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Showcasing the Growth of the Green Economy


By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post
October 16, 2006


Keith Ware dressed naturally to set up his booth at the Green Festival. He wore
an organic cotton hooded jacket, organic cotton blue jeans and organic hemp work
boots, the soles of which are made from recycled surgical gloves. He was not,
however, wearing his organic cotton underwear.

"That's not to say I don't own some," he said.

Ware is one of the owners of Eco-Green Living, a Logan Circle store that sells
organic and fair-trade products such as teas, hemp boots and even the makeshift
floor he was setting up, which was made from Marmoleum -- a combination of
linseed oil, wood flour, rosin, jute and limestone. He was an exhibitor over the
weekend at the Green Festival, which drew crowds of people to the Washington
Convention Center to celebrate light bulbs that last 60,000 hours, investment
funds targeting socially responsible companies and paper made from elephant dung
by a company called Mr. Ellie Pooh.

The show, the third in the District, grew from 250 exhibitors in the first year
to more than 350. Although some exhibitors were selling products, the chief
intention of the show was to develop the industry by connecting the principles
and products of green businesses with mainstream customers.

By many accounts, the green business movement is taking off, with the
marketplace topping more than $228 billion in the United States and with such
companies as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. getting into organic food and General Electric
Co. plowing into renewable energy. Levi's is introducing organic cotton jeans.
Vanity Fair recently published a green issue.

"I think the business has taken off like a rocket," said Kevin Danaher,
co-founder of Global Exchange, a San Francisco organization that promotes
social, economic and environmental justice around the world. "I think it's left
the launching pad."

But as Danaher and others pound away at expanding the green economy, what was
long a counterculture movement is now embracing one of its sworn enemies -- big
business -- as a key component of the cause. Danaher's organization has railed
for years against Nike Inc.'s manufacturing methods, accusing the company of
running sweatshops, yet he says the Wal-Marts of the world can help the world go
green. Such companies legitimize the movement and can offer a wider market for
niche products from smaller companies, he said.

"It's the big guys genuflecting in the reflection of our values," he said. "The
previous economy was based on money values. The next economy will be based on
life values. You do commerce and make money, but you're making your money by
saving nature and protecting human rights."

Danaher acknowledged that embracing big business may seem contradictory, and not
all green groups agree with him. Wal-Mart has plenty of critics, who argue that
the retailer's drive for low-cost products could degrade organic standards. "It
creates confusion," Danaher said. "People have this anti-corporation, anti-big
thing, which is understandable. Wal-Mart knocks out small businesses. They keep
their wages down." But, he said: "They get it out into the public mind. That's
why we do this show. Let's get into the general public. Preaching to the already
converted doesn't take you anywhere. It's taking it into the mainstream that does."

Ware's store has been open for about a year. Besides selling to walk-in
customers, the store supplies home-building and remodeling contractors with
tankless water heaters, solar-powered roof fans, bamboo flooring and nontoxic
paints. "We have grown phenomenally," he said. "We've gone from doing a couple
hundred dollars a month to several thousand a day."

One of the most common questions Ware gets about his business is about
competition, particularly from big companies. Wal-Mart, for example, has
invested heavily in its organic business, becoming the world's largest buyer of
organic cotton products. Last year, GE said that its Ecomagination program,
which it describes as building "innovative technologies that help customers
address their environmental and financial needs and help GE grow," generated
$10.1 billion in revenue, up from $6.2 billion in 2004. Waste Management Inc.,
the country's largest waste collector, is turning landfill gases into
electricity for 400,000 homes.

"People always ask me about competition," Ware said. "No. No. There is only
validation of the industry right now. It hurts the movement if they are doing
small things for the publicity. If they are genuinely trying to do the things
that they say they are doing for the right reasons, then it helps. I'm sure they
are finding that, heck, they are earning more money off it. The idea is to get
everybody moving."

Which raises the question: What if Target or Wal-Mart opened a store 10 blocks
from him that sold everything he sells?
Ware doesn't think Wal-Mart would put him out of business. In fact, he thinks if
Wal-Mart sells more green products, his business will be enhanced, with even
more foot traffic. Ware said that if competitors were legitimately green, "I
would be absolutely enthralled with it. . . . I know there will be more and more
places coming up where you can buy Marmoleum flooring. Everyone will soon be
selling organic cotton shoes and clothing."

And judging by the turnout at this year's show, there will be plenty of
customers. The festival drew about 25,000 people, up from 17,000 last year.
Fifteen minutes after opening Saturday morning, there were four lines with more
than 60 people in each, waiting to get tickets.

The green industry's move toward the middle provided an interesting study in
contrasts. While the show offered free valet parking for bicycle riders,
high-profile Washington was also represented, and Tim Russert and his wife
strolled through the hall.

Liz and Jim Staedler of Summit, N.J., were in town visiting their daughter when
they came across a flier for the show. Though they have never been to a green
event, their 22-year-old son has been pushing them to incorporate sustainable
energy into their Colorado home. They decided to drop by for some ideas.
"I thought it would be hippies and granolas, that type of thing," Jim said.
"What I see here is some of that, but it's really more toward the mainstream."

The Staedlers were standing in an aisle with a booth selling politically charged
bumper stickers, including one that said "Too Poor To Vote Republican." But
nearby, in a booth with an iPod playing the Jackson Five through a speaker, a
tall man in a pinstriped suit introduced chic body products from Pangea
Organics. Big selling point: The skin lotion boxes are plantable and will grow
Genovese sweet basil.

The products displayed varied appreciably: stationery from Mr. Ellie Pooh;
organic wine and beer; sustainable men's underwear at $10 a pair. There was
wheat litter bedding for pets, organic yerba mate, and information on obtaining
an MBA in sustainable management.

Zach Lyman is the managing partner of a District company called Reware, which
sells backpacks and messenger bags that have small solar panels on the outside
to provide electricity for charging. Connect cellphones, iPods, GPS navigation
devices and other gizmos to the bag, and they can be charged in generally the
same time it would take plugging them into a wall socket. The bags sell for
about $240. Lyman estimated that he has sold about 3,500 of them.

The bags were popular with early adopters and green-product aficionados, but
after Hurricane Katrina, when millions of Americans realized that they could be
without power for months, Lyman's business expanded into the mainstream, to
average consumers as well as disaster workers and utility companies.
"I'm a big mainstream guy," Lyman said. "That's the whole thing with this bag.
How do we introduce renewable energy to people who don't think about it in their
everyday life?"

Lyman said he was particularly enthusiastic about GE's efforts in green energy.
"My whole goal in life is to bring this stuff into the mainstream," he said. "I
look at GE and I'm excited. They are getting the message out, and for us, here
you have one of the most successful companies in the world and they are saying
that climate change matters, that renewable energy matters. That is so
exciting."

Mark Bisbee, the owner of Liberty Carpet One in Fairfax, has created an offshoot
called GreenFloors. He sells, among other things, carpet made from recycled soda
bottles, which are sorted by color, ground into chips that are turned into
fibers, then spun into a carpet.

A curious thing happened in the carpet market. Because nylon carpet needs oil
for production, the high price of oil has pushed nylon carpet prices about $3
per square yard above recycled carpet.

Bisbee has customers in 48 states. He is still waiting for Wyoming and Hawaii.
"It was a small niche market and now it's more mainstream," Bisbee said.
"Basically it's a question of awareness. Once people are aware they have choices
it's easy, especially if it's economically similar. Then there is not really a decision."


 

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