It is a tough environment for brick-and-mortar retailers right now. It is tougher still if you are in a niche market, like green bricks, mortar and eco-supplies. It is even tougher if you are in a small town on the Canadian shield like Huntsville, Ontario, which earlier this summer accommodated the G8 but was too small for the G20.
I met Jonathan and Celine Mackay of Sustain at the Green Living Show in the spring, and decided I had to pay a visit, to find out how such a business could survive in such a harsh economic environment of rich summer Muskoka playgrounders who take all the money home when they go. Is there a market for this stuff on the rocks?
It is a beautiful store in an unusually attractive industrial strip plaza on the edge of town, right by the highway but a long way from the walk-in tourist traffic. They started primarily with building products like IceStone, zero VOC paints and eco-timber flooring- the main industry up here is building summer homes. (you can't call them cottages). But the contractors weren't interested; they don't get green building up here.
So they branched out into housewares and furnishings, now taking up the majority of the store. One would think that this would have made the off-the-beaten-track location problematic, but Celine says no, "we are into education, and when they come here instead of just walking in, we have the time to teach."
I asked Jonathan how he educates the Muskoka population about green materials.
The main thing that you have to do is break down the stigma that green products have. As you know, people have this view of green that first of all, it's very expensive, second of all there is limited product out there and a limited look to it; a lot of times products peddled as green are not as green as they say they are; and a lot of green products claim to be as good as the non-green ones but don't work. People don't see the value in paying more for it, and a lot of them here think, well, its just for a bunch of hippies. It has the stigma that people don't think it is a mainstream product.
The biggest challenge is to break down those paradigms, to explain the value. Education is the key and we focus on it, that being green is about buying high quality products that last. You have to get out of the purchase cost and into the life-cycle cost.
Concrete sink from local supplier, installed on reconditioned antique dresser
How big is the market for this stuff?
These products are for people who are interested in green, who are health conscious, but we have also found that the products in the green market are so nice, so well made and so beautiful that they are selling to people who are not green and couldn't care less, just love the products, and the reality is, who cares? the result is the same. What we have found that we cannot just stand on a pedestal and be uber-green because that is going to drive people away. We have to sell our products on the virtues they have, and be happy that we are doing the right thing.
When you can't sit around waiting for the customers to walk in, you have to get creative. Celine has published a lovely e-magazine called Pure Green Living. But everything shown in the magazine looks -normal. No overtly green crazy stuff; it is all there to make green look normal, to bring that larger audience into the green market. Putting this together is a job on its own, and deserves a post of its own.
It's not easy being a green entrepreneur, particularly in a part of the world where trees are for cutting, not hugging. Jonathan and Celine have a Home Depot twenty minutes down the road and a lot of educating to do. But they are doing an impressive job at Sustain.