An abundance of choice

Photo: istockphoto.com/Tor Lindqvist
Five diverse companies who have taken on the eco challenge.

The relationship between environmentalism and commerce has never been an easy one, but the idea that no eco-friendly citizen worth his or her composter would have any luck when business died in the 1970's.

We all make financial choices that can either harm or help the planet (and therefore us). And it's good to know there are choices out there, as well as entrepreneurs willing to gamble on making a buck by providing us with healthy food, chemical-free clothing or renewable energy. "Social entrepreneurs tend to do well over the long term," says Professor Tima Bansal of the Richard Ivey School of Business at London's University of Western Ontario, "because their customers are not as price-sensitive as they are values-sensitive." And since they're more closely connected to their community, she adds, they're more likely to survive short-term downturns.

Here are five diverse Ontario companies that have taken on the eco-friendly business challenge.

Bullfrog Power

So you've changed all your incandescent lightbulbs to compact fluorescents, you don't start the dishwasher until you're ready to watch Jon Stewart and the lines of caulking you've laid down in your house would reach the Panama Canal. But nothing you can do or buy will change the fact that most of your electricity comes from noxious nuclear, coal- and gas-fired facilities - right? Wrong. If you pay your own electricity bill, you or your business can sign up for Bullfrog Power, Ontario's first 100 percent green electricity retailer.

Bullfrog Power, which launched last September, takes advantage of Ontario's deregulated electricity market by allowing consumers to direct their dollars towards clean, renewable energy. There's no special equipment or service call required. You simply go to www.bullfrogpower.com and fill out a form, and you'll draw electricity from the Ontario power grid as usual. But when you pay your Bullfrog bill, all of the money goes to buy wind and low-impact water power, not electricity from non-renewable nuclear, gas- and coal-fired sources. (Other retailers offer a green option, but only a small percentage of their packages is green.)

It'll cost more (you can lock in for one year at 8.3 cents per kilowatt-hour; Toronto Hydro currently charges between 5 and 5.8 cents, and it's going up), which may be one reason Bullfrog's customer list includes high-profile people such as Margaret Atwood, The Tragically Hip's Gord Downie, photographer Edward Burtynsky, restaurateur Jamie Kennedy, University of Toronto prof Thomas Homer-Dixon and Steven Page of the Barenaked Ladies. But Leandra and Vance MacDonald, both in their fourth year at McMaster University in Hamilton, signed up last December (and - full disclosure - so did I), even though they're on a student's income. "It seemed like the responsible thing to do, kind of a no-brainer," explains Leandra. "We were concerned at first, because we have electric heating, but we calculated it would just mean about one dinner a month that we can't eat out."

"There are only so many decisions you can take at a household level to reduce your environmental footprint," says Bullfrog president Tom Heintzman, 42, a former environmental lawyer and energy consultant. "This is a powerful new choice." Bullfrog is partnering with Sky Generation to add two new turbines to the Sky wind farm on the Bruce Peninsula. Wind power makes up 20 percent of Bullfrog's mix (compared with less than one percent at your regular Ontario utility) and 80 percent is derived from hydro (compared to two percent). All Bullfrog's sources are certified by the federal government's EcoLogo standard for renewable power - hydro installations, for instance, must not be disruptive to fish or other wildlife habitat.

Heintzman has been pleasantly surprised by the positive response from businesses and non-profits: RBC Financial Group switched eight bank branches and an office over to Bullfrog Power, and Upper Canada College, Hidden Bench Vineyards & Winery, the Kortright Centre for Conservation and ad agency Key Gordon are among those sporting the "Bullfrogpowered" logo. Bullfrog is busily penning agreements with the nearly 100 electrical utilities in the province, and customers can now sign up throughout most of Ontario.

"Ultimately, the success or failure of Bullfrog depends on the citizens of Ontario," says Heintzman. "The more people that want to support renewable electricity, the more will get built."

GreenEarth Cleaning

Oh, the dry-cleaning dilemma. Most dry cleaners use a solvent called perchloroethylene, or perc, which has been linked to disorders of the nervous system, liver and kidneys, as well as cancer, headaches and skin irritation - and it doesn't completely come out of your clothes. But what to do instead? Some forward-thinking cleaners are using alternatives. Hydrocarbon poses fewer direct health risks, but is still a petroleum-based volatile organic compound (VOC) that contributes to smog. Carbon dioxide looks promising, though it's considerably more expensive. "Wet-cleaning" - basically, putting clothes in a computer-controlled washing machine with water and detergent, followed by professional pressing to retain shape - doesn't use dangerous chemicals, but it does leave behind a lot of dirty water and the results aren't always top-notch.

