Even Wal-Mart sells organic cotton T-shirts these days, but you definitely don't have to be a retailing behemoth to take your business in a green or organic direction. In fact, entrepreneurs have an advantage when it comes to reaching customers who care about the cause as well as the products.
"It's a highly underrated opportunity for small business," says Dr. Karel J. Samsom, a specialist in environmental and sustainable entrepreneurship and author of Spirit of Entrepreneurship. A study by the Organic Trade Association shows that nonfood organic product sales reached $744 million in U.S. consumer sales in 2005, with supplements, personal care and household products leading the charge. For green entrepreneurs, passion is key, says Samsom: "People who are imbued with this kind of spirit have an incredible imagination to rebuild the value chain and inspire their customers in the process."
That passion is evident when talking to Jonelle Raffino, 41, of South West Trading Co. Inc., a Tempe, Arizona, business that specializes in earth-friendly, alternative fibers and textiles such as yarns made from bamboo, corn and even recycled crab shells. "This country is seeing that we need to challenge the idea of products that use fossil fuels," says Raffino, who co-founded the company in 2001 with her mother, Jonette Beck. Business is booming so much, they've expanded into ready-to-wear items, and they can barely keep up with demand for their line of plush Soy-Silk Pals toys.
If you dream of starting your own green products business, consider the following tips:
- Seek your niche. There are enough areas of open opportunity in green products that, chances are, you can find one that both fits your skills and a needed niche. "Find a way to express your own passion to others," says Dr. Samsom. Areas like cleaning supplies and cosmetics are natural fits for green products, but don't be afraid to look past the obvious.
- Be an example. "Show you believe in your product by changing other aspects of your life and business to support your own commitment to the earth-friendly lifestyle," says Raffino. This can include making green decisions when it comes to your suppliers and even your personal life. Make a point to recycle and check into using solar or wind power for your business. A green attitude overall will reflect well on your business.
- Educate. Green products customers are just as hungry for knowledge as they are for organic foods. "Understand the significance of your product and how it benefits the earth or conserves resources, know everything about it," says Raffino. If you've done your research, you can more effectively communicate the value of your product to your customers.
- Your customers are your best marketers. Green products is an area that can be heavily driven by word-of-mouth and by happy customers passing on their experiences to other people. "Get your customers to be your best promoters," says Samsom.
- Find colleagues who are on the same page. When it comes to employees, management staff and investors, you need to find people who share your passion. Colleagues that share your cause will be more invested in helping your business to blossom. It's not just about making money, it's also about making a difference in the world around you, one green product at a time.