Blending profit and ethics

Victoria businesses find a sustainable sweet spot

  • Apr. 20, 2011 5:00 a.m.

Bill Finley found success with Hemp and Co.

Victoria businesses find a sustainable sweet spot

For some local retailers, business is becoming more than just a matter of black and red. Many are starting to see going green as an alternative strategy that offers an equitable and often equally profitable business solution to the mainstream.

Angele Miller is the owner of Colourful Grass Eco Shoes, an environmentally sustainable shoe company she started with her husband Dan at their home in Ladysmith. Her simple but elegant designs are the kind you might see walking along the trendier stretches of lower Johnson St. and she makes them all from environmentally sustainable materials: organic cotton, hemp, recycled rubber and plastics, with polished coconut shells for buttons and fastenings. Her shoes, which use no animal-derived products, are even certified vegan, for those who thought that was simply a dietary choice.

“We are all about the next generation,” says Miller. “We wanted to create a sustainable future for life on the planet and we were looking for how to meet that standard and still stick to our passion.”

Businesses like Colourful Grass are built on the premise that environmental ethics need not oppose a successful business strategy. In fact, aside from her philosophy of environmental sustainability, Miller’s is a fairly typical model for a growing business. She employs eight people at her production facility, which includes a design studio and warehouses. She has even outsourced her manufacturing to facilities in China, though she personally visits the factories to assure they meet her own ethical standard. In less than 10 years, her market has expanded from Vancouver Island to the world, a move she has made by marketing her products online on sites like ethicalocean.com, amazon.com and her own company website.

Her success has been shared by other local businesses. Bill Finley is one of the originators of the movement to sell sustainably in Victoria. His company Hemp and Co. has been a hallmark of the Government Street tourist shopping trade for the last twelve years. The company has established itself as one of downtown’s higher-end retailers, selling only products made from hemp, one of the most ecologically sustainable fibers on earth. They credit their success to their environmental ethic and a desire to do business better.

“Basically, we are all consumers,” says Finley. “We can’t not consume things like oxygen and water, but it’s how we consume that’s important. We’re all going to wear clothing, so I ask how can I provide clothing that is somewhat more sustainable from an environmental perspective? We are not perfect but this is how we deal with our lives and this is how we deal with our business.”

His message: it may be an environmentally sustainable business, but it’s still just business. Their method is the same as anywhere else; sell a quality product at a profit and try to expand. Hemp and Co. now have two subsidiaries in addition to their main location downtown, one in Victoria West and another being developed in Sidney. It’s a model Finley says is being carried on by new businesses like Colourful Grass.

“These are folks who want to do business,” he says. “They might think, well I want to make my living designing clothes or jewelry but I don’t want to fall into using plastics or creating more waste in the world, I want to do it as ethically as I can. That was not happening when we opened twelve years ago. I recall three people who approached me in the first year with various products that they had. Now we are approached on a weekly basis.”

Marielle Duranteau was one of them. Her store, Shift, on Johnson St. is a franchise of Hemp and Co., which caters to a younger crowd that is both fashion conscious and environmentally aware. They sell everything from locally made shoes to clothing and jewelry made from sustainable fibers like organic cotton, bamboo and even recycled wool. Duranteau believes the reason environmentally sustainable businesses like hers are able to succeed is a simple matter of supply and demand.

“The market itself is expanding,” she says. “There is more variety, which means more competition, which means lower prices. The world is changing and people are thinking and buying differently. As retailers, we now have a lot more selection so we can appeal to a wider audience,” she says.

As with any growing market, product development is expanding, outward and upward, creating more product diversity than ever before. Alain St. Onge is the owner of The Good Planet, an eco-lifestyle store on Fort St. The Good Planet sells everything from fair trade, handmade African baskets to housewares and even organic mattresses. A major focus for The Good Planet is on products for babies and infants. They sell 100 per cent organic cotton baby clothes and children’s toys from recycled plastic and natural materials, including one Tonka-style dump truck made entirely from pressed sawdust.

According to St. Onge, the consumer trend that drives environmentally focused businesses like his is tied to the movement to buy locally. “People want to know who they are dealing with. I think change can come from a consumer level because people want to spend and they have to seek it out to buy things that are as local as possible,” he says. “There’s definitely a groundswell of that happening right now. It’s a niche, but … niches have a way of becoming mainstream.” M

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