Nicole Anderson Ellis
You know green is mainstream when big-box construction stores promote eco-friendly fare. Today Lowe’s sells compact fluorescent bulbs and green cleaning supplies; some locations even stock natural fiber insulation beside the cotton-candy pink fiberglass.
So, does this mark the beginning of the end for green-specific suppliers? What happens to eco-option entrepreneurs when alternatives abound? For now smaller players who got in early and know their stuff are doing fine.
Take John Meggs. An engineer by training, Meggs knew building materials contained toxins. When his daughter was born, he tried to find healthier alternatives for his home and learned green options were all “out in California.”
In 2003 he opened Nature Neutral in Charlottesville, a supplier of paints that don’t emit poisonous fumes, wood that isn’t cut from rainforests and other building materials less taxing to people and the planet. Initially, homeowners kept the business afloat. Then LEED certification exploded in the building industry. Today the supplier draws business from commercial builders across Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C., who want products that provide LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) credits.
Lowe’s took notice. So did Home Depot. And Sherwin Williams.
“Four years ago you couldn’t find it,” says Anthony Brozna, founder/owner of Richmond based distributor Eco-Supply. Now supplies like green paints are so common Brozna may drop his line. But he’s not disappointed. “The whole object is standardization,” he says. “It’s not a niche. It’s a shift to a new standard.”
Brozna’s warehouse holds plywood made from sunflower shells and “slate” made from recycled office paper. In his conference room/studio, contractors learn to apply clay that is greener and more forgiving than conventional plaster. Brozna, who partners with manufacturers to match products to market needs, likens the current period of innovation to World War II.
From the selling end, notes Meggs, “It’s not that different from other business models. You have to be constantly changing and adjusting to the market.”
What the market wants most is sustainable wood. It’s Meggs’ biggest seller, and you won’t find it at Lowe’s. “There’s only so much certified wood,” explains Brozna. “So big box stores … there’s a limit to what they can do.”
In addition, demand for sustainable products far exceeds experience with their use. “If you put Plyboo in Home Depot right now it would bomb,” says Brozna. “People wouldn’t know what to do with [plywood made from bamboo].”
But Brozna knows, as do the few dozen independently owned Virginia retailers who carry his products. “We can tell contractors what finish to use. What blade to use. Feeds and speeds,” says Brozna. “Three years ago no one would touch these materials. Now these products are getting written into the specs.”
Every month more contractors are carrying those specs to suppliers like Meggs and Brozna. With a recession making it difficult for new competitors to jump in, Meggs doesn’t expect market saturation. At least not soon.
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