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Economic action to promote just and sustainable purchasing

Green Business Member Profiles 2008


North Star Toys

ToysWhen Tim and Connie Long started North Star Toys, a wooden toy company based in the mountains in northeast New Mexico in 1979, it was a natural fit. Tim loved working with wood since his childhood days building soapbox cars, and Connie’s experience as a preschool teacher had shown her the importance of play in childhood development. The two started making wooden toys for friends and family as a hobby, and were happily surprised when they sold their entire inventory at a local crafts fair. The couple started North Star Toys shortly thereafter.

Since 1979, Tim and Connie have been designing and making all of the toys they sell, adding new designs and improving old ones as the years have gone by. The couple started with a wooden paddle wheel boat, equipped with a rubber band to move it through water. The boat is still part of their collection, and they now have rolling toys, animals, and more.

“We’re committed to the idea that children learn so much through their play,” says Connie, “So our toys all encourage imaginative play.”

Customers concerned about 2007’s rash of toy safety recalls can rest assured when they purchase from North Star Toys: The Longs are dedicated to ensuring that every toy they make is nontoxic and safe for children and the environment. They use a food-grade mineral oil for the finish on each toy, and all paints are certified nontoxic. All of the wood used to make the toys either comes from scraps from local cabinet makers or from a sustainably managed local lumber company. The Longs donate their own wooden scraps to a nearby school, where children use them to create toys and art.

In addition, their studio boasts a passive solar design to improve energy efficiency, and both the North Star studio and the Longs’ home is run on wind power purchased from their local utility.

As the Longs’ business grew, so did their family. They had two daughters who have always been part of the business—as children, they were North Star’s official toy testers. Now, they assist with Web development and publicity. But even as the company grows, the Longs are determined to keep it close to its roots.

“We’re always getting calls and e-mails from manufacturers in China, saying ‘We can save you money by manufacturing your products for you,’” says Connie, “But we always have been and always will be a family-run, sustainable business.”

—Sarah Tarver-Wahlquist

 

Pizza Fusion

Pizza FusionIn February 2006, college buddies Vaughan Lazar and Michael Gordon started throwing around ideas for starting a side business for fun. Lazar owned a printing and design firm, and Gordon worked for a real estate company.

“He was fed up with what he was doing, and I was bored with my business,” says Lazar, CEO of Pizza Fusion. The two decided to start a pizza restaurant because they liked pizza—eating and making it—and because it made good business sense; Americans eat approximately 100 acres of pizza each day, or about 350 slices per second. It didn’t take them long to start thinking of ways they could green their dream company.

The first thing they talked about was delivering pizza in hybrid cars. But pizza and hybrids didn’t get them excited enough. “We were greedy in wanting to do more and more for a good cause,” says Lazar.

Lazar’s diet was about 20 percent organic at that time, and it didn’t take him long to realize there was a huge void in the market for convenient organic food. So that became the vision: quick, organic, delicious pizza, eaten in a family-friendly restaurant or delivered to your door in a green car.

The two opened their first Pizza Fusion restaurant in Deerfield Beach, Florida, in July 2006, and enthusiasm for their product quickly grew. They are set to launch 50 franchises across the US in 2008. Their gourmet pizza is all-natural, organic, and baked in a natural gas oven. They also offer organic salads and sandwiches, as well. Ingredients come from local markets as well as national organic distributors. But Lazar and Gordon didn’t stop there.

Lazar says they feel a responsibility to the business community and the community at large, which is reflected in Pizza Fusion’s commitment to preserving and improving the environment. Each trendy restaurant is offset by 100 percent wind power. Employees wear organic cotton uniforms, and receive health insurance for working over 20 hours a week. Pizza Fusion customers will find compostable salad containers made from 100 percent corn starch, cutlery made from sugarcane, and napkins made from 100 percent post-consumer fiber.

In 2007, Lazar and Gordon decided that every new Pizza Fusion restaurant would be built according to Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification standards set by the US Green Building Council.

