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A couple of years ago, Joanna and Alex Livieratos decided to make a change. They were living in Chicago, with jobs as a teacher and a custom woodworker, when they decided to trade city life for country life -- and to establish a new business that they could run from their new farm.
"We sure had a thing or two to learn about country living," says Joanna. "But we did it with humility, and with a deep respect for our new way of life -- and most importantly, with a sense of humor. Now, when I head out to gather some free-range eggs from our chickens, pick a handful of organically raised greens, harvest walnuts from our towering trees, or can another winter's worth of vegetables, that is when I know it has all been worth it." We asked Joanna to tell us more about running an Internet-based business from a 22-acre farm.
Green America: What does your business do, and what are your most popular products?
Forests abutting Livieratos farm supply the sustainably harvested wood for Alex's
new cutting boards.
Joanna Livieratos: The Greater Green is an online retail business born out of a passion for protecting our planet and all that is sacred upon it. Based out of rural, southwest Michigan, we offer a wide variety of eco-friendly, Fair Trade, organic, and locally made beauty, cleaning, culinary, baby, pet, and gift products.
By offering extensive product reviews and information on relevant eco-topics, we strive to help consumers simplify the decision-making process in an often confusing and overwhelming green marketplace. With our unique green rating system, consumers can choose products that fit their specific needs, whether they are just stepping into the green scene and are wondering how best to “go natural,” or are dedicated green consumers seeking out even more planet-friendly choices.
What makes your business green?
Joanna: Our family-owned business has blossomed from the basic belief that compassion and justice do have a place in the business world. We know that simply selling eco-friendly products is not enough- every business decision we make is based first and foremost on its environmental and social impacts for our planet. From purchasing 100% green energy shares for our home, farm, and store to partnering with Trees for the Future to plant one tree for every online order placed, to seeking out the greenest, most committed eco-friendly manufacturers, we are constantly trying to increase the positive impact we make. (You can read about it in on our Web site.)
We’ve also embarked upon a personal journey of sustainable living by leaving our very urban lifestyle and heading out to the country. You can read all about our adventures in our blog, Adventures in Eco-Living.
We are also very proud of our very attentive customer service. In response to the large, faceless corporate shopping Web sites that have emerged recently, we focus much of our energy on providing personal and responsive customer service. We love it when customers call in to ask about how to go green, what products might work for their personal situations, or to share their experiences with green products! We still treat every customer as if they are our very first and most important.
What did you do before you started your green business?
working on the farm.
Joanna: After nearly 30 years of urban living, we realized it was time for a new adventure. We left our small space in Chicago and moved to over 20 acres of wooded farmland in rural Michigan to reconnect with a way of life lost and unknown to us. Moving to the country was an adventure beyond our wildest dreams! Neither my husband nor I had ever even had a garden! Our dream was to grow more connected to nature, and live a simpler, more sustainable way of life.
Though I loved my job as an elementary and middle school teacher, and had spent much time and energy acquiring my Masters in Teaching, we wanted to work toward living off our land, which meant a shift in my career. I needed to be able to work from home in order to put the necessary amount of time into building our farm and our store.
We currently raise Certified Naturally Grown seedlings and vegetables to sell at local farmer’s markets, and grow much of our own food. Starting a business that reflected our desire to live in harmony with our planet, and to help others do the same, was a natural outcome of our move. It also made sense to incorporate my experience as a teacher into our Web site, designing it to be not only a place to shop, but an educational resource as well.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?
Joanna: We struggled with choosing products that were 100 percent natural, especially as more and more eco-friendly companies are disclosing ingredients that turn out to include some synthetic chemicals, and as “greenwashing” becomes more predominant. Knowing there are varying degrees of eco-friendliness, we wanted to create a way to help consumers make informed decisions about the products they use.
That is why we came up with The Greater Green Screen, a rating system designed to assess products based on their eco-friendliness and naturalness. Such a system empowers individuals to become informed consumers -- one of the most important aspects in effectively navigating the green market place. It also helps us to take an in-depth look at green products and ensure that they meet our eco-friendly standards.
What's been your proudest moment as a green business owner?
The finished product.
Joanna: After nearly a year of carrying only products manufactured by others, I'm very proud that in October 2008, we launched our very own product line of sustainable wood cutting boards. These beautiful and durable designs are created by my husband, Alex, a master craftsman, who uses locally and sustainably harvested wood, often taken from our very own forest. By sourcing materials from our own community, we have a vested interest in making sure that those materials are harvested safely, sustainably, and with the overall goal of preserving the integrity of our eco-system.
What is the most hopeful sign you've seen recently in the green economy?
Joanna: I am so inspired by all of the people that are joining the green movement. I have friends and family that, after years of skepticism, are diving head-on into a more eco-friendly lifestyle. I also have been hearing many people say that this holiday season they want to give “presents with a meaning” -- green items that serve a greater purpose. I think this is so exciting! We as a culture are coming together and working toward a larger purpose, understanding our shared presence on this planet.
What advice would you give to green entrepreneurs just starting out?
Joanna: I think I underestimated the challenges of becoming an entrepreneur, but also the rewards, which have made it all worthwhile! Living your dream and running a business that is a true reflection of your vision for our planet and its people is so incredibly fulfilling. You just have to face each day and each challenge through the lens of your vision and with a sense of humor and humility, and never give up. The global economy is ripe for change, and it is in large part due to the daring and the dedication of brave new green entrepreneurs that we have come so far already.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help -- you don’t have to learn everything by yourself! There are so many other green entrepreneurs out there who are full of great advice and trial-by-experience wisdom. Unlike the business world in general, I find that green business owners tend to be supportive, not competitive, and I think this is because we run our businesses with compassion and a vision for a better world.
What's the next green step you're working on right now?
Joanna's new line of necklaces can be stored in Alex's new line of jewelry boxes!
Joanna: We are about to undertake a site analysis for a combination wind- and solar-powered energy system for our home, farm, and business. We can’t wait! Alex’s line of sustainable wood cutting boards will be expanding to include other household wood items, like knife blocks and jewelry boxes, and I have just started designing eco-friendly necklaces with sustainable tagua nut (“vegetable ivory”) pendants. We are also hoping to continue to find lesser-known, green manufacturers with fabulous products to introduce to eager green consumers. It is an exciting time to be in the business of green!
What green product could you not live without?
Joanna: My husband’s family is Greek, and we go through literally gallons of olive oil. We just love A Taste of the Holy Land’s Fair Trade & Organic Olive Oil. My husband says it reminds him of the olive oil his family used to make back on their island, Kephalonia. Organic vegetables and free-range, grass-fed beef and pork from Lake Village Homestead in southwest Michigan are a must-have at every meal! And Nissa and Paprika, our four-footed friends, want to send a shout-out to the folks at Paw Naturaw for their wholesome, organic dog food!
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and check back at the end of October for answers to reader questions.