Last October, Robert Kuenzlen of Thorndale, Ontario, and his partner Napier Simpson bought the Canadian licence for GreenEarth Cleaning of Kansas City, Missouri, which uses a silicone-based solvent called siloxane. The solvent, unlike perc, is not a VOC and leaves no leftover toxic waste that has to be hauled away. Does it clean your clothes? A Consumer Reports test found siloxane performed almost as well as carbon dioxide, and did a better job than the traditional perc method.

So far, 12 cleaners in Canada use the GreenEarth cleaning process, almost half of them in the Toronto area. "We're looking for people who don't want to just fly the environmental flag," says Kuenzlen, who spent 26 years in sales in the health-care industry. "They have to walk the talk." So if you and your neighbours click on the "Bring a GreenEarth Dry Cleaner to My Community!" button at www.greenearthcleaningcanada.com, the company will try to persuade a cleaner near you to switch over to siloxane.

Eco Cleaners on Mount Pleasant Road in Toronto began using GreenEarth even before the Canadian licensors came on the scene, starting with its facility at Laird Cleaners on Eglinton East in 2001. General manager Tim Yoo says a lot of his customers have chemical sensitivities, allergies or asthma. "A woman from Ottawa drove all the way here with a car-load of clothes to be cleaned because the residue from normal dry cleaning gives her asthma attacks and rashes," says Yoo. "She wrote us a letter to say that GreenEarth cleaning caused her no problems at all."

Rowe Farm Meats

When Costco, Wal-Mart and a Japanese trade delegation came calling at Rowe Farm Meats, owner John Rowe sent them away. He couldn't possibly fill such large orders for Rowe Farm's antibiotic- and hormone-free meats in any case, but fast growth is not his style, and neither is widening the gap between consumer and farmer. Rowe is all about education.

After growing up in Guelph, the son of a vet who bought a hobby farm later in life, Rowe taught elementary school for five years, specializing in rescuing kids who were falling behind. One day he read an article about the connection between growth hormones fed to cows and the incidence of cervical and vaginal cancer. "I thought if I ever got married," he says, "I didn't want my wife or daughters having to face that."

So he became a farmer, and he and his wife raised three daughters by producing and selling meat using methods that emphasized sound land stewardship, free-range, humane animal husbandry and zero use of chemicals or animal byproducts as feed. Rowe started a butcher shop in the basement of his ranch-style farmhouse and began to buy meat from other local farmers, many of them Mennonites, eventually establishing an informal co-op that today boasts 30 farms in Waterloo and Wellington counties. The butcher shop is now in a nondescript building on the fringes of Guelph, but Rowe, 59, still farms. On a Monday afternoon you'll find him driving the tractor out to feed the cows the home-grown perennial grasses nature intended them to eat (they don't get any high-carb corn, even organic corn, which depletes the land and upsets cows' stomachs). Rowe Farm chickens eat soy protein and flax and aren't caged as they are in egg factories, though the Canadian climate and, now, the threat of avian flu prevent them from running around outside. Rowe and his supplier farms follow a detailed protocol audited by the Guelph Food Technology Centre.

Customers flock to the Rowe Farm stall at the St. Lawrence Farmers' Market in Toronto on Saturday mornings to get fresh, cured and frozen beef, chicken, pork, lamb and eggs, as well as to a couple of dozen natural-food stores from Windsor to Ottawa and some Fortino's supermarkets in Hamilton and Toronto. (After a cautious test in one store, Rowe agreed to try a bigger venue; Rowe Farm eggs can also be found in Loblaws, Sobeys and A&P.) Rowe, who displays a quirky blend of strongly held opinion and openness to ideas that contradict his beliefs, seems satisfied with the steady growth rate his business has seen. "On average," he says, "you make more money farming the conventional way. That's why it's the conventional way." But he challenges the view that our primary goal should be to make food more abundant and cheaper if it means harming it or the soil it comes from. He doesn't believe his way is the only way - as long as people are trying to educate consumers to feel a connection to what they eat and where it comes from, that's enough for him. "It's about evolution," he says, "not revolution."

