Building supplies store’s eco-first attitude paying off

At last month’s Green Skyline Tour in Vancouver, store manager Dan Chalmers was called to the mat—a bamboo mat.

Chalmers, who runs Greenworks Building Supply Inc. played host to about 50 visitors at his shop near Cambie Street and 8th Avenue. The stop was part of the Cascadia Region’s Green Building Council’s 2008 Green Skyline tours, which showcased residential and commercial spaces featuring green products.

The tour also helped homeowners become more educated, and kept design and construction firms in the loop on what’s happening with LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified technologies.

Chalmers is fully indoctrinated into the ways of sustainability. He has a masters in environmental tourism, has volunteered with non-profit Sustainable Cities, and he quit his job as a travel agent because he couldn’t tolerate selling polluting flights.

He went to work at Greenworks because the store sells flooring, paints, stains, counter tops and other renovation products that are manufactured with social and environmental issues in mind. (Its founders are sustainability researcher Alastair Moore and entrepreneur Peter McGee, who mostly take a background role these days.)

About that imported bamboo

One tour visitor wanted to know why Chalmers was selling bamboo, which comes all the way from China.

“I said I was trying to source local and sustainable material and she said, ‘What are you doing selling bamboo from China?’ That raised a few questions,” recalls Chalmers, noting that there are no commercial bamboo plantations in B.C.

“I tried to break it down into seeing it in separate aspects, such as the size of shipments coming over,” he says, referring to the fact that a big shipment from China uses less energy than several small shipments from elsewhere in North America, for example.

“Obviously I agree it’s not local and I would prefer to sell local B.C. bamboo,” says Chalmers, looking a little pained that he can’t source locally on everything.

“The cheaper stuff is harvested from the wild quite often. It’s like clear cutting. They harvest it every couple of years. The company we buy from, it’s all from a plantation and they harvest it by hand. They wait the seven years for it to grow, they don’t use pesticides on it, and they manage the plantation themselves. So they ensure it’s managed properly and the people working there are making a decent wage.”

Eco-conscious product lines paying off

Greenworks is geared to the green home renovator, and business is brisk—sales have grown more than 50% since the store opened a year and a half ago. That growth is in spite of nearby Canada Line construction, which hampered passer-by traffic.

It seems the time is ripe for a store that considers the chemicals and energy used to manufacture housing products. Chalmers says the government is on board too, trying to set an advertising standard to ensure against “green washing,” which is empty promises that products are “all natural,” and the like.

It’s hard to believe that the chemical-enhanced “new car smell” used to be considered a good thing. At Greenworks, heavy metal dyes and formaldehyde—used in traditional manufacturing of carpets and flooring—are dirty words.

Greenworks sells paints made from clay that don’t contain solvents. The counter top called Icestone is made from recycled glass, and is as beautiful as stone, and even cuts like stone. The Marmoleum flooring, which costs about $6 a square foot and replaces old linoleum, is made from linseed, flax and rock flour (a waste product from the rock industry).

Those are just a few of the products he showed off to the Skyline Tour visitors, who were mostly renovators and homeowners. Greenworks was only one of two retail stores on the tour (the other was Lumen, located on Granville Island).

“It’s a learning process for everybody because it’s an informal setting where people are encouraged to ask questions rather than the retail and consumer relationship, which is what we do every day,” says Chalmers.

“If they sign up for this tour, they have to learn things.”

Chalmers said it’s commonplace, however, for the Greenworks staff to give informal talks on a daily basis, so information-loaded is his type of product. For that reason, Chalmers hires staff with environmental backgrounds.

“There has to be a sense of ideology behind it, otherwise people get bored selling flooring.”

Some of his customers have been suffering for many years from chemical allergies, for example. Those people tend to have done so much research on a product that they know more than Chalmers about it. He’s often asked for a breakdown of ingredients on the products, which isn’t always easy to obtain for proprietary reasons, he says.

“People are much more well educated and they are constantly looking for new things in terms of the health aspect, recycled components, local products, reclaimed wood, health certification—a combination of all those things.”

Source: BC Hydro News