November 11, 2008

Target for the Whole Foods Crowd: The First Ellie’s Eco Home Store Opens in Boulder.

Faced with headlines announcing another bankruptcy, more foreclosures, images of stockbrokers weeping in the fetal position while they watch the market plunge, it seems implausible that some businesses are actually doing well in this economy. The LOHAS (we’ll give you a piece of tofu if you can guess what it stands for) industry, for the most part, has remained steady, even as Americans reel in their spending. Boulder-based Eco-Products, famous for their corn-based compostable drinking cups, and now their Ellie’s Eco Home Store, is one example of a company that is actually growing, and at an exponential rate. The company’s sales revenues were just (just?) five million in 2006, while projected numbers for 2009 reach over 100 million. In August, Eco-Products earned a spot on Inc. Magazine’s Inc. 5000,” celebrating the fastest growing companies in America.

It hasn’t always been this way. Back in the ‘90s, when most dot com start-ups were raking in billions overnight, Steve Savage and his father, Kent, slowly grew their company for almost 17 years before experiencing the skyrocketing growth of the last three. It took them five years before they hired a non-family employee. When the company began, distributing 100% recycled and sustainable paper and janitorial supplies to local businesses (recycled copy paper, for example, and non-toxic bathroom cleaners), “eco” was a hard sell, even in Boulder. Steve remembers his first sales call, at the age of 22, to a sorority at the University of Colorado. As soon as the words “recycled toilet paper” came out of his mouth, he was confronted with incredulous giggles (though he did end up making the sale, and was careful from then on to pitch the product as made with recycled fibers.)

By 2005, the company had slowly but steadily grown, expanding into building supplies (recycled plastic wood substitute, anyone? Insulation made from recycled blue jeans?) and a growing line of new plastic-like compostable to-go products made from corn and sugarcane resin. But Eco-Products’ success story really began with their decision to manufacture their own corn and sugarcane products. “We found out that to become a sustainable business, you really need to brand yourself,” Steve Savage explains. The result of that branding is the company’s own “GreenStripe” line of biodegradable plastic substitutes, now the most widely recognized and used brand in the country—from the Democratic National Convention to the ESPN X-Games and the Google HQ.

Both Kent and Steve had an inkling that sustainability would eventually become a major selling point. But they expected it to happen a lot sooner. “We always knew it was going to happen, we just didn’t think it would take 16, 17 years for people to really get a clue. We thought it was happening then,” Steve Savage remembers. 2007 is widely recognized as the tipping point for the green industry, with Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and rising fuel costs suddenly spawning a “Green is the New Black” mentality in cities across the globe. Eco-Products has undeniably benefited, but they also walk their talk, taking environmental responsibility farther than carbon offsets—their current HQ at 3640 Walnut is xeriscaped and outfitted with solar panels. Employees who bike to work receive a monthly bonus, and the company’s trucks have long run on bio-fuels. The new Eco-Products HQ and warehouse will feature the largest solar installation in Boulder (that’s sort of like the best bagel in New York, or sandiest beach in Miami).

As Eco-Products established its presence as a national manufacturer, the company wondered what to do with its retail focus. The original business plan, in 1990, had included plans for a retail store, but the company never had enough money to make it a reality. Kent Savage, who retired from the company in the late 1990s, long held on to the hope of making his products available to individual consumers. In 2007, Ellie’s Eco Home Store was born, bearing the name of Steve Savage’s daughter, who not only has a retail chain named after her, but also holds a world record in jump roping (she can do 143 rotations in one minute).

This weekend, the first Ellie’s Eco Home Store will open in Boulder. Featuring clothing (including our good friends Nau), building supplies, bodycare and beauty, furniture and a sustainable design center, the store seeks to be a one-stop resource for people looking for all things organic, non-toxic and natural. The company hopes to open 30 stores in the next three years.

Which brings us to the dilemma of any responsible growing business: the power of national chains to have a widespread affect, both positive and negative. As Ellie’s expands across the country, it will risk invading the local economy and putting mom n’ pops out of business (just as Whole Foods has been blamed for driving small health-food stores into whey protein-coated oblivion). But at the same time, a one-stop superstore peddling sustainability will bring conscious consumerism to Americans who might otherwise never set foot in a smaller, more specialized, more intimidating indie set-up. As long as there are Wal-Marts, there may as well be environmentally responsible competitors. Either way, it’s promising that Ellie’s itself has acknowledged the dilemma, and vows to seek out and sell local products wherever they go.

Ellie’s will be open to the public beginning this Saturday, November 15. Those of you not in town, or just too anxious to wait for the unveiling (three words: electric powered scooters) can browse the store’s merch on their website now. 

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