Winter 2009
Greening Home Accents By Lin Grensing Pophal

Messages that Work

Suzanne Shelton is chief executive officer of the Shelton Group, an advertising and marketing agency serving the energy and energy efficiency industries. Based on the results of the annual Energy Pulse survey, Shelton recommends that those attempting to "sell green":

  • Back up any green messaging with believable facts and actions.
  • Understand that getting customers to buy a green product requires tapping into their deeper drivers.
  • Help consumers see a reward for their efforts.
  • Understand that not everyone will buy in and that you'll need to segment your audience.
  • Recognize that it's much better to find the market before you invent (or buy) the product.
  • Educate, educate, educate.

Boring to beautiful

It is a truth well known in retail: When form and function are married together well in a product, it sells well. When it comes to green products, there is even an added bonus: the feel-good factor of doing right by the environment. But not long ago, products made from recycled elements were somewhat lagging in the form department.

These days despite the beautiful and stunning array of green homewares and accents made from recycled elements, that misconception, unfortunately, still lingers. “A lot of people still think anything with a label that says recycled, has to be ugly. It doesn’t,” says Will Foster, designer at Eastern Breeze, a wholesaler based in Pacific Palisades, CA. Eastern Breeze offers decorative accents made from reclaimed materials from Vietnam, Thailand and India. Pieces include 80-year-old, weathered teak wagon wheels and rice paddy paddles from Thailand, as well as decorative wall pieces created from Indian railroad ties.

Then there is Aster & Sage, a Rhode Island-based company that makes products like pillows, pet mats and wine bags using brightly-colored recycled fabric. Philadelphia-based Vinylux makes bowls by recycling vintage record albums. Similarly, Jim Rosenau, an artist based in Berkeley, CA, converts everyday found objects (especially books) into bookcases, bookshelves and more.

imageThis improvement in form, that has lead to a wide array of beautiful and functional green products, has also fueled the demand for green. Now customers can feel good both about buying green and about buying a beautiful and functional product. As Linda Yesline, founder and owner of Aster & Sage, puts it: “The idea of what you can buy with recycled content has changed considerably. We’ve come so far – you can get nice, vibrant colors, great textures—that’s part of the increased demand.”

Yesline adds that as people recycle more, they want to see that their recycling efforts are paying off. This need, she says, leads to a continued demand for products in their own homes that are made with recycled content.

Reena Kazmann, the owner and director of Eco-Artware, a web-based gallery, says consumer awareness of problems caused by using unhealthy materials, depletion of resources and a concern for the environment overall has contributed to a demand for green products. In addition, she notes, “I think we’re in a new craft movement— more people are fixing up their own homes, using their imagination to refashion clothes, participating in a variety of crafts and they’re looking for unique, handmade products,” she says.

Shades of green

imageThe wide range of home accents made from recycled materials is astounding. There are nightlights made from recycled glass to bowls made from record albums, artwork made from license plates, and gardening accessories made with degradable plant materials.

Vawn Gray and her husband, Mike, own and operate Reborn Glass in Cape Coral, Fla., where they have created a line of fused recycled glass gifts and accessories that are distributed through gift shops across the country. Gray notes that their products—the night lights in particular—are not only visually appealing and practical, but send a constant, subtle reminder of conservation. “I have them all over the place and they’re a continual little subtle and artful reminder to [conserve].” A night light in the kitchen, for instance, sends a reminder to turn the lights off. One near the garbage can is a reminder to recycle.

Jeff Davis owns Vinylux, Inc., in Philadelphia and transforms vintage record albums, often with cover labels intact, into bowls that can be used as home accents. “The products have a nostalgic and very familiar quality about them, not just in terms of the fact that it’s a product made out of vinyl, but also because of the recording artists,” says Davis.

Aaron Foster of Aaron Foster Designs has found fame and fortune through the use of vintage license plates, which he incorporates into more than 40 designs. His most popular design by far, is a map of the United States, which has become his signature piece.

Kitchen greens

imageCustomers looking to add a touch of green to their kitchens will likely consider ecosource Home & Garden’s greenware line. The tableware, sold by the company based in Decatur, GA, is made primarily with renewable plant fiber from bamboo, straw and rice hulls and colors are derived from natural products such as coconut. The Waltham, MA-based company Recycline, wholesales colanders, cutting boards, and other tableware made from recycled plastic. Then there’s To-Go Ware based in Berkeley, CA, which wholesales reusable eating utensils made from bamboo in addition to other green products.

Bambu, whose founders live in China near bamboo forests and factories, has its U.S. operations headquartered in Long Island, NY. Bambu’s product line emphasizes design that works well in modern and contemporary settings. Colored coiled bowls, all purpose nesting baskets, a range of kitchen tools, functional cutting and serving boards—all use the renewable grass: bamboo.

Greening the garden

imageNaturesCast, headquartered in Las Vegas, works with disposable plant materials. Dry leaves, dead twigs and barks, and other forest scraps are shredded through a special machine, bonded together using an odorless water-based binder and shaped into functional forms, in the Philippines. The company makes pots and large freestanding containers, to chairs and other functional pieces.

Another environmentally friendly alternative to plastic and heavy ceramic gardening containers are the all-natural greenPots from ecosource Home & Garden. Although the greenPots line looks remarkably like earth-colored ceramic, the pots are made from grain byproducts and will last up to five years, then decompose in compost. In addition to greenPots, ecosource sells the “coir” line of pots that are made from coconut fibers.

Making green

These are tough times for all retailers and the green category is no exception. Yet as in all retailing, some tried and tested sales methods always hold true.

First, know what price the market will bear. It might seem counter-intuitive that consumers would be willing to pay more for recycled products, but that is in fact the case say both retailers and vendors. Gray from Reborn Glass notes that the one-of-a-kind nature of many of these products can support higher price points. In addition, she says, these products appeal to higher-end consumers—”certainly not something you’ll see in the big-box stores.”

imageEducation is always key but it is especially so in green retailing. Cynthia Sutton-Stolle is the owner/operator of Silver Barn Antiques, Gifts & Interiors, near Houston. The store carries a wide assortment of environmentally and socially responsible products. With certain recycled products, the fact that they’re made from recycled materials is relatively obvious—as with Aaron Foster’s work with license plates. In other cases, the nature of the products is not readily apparent, says Sutton-Stolle. For example, she says: “Glass next to glass just looks like glass. When you say ‘this piece is a recycled piece’ it stirs interest and adds a little ambience to the product. It adds an ‘a-ha’ factor. When they know it’s eco-glass, they respond more favorably.”

Third, have your displays focus on function—not just form. “People are most interested in how they can use the product,” says Sutton-Stolle. Part of it comes from knowing your customers. What works in one area of the country, or one community, she says, may very well not work in another. “We’re in the country—and in deep, southern Texas. I think it’s best that we just show how the products are used and use the part about being eco-friendly as an extra selling point.” In California or New York, she notes, the situation is likely very different. But, in her market, functionality is what really matters. “My customers don’t buy just because it’s pretty—they buy because it’s useful.”

The key, according to Gray, is having a passion for selling green. “When they’re just trying to catch a wave or a trend, they’re hearts aren’t in it and it’s not going to work. That’s definitely been our experience,” she says. Passion is important.

Mouse over images below to view.

Lin Grensing Pophal

Lin Grensing-Pophal is a freelance business journalist in Chippewa Falls, WI. She writes about marketing and business management issues for national and trade publications and is the author of Marketing With the End in Mind (IABC, 2005).

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