Long-time business owners adapt to green market

Shoppers seeing green as they look to local stores for environmentally friendly products

Rick Wilson, owner of Wilson Motors, said the green wave is much bigger than it was even a few years ago. He used to sell only one or two hybrid cars a month — these days, he’s selling 20 to 25.

Matt Gagne
   Wood is usually the frame for furniture, so it shouldn’t be a surprise the first thing customers see when they walk into Barbo Furniture is a tree.
   But this tree, a sculpture made by owners Holly and Chris Barbo, works to frame the philosophy of the furniture store. Nesting in its branches is an array of brochures explicating the environmental and sustainable practices Barbo Furniture incorporates in the store.
   Barbo Furniture is one of many businesses showing off its green side. The concept of marketing to customers though advertising a business’s environmental and sustainable practices is catching fire as warnings of global warming and other human-caused environmental disasters swirl in the media.
   But the idea is nothing new. Western Washington University marketing professor Thomas Olney said green is a trend within marketing.
   “The real concept is marketing,” Olney said. “When green is what people want, that’s still marketing.”
   And green is what people want, said Rick Wilson, Wilson Motors general manager.
   Four years ago, Wilson Motors began carrying the Toyota Prius, a vehicle sporting new hybrid technology that employs an electric component to the standard engine, vastly improving gas mileage and reducing emissions. At that time, Wilson said he sold one or two a month.
   Now, he said, Wilson Motors sells 20 to 25 of the hybrids a month — more than any other car on the lot.
   “Four years ago people were not even thinking green,” Wilson said. “Now it enters their thought process. The green wave is much bigger than it was then.”
   Toyota does all the marketing for the Prius. But Wilson said the dealership works with an increasing number of Whatcom County companies that want to project a green image.
   “I think we cater quite well to the green crowd,” he said.
   Wilson also said the dealership responds to what customers want, as most businesses do. If for some reason green was to go out of style, he said, Wilson Motors would adapt to market demands.

Giving customers a ‘green’ education
   While Wilson Motors has changed with the green demands of the market, that market has come to Barbo Furniture.
   “We’re not doing anything new but framing it into a context that people are willing to hear,” Holly Barbo said.
   Since the store opened seven years ago, Barbo said most of the furniture made and sold complies with sustainable and environmental standards. The Barbos are in a unique position because they not only sell furniture, but design, build and restore it as well.
   “Because of that background, we look at furniture differently,” she said. “To us the way it’s made is the critical thing.”
   Barbo said the furniture she sells must meet standards that fulfill three interconnected green principles: sustainability, renewability and efficiency. If a product is sustainable, it is not only made from materials that come from places that have environmentally and socially sound practices, but is also built to last. Poorly built furniture takes more energy and resources because it does not last as long, she said.
   Companies have been making disposable furniture since the mid-1960s, she said. Local landfills take in several couches a day.
   “When you cut corners, it ends up in a landfill,” Barbo said.
   Several international organizations give certifications to products and businesses that meet sustainable and environmental standards from start to finish. Barbo said she has been looking at getting the store certified by the Rainforest Alliance, a nonprofit organization that monitors sustainable and environmental practices relating to land use, business practices and consumer behavior.
   She is also involved with the newly-formed Sustainable Furniture Council, which will set environmental and social standards specifically for furniture manufacturers and dealers. The Rainforest Alliance is one of the 21 founding members of the council.
   Barbo’s efforts go beyond projecting a green image for the store. She is also focused on educating customers about what it really means to be “green.” She said people come in asking for Earth-friendly products, such as natural fibers or specific woods. But often people do not know what Earth-friendly is, she said. An exotic-sounding wood, such as teak, does not necessarily come from a clear cut in a rainforest, and natural fabrics often wear faster, shortening the life of the furniture, she said.
   “We need to engage our brains and not just jump on the bandwagon,” Barbo said.
   Some green marketing can be spurious and misleading, she said. Education of her customers is crucial to making green practices not just a marketing ploy, but part of mainstream culture, she said.
   Being green is in its cultural infancy, but there are signs it is more than a fad. Skyrocketing gas prices might have an effect on how many hybrids Wilson Motors sells, but Wilson said the high demand still has a green tinge.
   “I do think people have gotten greener,” Wilson said. “It’s becoming more mainstream. Four years ago it was definitely on the edge.”
   Evidence that green marketing is more than a trend can be seen in how deeply it penetrates some businesses. Whatcom Educational Credit Union, for example, incorporates green practices into its services, business and employees.
   “It’s something you’re not going to find a lot of banks doing,” said WECU marketing analyst Brandon Hahnel.
   The credit union hosted a free seminar June 6 on socially and environmentally responsible investing. The seminar, a regular in WECU’s rotation, was based on the theory that investing in responsible companies positively influences economic and trade practices. Hahnel said the seminar generates the most RSVPs of all WECU’s free seminars.
   WECU’s commitment to environmental practices go beyond its services, however. The bank’s recently completed business and loan center on Holly Street in downtown Bellingham is the first building in Whatcom County to receive the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) gold certification from the U.S. Green Building Council. Gold certification is the second-highest on the point-based LEED rating system, meaning the building meets certain requirements in environmental standards during construction and in its design.
   Hahnel said two more branches in the works are also being designed to meet LEED certification standards.
   Marketing strategies are typically indicative of market demands, and the green tinge of Bellingham marketing may be a result of the area’s social sentiment.
   “We try to adopt the philosophy and culture of our members,” Hahnel said. “We don’t do it as a publicity stunt.”
   The adoption of Bellingham’s green culture spreads to the inner workings of the credit union. Hahnel said employees are offered incentives to encourage other modes of transportation to work besides their cars, such as a day where they can wear jeans to work or a raffle ticket with a prize of $200.
   While the in-house marketing is not advertised, its effect is felt beyond the walls of the credit union.
   “We have a strong foundation in being socially responsible,” Hahnel said. “Green construction and outreach is part of that responsibility.”
   Many green products still sell at high prices — most of the couches in Barbo Furniture cost more than $2,000. However, as these products become more mainstream, they could, like blue jeans, become affordable and ingrained into the culture.

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