“The food industry is one of the worst in terms of leaving a footprint on the Earth,” says Lazar. “We wanted to change that.”

With 500 requests for new franchises since March 2007, Pizza Fusion is set to continue spreading its social and environmental vision—and set to continue making delicious, organic pizza.

—Alissa Dos Santos

 

Global Girlfriend

Global GirlfriendStacey Edgar didn’t intend to launch a women’s Fair Trade boutique. “I had no idea how to start a business,” admits Edgar, the founder and president of Global Girlfriend.

But in early 2003, Edgar’s mother-in-law was working at the UN World Food Program, and her overseas site visits sparked something in Edgar. Her mother-in-law would return from abroad with beautiful, handmade souvenirs for her, full of stories of the impoverished women trying to sell their goods in developing countries like Afghanistan.

Around the same time, Stacey had begun selling Earth-friendly body care products at house parties from The Body Shop, a store dedicated to fostering social and environmental change.

“I sold about 10,000 dollars worth of lotion at home parties in one month,” she says. “That was crazy.”

The combination of her mother-in-law’s visits, the Body Shop sales, and Stacey’s own background in social work suddenly fell into place. She realized that people—women especially—wanted to buy products that had the added value of doing good in the world. And with that came Global Girlfriend—a Fair Trade boutique of handmade jewelry, handbags, gifts, and apparel from around the world.

Everything you can purchase at Global Girlfriend is made by and directly benefits US women’s nonprofit programs and women’s cooperatives in 13 countries worldwide. Beautiful handmade paper from Nepal provides an income for survivors of sex trafficking, while intricate pairs of recycled glass earrings are created by women in Bangladesh, whose work is often the main source of income for their families. Clothing varies from yoga pants made by women in southern India to mohair scarves from South Africa to ponchos handcrafted in Brazil.

The 30 cooperatives that Global Girlfriend sources from are all in the Fair Trade system, meaning that worker-owners earn a living wage they set themselves, work in safe and healthy conditions, and have access to technical assistance and education opportunities to improve their businesses, lives, and communities.

Global Girlfriend also pays a 50 percent deposit before the products are even made, to support the cooperatives throughout the entire production cycle. Global Girlfriend sources from women’s Fair Trade cooperatives, because when women are given the economic opportunity, Edgar says, they make good choices for their families, health, and education. In fact, at a gathering of the Commission on the Status of Women in March of 2007, a senior United Nations officer said empowering women is key in the fight against poverty, discrimination, educational gaps, and disease.

“It’s very important to support women who are working on their own poverty solutions,” says Edgar.

—Alissa Dos Santos

 

The Old-Fashioned Milk Paint Company

Milk PaintIn Colonial America, most houses had their own cow to provide milk, and were situated near a community lime pit for agricultural and construction uses, says Anne Thibeau, president of the Old-Fashioned Milk Paint Co. Itinerant painters wandered the countryside, offering their services to homesteaders and shopkeepers. They carried rainbow sets of pigments, which, when mixed with a customer’s own milk and lime, would create a milk paint that added soft color to furniture and walls.

In 1974, Charles Thibeau—an entrepreneur who’s done everything from gem cutting to electronics manufacturing to starting his own environmental foundation—turned his artistic attentions to fashioning replicas of the Colonial-style furniture he’d seen in various museums. To add just the right touch of authenticity, he started trying to recreate the milk paint those itinerant painters used.

After scouring old milk paint recipes in library books and conducting at least 300 experiments in his basement, he devised a mixture that duplicated the unique Colonial look to his satisfaction—the paint dried to a matte, velvety-looking color. Tweaking the natural ingredients produced different results. His original formula was for porous surfaces such as bare wood and masonry. His latest “SafePaint” formula, launching in fall 2007, works better on sealed surfaces like joint compound on sheetrock. It will also result in a smooth, even finish on pre-painted walls, while you’ll get a more irregular, mottled finish with the original formula.

