By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, 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."