Finding Markets For Green Goods

Environmental entrepreneurs tap new niche

IN a narrow, green-ceilinged store in Newton, Mass., Annabelle Ship picks up one "green" product after another and enthusiastically explains its function and benefits.

On one shelf are shower and faucet head attachments designed to save water. Nearby are containers of biodegradable laundry detergent, dishwashing liquid, and toilet cleaners. Other products range from odd-shaped light bulbs that last about nine years longer than standard ones to socks made out of "green" cotton - a cotton that is not bleached or treated with chemicals.

A year and a half ago, Ms. Ship was considered a pioneer: She was one of the first people to open a "green" store - a store specializing in products that are environmentally oriented. Now her store - The Green Planet - is one of more than 100 that have cropped up in cities such as New York and Chicago and in towns as small as Cheraw, S.C.

"I think [the stores] are really a harbinger of things to come in the retail sector," says Jacquelyn Ottman, president of J. Ottman Consulting, an environmental- marketing consulting firm in New York. The 1989 Exxon oil spill and Earth Day 1990 heightened consumer concern over the environment and have helped pave the way for this type of store, Ms. Ottman says.

Not all green stores are the same. Some are fancy environmental gift stores, selling mainly products such as T-shirts, stickers, candy made with rain-forest nuts, and other paraphernalia. Others focus on items whose use helps prevent damage to the environment. While some items cost more than their supermarket counterparts, ecoproduct supporters contend that customers will get quality products that cut down on waste, eliminate pollutants, and save energy.

Cynics ask whether "green" products are gimmicky. Consumers have to "beware of 'greenwashing, Ship says. "Everyone has to be his or her own detective ... and read the labels."

Jon Clark, associate publisher of In Business, a bimonthly magazine for environmental entrepreneurs, says many proprietors have no retail background but open a green store because of their concern for the environment. They have to be knowledgeable about the products so they can explain their benefits to customers. "That is going to require them almost to make sure the products they sell are bona fide," Mr. Clark says.

Clark says the number of small entrepreneurial companies creating and distributing environmental products is growing rapidly. When Ship first opened The Green Planet, she had to buy each product directly from its manufacturer. Now several distributors can provide her with a variety of goods.

Ottman says the merchandise is starting to make its way into special sections of supermarkets and hardware stores. "Then we will see products becoming normalized within major retail chains," she says. Yet "these little green stores may survive if they stay on the leading edge."

Ship, who started with just a few products, is planning to move into a larger space nearby. Although business hasn't been booming, she says she is doing well enough to stay afloat during the recession.

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