Soon, people were flocking to his shop to buy his uniquely painted, handmade pencil post beds, six-board chests, and Windsor chairs, and his reputation spread. Yankee Magazine came calling to interview him about the authentic milk paint he used on his pieces. They published the interview in a book on “forgotten arts,” and that’s when the phone started ringing off the hook as readers called to ask how they could get some of his paint. So Charles, knowing a good business venture when he saw one, started the Old-Fashioned Milk Paint Co. in his home city of Groton, MA, to meet the obvious demand.

The basic ingredients of the company’s milk paint are the same as they were hundreds of years ago—lime, milk, clay, and earth pigments like ochre and umber. Though you can use milk paint for exteriors with an exterior sealant, it works best on indoor walls and furniture.

Conventional paints are often filled with volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the form of chemical preservatives, pigments, and fungicides, which the US EPA says can cause ill health effects from headaches and respiratory distress to memory impairment and even cancer. The Old-Fashioned Milk Paint’s 20 color varieties contains zero VOCs, as does the tung oil sealant the company sells to prevent water spotting. Their acrylic sealant is low-VOC.

“Our paint is so safe, you can pour it down the drain or even into your garden, and it won’t harm a thing,” says Anne. As Charles’ daughter, she took over the company when he moved on to his next big idea.

“He’s 80 years old, and right now, he just started doing pocketwatch repair,” she says. “There’s never a dull moment around here.”

Once it’s applied to a surface, milk paint won’t spoil and is completely odorless. After a few days in liquid form, the company’s milk paint will start to gel a bit, so Anne says it works best mixed up fresh. That’s why the company ships the paint as a colored powder to customers to ensure that it lasts until they’re ready to use it—just add water, and you’re ready to paint.

Anne notes that you can paint your walls in the morning with milk paint, and sleep in the freshly painted room at night without suffering any health problems or noxious smells.

“Dad is also a health nut, so he didn’t want to add unnatural and toxic ingredients,” she says. “Our paint is safe for children and a boon to chemically sensitive people, too.”

—Tracy Fernandez Rysavy

 

The New Alternatives Fund

Windmills“Investors go gaga over green,” reported National Public Radio in July 2007. “Investors are pouring money into alternative energy and so-called clean-tech firms, touted as one of the biggest economic opportunities of the century.”

But to David Schoenwald, who manages the New Alternatives Fund, a socially responsible mutual fund, the idea that “clean tech” is a promising investment isn’t news. He’s been focused on the promise of renewable energy for more than two decades. When he founded New Alternatives with his father Maurice in 1982, the elder Schoenwald wanted to invest in technologies like solar panels, which were promising alternatives to nuclear power and fossil fuels.

So Maurice and David, both lawyers, gathered a group of socially conscious friends and colleagues to each chip in enough so that the new fund could meet the $100,000 minimum required to list with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Those early investors became the Fund’s board of directors, some of whom still serve.

Through the years, the Fund has maintained a clear philosophy of investing in renewable energy—including companies working on wind, solar, fuel cells, ocean energy, geothermal, biomass, and hydropower—along with other environmentally beneficial companies involved in recycling, clean air and water, pollution prevention, and conservation. The Fund does not invest in non-renewable or dangerous energy sources such as coal, oil, or nuclear power, or in companies that test on animals. The Fund tries to keep some of its assets in community development banks and prints all materials with soy-based inks on post-consumer recycled paper.

The Schoenwalds are grateful to be doing business in a world in which the green energy future is finally an object of unprecedented investor enthusiasm. They saw renewable energy as a solid investment in the 1980s, and they still do—the small fund doubled in size in 2006 and doubled again in the first half of 2007. They reason that the profits to be made in oil and other non-renewable resources are ultimately finite—these sources will become depleted sooner or later.

But “alternative energy is not like oil,” says David. “Alternative energy can only grow.”

—Joelle Novey

* IMPORTANT: This story is presented for information only. It is not an investment recommendation from Green America. Past performance is not indicative of future results. Before investing in any mutual fund, ask for a prospectus and consult your financial advisor.

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