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Eco-friendly calling

A saavy businesswoman wraps herself in a career that helps environment

Sat Aug 08 2009

When Melanie Kushner decided to design and sell scarves as a career, she chose to make her business eco-friendly.

Lilë Design, which launched in January, features whimsical scarves produced in Toronto using non-toxic dyes and organic cotton.

The company's business cards and catalogues are printed locally on paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which ensures it comes from responsibly managed forests and verified recycled sources.

"Having a conscience about the environment has always been really important to me," Kushner says.

Across Toronto a growing number of small businesses are going green. Running an eco-friendly small business not only helps the planet, it may boost a company's bottom line, experts say.

Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth (2006) marked a turning point in "public consciousness of environmental issues," says Toronto Environmental Alliance executive director Franz Hartmann. Since then, concerns about the environment have become more mainstream.

By offering green products or services, a small business can attract consumers and employees who care about the environment. "Small business people know that their potential customers are also much more environmentally aware so they are saying, `How can I benefit from that? How can I better serve my customers?'" says Hartmann.

Customers may also be willing to pay more for a product or service if it's truly green. Becoming eco-friendly "can be a way of positioning your firm to have an advantage over competitors who may be a little less pricey but are also less good for the environment," says marketing professor Eileen Fischer, who holds the entrepreneurship and family enterprise chair at York University's Schulich School of Business. Research shows that holds true even during a recession, says Chris Lowry, director of Green Enterprise Toronto, a network of 347 locally owned and eco-minded businesses.

Consumers who have shifted their thinking "are still willing to pay more for those things which they've decided are part of their health and well-being, (such as) having less chemicals in their life," Lowry says.

Kushner knows her scarves would be less expensive if she didn't use organic cotton, feature natural dyes or have them hand silkscreened in Toronto. In addition to being eco-friendly, each of those elements adds to the quality of the scarves.

Retailers agree. Lilë Design patterned scarves, which cost $58 online, are available at boutiques such as Toronto's Distill Gallery and Vancouver's Mooncruise Gallery.

Going green may also help cut a company's expenses. That's because being sustainable also means having an eco-friendly infrastructure. Have an energy audit done and do all the retrofits that are required, such as installing energy efficient windows, using fluorescent light bulbs and buying Energy Star-rated office equipment.

These changes will not only add to a company's green credibility, they can reduce a company's energy bills. On top of that, "a small business person can write off some of the improvements from a tax perspective," Hartmann says.

Green consumers may be willing to pay higher prices for eco-friendly products, but they'll also be incensed if a company misrepresents the environmental impact of its products or services.

Eco-aware customers "are discerning. They are critical thinkers," Lowry says. As a result, "it backfires when you make claims that aren't substantiated in practice."

If your small business is taking some earth-friendly steps, don't over-claim your business's actions.

"There is only so much that any individual organization reasonably can and is doing to save the planet." And consumers know that, Fischer says.

Kushner seems to have the balance right. "I'm not looking to save the world. But I'm looking to help consumers have an option that gives back."

As posted at: http://www.thestar.com/Business/article/678173

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