Lileo

Organic Mongolian wool scarves, anyone? Or maybe you'd like a Tibetan goji-berry antioxidant shake while you're picking up a Stella McCartney Adidas totebag? This eclectic range of goods is the stock-in-trade of Lileo, a clothing emporium/art gallery/juice bar that occupies an airy, light-filled 7,000 square feet in Toronto's Distillery District, where the old brick and cobbled streets hearken back to a simpler time. But Lileo's proprietors aim to tread more lightly on the earth than Victorian industry did, while selling beautiful things to their customers. As the people who brought Lululemon yoga fashions to Eastern Canada, Syd Beder and Alexandra Morgan (who have two other Lileo partners, Braden Bennett and Arlene Pastor) know what they're doing. The tone here is seriously stylish.

"We searched for a name for three months," says Beder. "We wanted something that emphasized light and discovery." They chose Lileo as a homage to Galileo; the juice bar is called Livia after one of the Italian astronomer's daughters. In addition to the usual vegetarian fare, Livia sells a variety of health supplements, from Maca Power ("The Inca Superfood") to E3 Live blue-green algae and raw cacao.

While not all of the clothing at Lileo is made of natural or organic fibres, you can find a range of ecologically conscious but high-fashion items, like the award-winning Nike Considered line of shoes, made from recycled waste rubber and leather and fewer glues and solvents than regular shoes. ("Nike's really cleaned up its act," says Beder. "Did you know it's the largest user of organic cotton in the world?") If you can't afford the $560 Japanese jeans made by Kato from organic Zimbabwe cotton and hand-dyed with real (i.e. non-chemical) indigo, there are organic denim jeans from Loomstate at $250, or try a Stewart Brown T-shirt in feather-soft organic cotton ($70). The Mongolian cashmere sweaters, scarves and throws beg to be touched, and you can also soothe yourself with natural cosmetics and remedies from Neal's Yard of London, England, and California's Erbaviva.

There's lots to look at in Lileo. The interactive light fountain by 3rd Uncle Design and Gorbet Design sends out ripples of light when you move rocks around its surface. Books on green cleaning and Woody Harrelson's How to Go Further are strewn among the clothes. Last winter, the store was hung with huge colour photographs that Canadian filmmaker Paul Saltzman took during his time in India in 1968 when he learned meditation from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi with the Beatles and Mia Farrow. A sprawling shot of John Lennon that greeted customers at the door fits the ethos of Lileo - both idealistic and trendy, this is a store that imagines on a big scale.

Organic Meadow

When you walk into the offices of Organic Meadow, you know you're visiting a business. In a large industrial building on a stretch of farm land just outside Guelph, a dozen employees in corporate dress bustle around this dairy and egg co-operative of 165 members. CEO Steve Cavell, a former sales and marketing manager with such companies as Unilever, Cargill and Gillette, decided last year to leave the big-business world and join a smaller enterprise that could offer him more input but also satisfy his growing desire to apply his talents to an earth-friendly concept. "Our values are set by the farmers," he says, "but we've always been professionally managed. You can apply business principles along with organic and co-operative principles."

OntarBio Organic Farmers Co-operative, a group of Guelph-area farmers interested in sustainable agriculture and healthy food, began a small grain operation in 1989, and added milk in 1994. Its Organic Meadow brand now has 75 percent of the Ontario market for organic dairy products; you can buy the milk, cheese, butter, eggs and even frozen vegetables in Dominion, A&P, Sobeys, Whole Foods Market, Loblaws and Longo's, as well as in independent health-food stores across the country. Ninety percent of the organic dairy farmers in Ontario own a share of the co-op. While Cavell won't divulge sales figures, he says OM has grown by 25 percent every year for the past five years, even faster than the market for organic products generally, which has risen by 20 percent annually in the past decade.

What makes Organic Meadow products worth paying as much as double the price? Aside from knowing you aren't pouring antibiotics, hormones (a special concern for those who've had estrogen-sensitive breast cancers) or pesticides onto your Shreddies, there's the knowledge that the cows and chickens who've given up their milk and eggs get some fresh air and exercise in return, not to mention room to move on local, mainly small-scale family farms. If cows do get sick, they're treated by homeopathic veterinarians.

If your secret indulgence is chocolate milk, OM sells that, too - and buys only Fair Trade Certified cocoa and sugar. Other goodies include lactose-free milk and what Cavell calls the only organic cream cheese and pressed cottage cheese available in Canada. Looking for something for the kids' lunches? OM was the first to sell organic milk in Tetra Pak cartons, which don't require refrigeration.

OM is doing well enough to fund a PhD student at Collège d'Alfred, a University of Guelph satellite on the Ontario side of the Ottawa River that teaches agriculture in French. Next project: persuading a Canadian veterinary school to offer a homeopathic program - vets now have to travel to San Diego for that training. "The organic business has grown up," says Cavell. "It's not just a back-yard gardener with a fruit stand any more."