huge amount of research---Just Us! required a 20-page factory audit on the company supplying its travel mugs---to ensure the sustainability of products, especially with all the greenwash posers out there trying to get their hands on the sustainable cash cow. But Crocker and Zimmerman both note that their customers increasingly demand the information, and that they embark together on a mutual learning process. Fortunately the increasing array of sustainable suppliers vying for their dollars makes the process of finding good information a little easier.
Still, running a business that cares about environment and society can be labour-intensive. For Gallagher, business is largely about building long-term relationships with farmers and the community. "We focus on small agriculture building relationships with Nova Scotian farmers," he says.
Terroir offers a catering service, a retail store and a sandwich bar in Dalhousie's Grad Lounge. It also supplies numerous hip restaurants and cafes around Halifax, including Just Us!.
Gallagher says that when Terroir started three years ago, there was an immediate positive response. "The grassroots got it right away," he says, noting that he was not surprised considering that "Nova Scotia has one of the best farmers' markets in North America."
More recently, even the NS Department of Agriculture has jumped on the bandwagon with its Select Nova Scotia campaign, which encourages us to buy local. Yet our major grocery stores are hesitant to tell us where their food comes from. "It's shipped from greenhouses in BC or Ontario," Gallagher says. "They're not saying from which grower, whether it's organic or not, so they're pissed at Select NS."
Liz Crocker has observed a shift in big business in recent years, and says P'lovers has dropped certain environmental products once they become mainstream, like energy-efficient lightbulbs. But she adds that P'lovers won't meet its goal of being unnecessary until "all businesses work in an exemplary manner and have sustainable alternatives."
She takes heart in the "exciting and inspiring community" in Halifax, and its increased environmental awareness. "Halifax is the perfect place to do better things because we are not mammoth, and we have lots of activist organizations," she says.
With its recent expansion, P'lovers looks bent on dominating retail across the dominion, Just Us! was recently recognized by Progress Magazineas one of the fastest-growing companies around and Terroir is tapping into a boon in the local food movement. Turns out green has a rosy outlook in this town.
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