Back in 1994 there were not a lot of places selling green products; In Toronto, Canada there were none, until Rob Grand opened Grass Roots Environmental Products. It had a bit of a hippie vibe, and a bit of everything; toys, clothing, home and kitchen stuff, books and food; it was a real green department store. I discovered it in 2005 and described it as “Treehugger Heaven- clothes, paper, hemp products, cleaning products, gifts, toys and more.”
It was very successful and around forever, so I was shocked to get an email announcing that it it is closing. Rob wrote:
During our 20+ years Grassroots has been a trailblazer, a pioneer, and a business leader, promoting the messages of environmental protection, healthy lifestyle, business sustainability, and corporate social responsibility. As an activist-oriented business, Grassroots broke new ground by advocating, supporting, and participating in social, political, and environmental change. We led the movement that has helped shift the way businesses now operate. It has been very rewarding to see companies across North America begin to adopt and integrate sustainability and corporate social responsibility into their mandates based on the pioneering work we have done at Grassroots.
So what happened? I called Rob to find out. It’s is not the usual story of small business failure, but in some ways it is a story of success.
For sure, it is hard running a small business; Rob notes that he has a loyal core of devoted green customers who supported it through good times and bad, but after the Great Recession of 2008 he lost a lot of customers who became more concerned about price than sustainability. There is also a certain amount of green fatigue out there.
But the main issue was one that Rob actually predicted back in an interview years ago: that he was “in business to go out of business”- when the message of sustainability got out to the larger business world, when the big manufacturers started producing green lines of products, when the marketplace was transformed so that you could get green and healthy products anywhere, then there really wouldn’t be a need for his store anymore.
And that has actually happened; there are sustainable lines of clothing; every grocery store sells green cleaning products. If sustainability has not gone mainstream, it is certainly a lot more accessible and prevalent than it was twenty years ago. Rob notes:
Many of the green products that you find in stores across North America had their start at Grassroots. We are the early adopters; Grassroots would introduce a new green product to the market, use it, promote it, educate our customers, champion it, then watch our products move into the mainstream.
Rob Grand feels that he had an impact on his community and made a difference, and that is absolutely true. It’s hard to be happy about the store closing, but as Rob notes, “it spotlights how far we have come regarding the issues of sustainability and mindfulness.”
Rob doesn’t know what he is going to do next, perhaps “work with some company in the sustainable sector.” No doubt he will make a difference there too. Thank you, Rob for 22 years of Grass Roots.