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Cheryl Hahn has been part of our Green Business Network™ for more than fifteen years. She's seen many changes in her sector (organic products for the home), and like Green America, she's been green since before green was cool.
We asked Cheryl to tell us more about avoiding corporate greenwashing, how her business is working to reduce its carbon footprint, and why our Green Festivals make her feel like a movie star.
Green America: What does your business do, and what is your most popular product?
Cheryl Hahn: We manufacture organic comfort products, such as bedding, mattresses, and loungewear. Everything we produce is made in the USA using certified organic cotton and/or sustainable ecosmart materials. We also source our raw materials in the USA whenever possible and only go overseas if the quality is much better; for instance we use an exquisite fabric on our CozyPure® PurElegance mattresses that's milled in Germany. Our factory, office and retail store are based out of Norfolk, Virginia and we always look for partnerships close to our area to keep everything as local as possible.
Our corporate name is Environmental Resource Outlet which operates three business entities: 1. Tomorrow's World, 2. Organic Comfort Zone, and 3. Organic Mattress Factory, as well as two brands CozyPure®; and EcoAveUsa. Tomorrow's World is our flagship catalog mail order store which used to carry "everything green" for the world tomorrow. We continue to use that name because it carries a long history of recognition and customer loyalty.
Waffle: Cheryl's not sure which of her products is the most popular, but this woven towel is one candidate.
The popular-product question is tough to answer because we carry so many bedroom basics and it really varies from day to day. We hear lots of positive feedback on our CozyPure® mattresses because they look and feel so different from other organic mattresses, and we get many referrals because our customers love them so much, which thrills me! Our pillows and organic cotton waffle weave towels are also very popular.
What makes your business green?
Cheryl: We're one of America's first "green" businesses. Back in 1991 we offered a full variety of eco-friendly products, then about ten years ago, we noticed a shift with more green products going mainstream, so we concentrated our focus on producing "organic comfort products". Since I have a background in textiles and manufacturing, it made sense to put that experience into the new direction of the company. Everyone needs bedding and it's so important for your health to create a safer bedroom since you spend so much time there restoring your body for the day ahead.
As manufacturers, one of the best things we can do is "reduce, reuse, recycle". We try hard not to have any waste, and when we do, we find ways to reuse or recycle it versus trashing it. In fact, we don't trash too much around here. Even wasted scrap paper is used for taking notes. We recently moved to a larger facility and renovated the space with nontoxic paints, restored the original concrete floors, put in all CFL's, and installed a geo-thermal HVAC which is awesome and has greatly reduced our energy consumption. We're eagerly awaiting our next phase of solar panels and wind turbines which will be tied into our electric grid. Because we've been in the green industry for so long, it's second-nature for us to do many of the things other companies are just learning to incorporate in their business practices. The good news is that once you begin, it becomes a way of life.
What did you do before you started your green business?
Cheryl: My first job was in marketing-merchandising for a USA sportswear manufacturing company, long before organic cotton was introduced, however many of the garments were made from natural materials such as cotton, wool and linen. Most manufacturers have a preference for synthetic materials because they're predictable, whereas natural textiles often vary which can sometimes cause problems, especially in mass-production. I think most of our customers understand that subtle differences in color and/or texture are a unique characteristic of natural fibers so it hasn't been a problem for us, especially since everything is handcrafted..
What advice would you give to other green entrepreneurs just starting out?
Cheryl: Regardless of being green or not, all entrepreneurs must have a strong passion for their chosen field and a willingness to work hard for their business. If a green venture is being explored, the best advice would be to research the area to make sure there is a need for the product and/or service in the marketplace. You need to become an eco-expert in your industry so you can provide the best choices for your customers, as well as share your knowledge with staff, clients, suppliers and news media. Every month I write a column for the Virginian-Pilot newspaper which focuses on green living in the home. It's a wonderful opportunity for me to share my expertise with the community and help educate readers about the many benefits of going green. The writing and research keeps me on my toes and allows me to constantly learn more as the industry grows and changes, which is beneficial for the company as well.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?
Organic Comfort Zone
Cheryl: We started out as a retail store that evolved quickly into a national catalog company. This happened because lots of walk-in customers were out-of-town tourists and requested a catalog so they could get our products even though they didn't live in the area. It's important to remember this was way before the internet and paper catalogs were the only way some folks could get eco-friendly products back then. We always did our best to maintain good practices using recycled paper, vegetable-based inks and only mailing 3 to 4 catalogs per year, versus most larger catalogers who mail hundreds of thousands of catalogs every month, year-round. We've seriously considered dropping the catalog, however we still have a lot of customers who do not use the internet and they get mad at us when we don't have a catalog to send them! It's the perfect epitome of the famous saying "you can't please everyone". However, we continually evaluate the catalog on a quarterly basis and as our website continues to gain popularity as a customer portal, we also pull-back on projected catalog printing and circulation.
What's been your proudest moment as a green business owner?
Cheryl: It's a great feeling to truly believe in what you do for your life's work. I've been fortunate to experience so many things which have made me proud. Sometimes it's as simple as a stunning photograph and other times the excitement of working with a new ecosmart textile to create a worthwhile product. It's also wonderful when we first hire someone who isn't necessarily "green" and then after working here they "click" and see all the benefits of being green - maybe we should call them our "born-again greenies?" But in all honesty, the best and most awesome moments are when we hear customers say they love us! In the business world, it just doesn't get better than that.
We've been to a few Green Festivals and it's always so much fun to meet our customers in person. It's great when they are walking down the aisle and notice us with a yelp of recognition and enthusiasm. I feel like Brad Pitt when that happens
What's the most hopeful sign you've seen recently from the green economy?
The real comfort zone: Mattresses and bedding on display in Cheryl's showroom.
Cheryl: There is so much interest now in the "green" lifestyle and new innovations and ideas are being introduced more rapidly. The bad side to this surge is the consumer has to watch out for the ever-prevalent "greenwashing", but the good side is more people are becoming aware and educated about the positive benefits of living a greener lifestyle. There are other businesses like ours, who've been riding the "eco" wave when it was just a small ripple in the ocean. Now it seems like it's forming into a full blown tidal-wave and lots of companies are trying to ride the wave with little to zero knowledge. I look forward to the day when both businesses and consumers have a true understanding of what is "green" and making informed decisions that will truly benefit not only their individual environment, but also the well-being of our planet.
What's the next green step you're working on right now?
Cheryl: We're keeping our eye on Web site technology and gradually moving more strongly in that direction, especially since it's "paperless" and offers quick and eco-friendly communications. We know it will take quite a few years for our catalog customers to convert to Web; however we want to met the requests of new customers who would rather deal with us online. In fact, in April, we launched a new Facebook page for the Organic Comfort Zone, which serves as a news portal and allows us to interact instanteously with our customers. We love it. Regarding new green merchandise, unfortunately product development is proprietary, so I can't disclose anything specific, but we are continually working on great new ideas.
What green product could you not live without?
Cheryl:I love my Prius and I actually don't mind long drives in the car anymore!