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Green Boutiques

It doesn’t take a market researcher to see the popularity of eco shopping, a catch-all term covering everything from organic food to purses made out of recycled inner tubes. In Calgary, four stores—none more than four years old—exclusively sell environmentally friendly products, while a legion of health stores and markets offer up organic foodstuffs. Restaurants are even buying ingredients that haven’t been treated or shipped across vast distances.

One of the first retailers to capitalize on this trend was The EcoStore, a hole-in-the-wall run by the Clean Calgary Association. Located on 4 Avenue, The EcoStore was initially a way to fund Clean Calgary’s outreach programs, and sold rain barrels, compost bins and other basics. Retailing eco products was a natural offshoot for the association, formed in 1978 to empower Calgarians to make environmentally friendly choices.

But between 2007 and 2008 business almost doubled, and today their items include jewellery, office supplies and greeting cards. They’re planning to expand even more—and possibly open a second store—when the association moves to larger premises in 2011.Cindy Nilsson, The EcoStore’s assistant manager, thinks their growth is partly due to growing awareness, but places the bulk of the credit with the fact that eco is finally mainstream.

“Growth has been huge,” she says. “Eco-friendly products and lifestyles are becoming incredibly chic. It makes me hopeful.”

But eco isn’t just the new frontier in retail; it’s a multi-billion dollar industry. In September, Time Magazine reported that sales of organic products reached $20 billion US in 2007, compared to $10 billion US in 2003. In Canada, the environmental market as a whole is valued at more than $18.4 billion—with exports of more than $1.5 billion—according to the Globe Foundation, a Vancouver-based market research firm.

But you don’t have to crunch numbers to notice the emergence of eco shopping. Fashion designers such as Stella McCartney and Oscar de la Renta, retailers such as Levi’s and H&M, and manufacturers such as Clorox have all released eco-friendly products. Celebrities are sporting T-shirts that are embossed with a picture of the earth next to the slogan “Respect Your Mother.” And a multitude of associations have sprung up offering eco certifications, including the Environment Canada program EcoLogo.

But while seafood eaters can tell whether their salmon is wild or farmed, eco shoppers have no such certainty. A highly publicized study done by TerraChoice, an environmental marketing firm, found that in a survey of 1,018 products, only one lived up to its environmentally friendly claims. And even if a product is made with organic materials, the company might have no qualms about the chemicals that convert it from raw material to finished product, or the fossil fuels that transport their wares across continents.This trend is so prevalent, that it has its own term: greenwashing. It’s enough to make discerning consumers give in, but in Riva Mackie’s case, it caused her to take matters into her own hands.

Two years ago, health concerns caused Mackie to start researching alternative body products, and Riva’s – The Eco Store was born. Like The EcoStore, Riva’s sells basics such as cleaning supplies and how-to guides, but is part of a new generation of eco retailers closer to boutiques than department stores.

In the year since her store opened, Mackie says the biggest sellers are baby products and mattresses. But, it’s the fashion-forward clothing, jewellery and accessories—from reclaimed wood sunglasses to organic cotton dresses—that draw in customers who have never gone out of their way to shop eco.

“Our goal was to show people they could make these choices and still be fashionable,” she says. “We wanted people to realize that you don’t have to be a tree-hugging, dread-wearing hippie living on a farm to care about these issues. There’s room for all types.”Her approach has struck a chord. Riva’s staff have gone from two—her husband and herself—to five, she’s opened up a second floor, expanded the product lines, and even offers classes on eco living.

But, Mackie’s core service will remain sorting through the marketing gimmicks, false advertising and murky claims that plague her industry. She looks into the raw materials, company histories, manufacturing standards and certifiers, and with overseas suppliers even watches videos of their production lines. It’s a time-consuming task, especially for the owner of a start-up in its first year of business.

“It’s fun and interesting for me, but intimidating to a lot of people who can’t spend all of their hours in a day researching,” she says. “Our customers come in knowing that we have done the research, and they’re trusting that what we’re offering are not from big companies that have an eco product just because it’s trendy.”

For now, eco’s fashionable appeal brings business in the door. But if people can be educated before they leave, there’s hope for a world where Riva’s and The EcoStore aren’t the exception.—Sally MacKinnon

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