What does it mean to be green—and how is it good for your business?
By Saskia Vogel
Green is good, they keep telling us. As the vegan reading the Whole Life Times at the patio table across from you at Whole Foods Market will attest, being green isn’t just about “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” For consumers and companies, green is a life philosophy, a business model or a marketing tactic. Think fair-trade, shade-grown coffee, and hybrid cars. But how does catering to consumers with words like “eco-friendly,” “organic,” and “sustainable business” buzzing in their ears benefit your pleasure product-oriented business?
In a profit-driven world, idealism and dollars aren’t bedmates often, but tapping into the growing eco-consciousness can bring new streams of greenbacks into your pool. Positioning yourself to meet this customer’s needs is a way to secure another share of the market. Who knows? You may also get a kick out of pleasing Mother Earth with each glass dildo or rechargeable vibrator you sell and each energy-saving light bulb you use in your store. (Not to mention potential tax breaks!)MONEY TO BE MADEFor the multibillion-dollar business Whole Foods, the nation’s largest natural and organic food retailer, creating a grocery store-turned-lifestyle brand that serves eco-conscious consumers meant that in the 10 years leading up to 2005, the company’s stock rose 1,522 percent, according to Robert Wallberg of MSN.com. And the company is expanding globally.Consumers want a satisfying, quality product, and they want their daily bread (body-care products, apparel, and housewares) to come with a heapin’ helping of do-good and a clear conscience. That is, they want their pasta to transcend its durum-and-water origins and be a handcrafted artisanal delicacy-”food porn,” as Forbes magazine called it in a 2005 article. Notably, this type of consumer doesn’t mind paying a premium for such goods. In the novelty biz, such products and customers abound, but catering to them does not mean alienating your low- to mid-price-range customers.As acknowledged by Adam Burns of Xhale Glass, which produces high-quality, handmade, glass toys made in the U.S. and made to last a lifetime, there is a growing base of green-sex-toy users who try to “better their lives, health, environment, what have you, by supporting certain brands.” “At the same time,” he adds, “I don’t think I will ever run into someone that would say, ‘I’m not going to masturbate with this toy because the manufacturer isn’t as environmentally aware as they could be.’”Mind you, it’s not just about the consumer. GE and Siemens have made “green” a core part of their business strategies. Though the metrics on the effectiveness of marketing yourself as green aren’t in yet, Tom Haas, chief marketing officer of global manufacturing at Siemens, noted in an April 7, 2008, article in BtoB magazine that companies focusing on being green received a “greater lift in awareness.” That angle may help your bottom line, but green is primarily a choice about how you do business.THE BUSINESS OF GOING GREENKarel Samsom, a Los Angeles-based professor of sustainable entrepreneurship and environmental business, says that when you go fully green, you “remember the triple bottom line: people, profit, and planet.” By that, he means ask yourself who is paying for making the choice to stock certain items and in which ways your choices impact the environment. “Pricing that is too good to be true is too good to be true,” Samson says. In his experience, buying the cheapest product often means corners have been cut in an environmental, fair-labor and quality sense.Before you decide from whom to buy a product, ask these questions: Where does the product come from? How did it get here? Where will it go when its useful life has ended? These questions prompt thought on who makes the product and under what circumstances, what kinds of impact the transportation of this product from the manufacturer to you has on the environment, and the life of the product.But as Jennifer Islas, owner of the very green retail store Pleasures of the Heart in San Rafael, Calif., notes, the strongest motivator for going green may be dollar signs. “Most people are unmotivated by altruism or concern for social welfare,” she says. “So I tell them they should go green because they save money and get free advertising, which is a gold mine for any business.”Most strongly aligned with the notion of “people and profit,” Fun Factory, a manufacturer of nonallergenic, easy-to-sterilize adult novelties made of medical-grade silicone and a body-care line that meets the highest European Union eco-standards, has always practiced a kind of green business. “We make all high-quality, natural, free-of-chemicals, organic, nothing-artificially-made products,” Rudy Kottbauer, director of marketing, sales, and customer relations, says of the company’s body-care line. “We source our ingredients and materials mostly from countries within the EU. Our company’s philosophy … is to manufacture in Germany so we can keep the quality control and employment within the EU. We’re against cheap labor and cheap manufacturing. For that, we’d rather pay a little more.”Not to mention their silicone toys are free of that much-debated, often-deemed-harmful, allegedly hormone-disrupting group of chemicals called phthalates, which are banned in the European Union.Showing that the big guys are just as capable of going green, Topco Sales has been a leader in eco-friendly manufacturing stateside. In 2007, the company noticed that it had been naturally exploring green initiatives with its warehouse recycling programs and other projects that Director of Special Operations KC McCarthy was implementing.”We had a meeting and made a list of all the environmentally friendly programs that we were already doing, and, quite frankly, we impressed ourselves!” says Desiree Duffie, director of marketing and public relations. “We also took stock of more initiatives we could investigate to reduce our carbon footprint and decided to make an official commitment to green. McCarthy has spearheaded the initiative in many ways, doing things that no other novelty manufacturer has even considered, such as looking at solar power and making sure products meet RoHS [the restriction of the use of certain hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment] standards.”Duffie says customers and Topco employees have given an incredibly positive response to the company’s initiatives. “As soon as we started talking about making a commitment to green, I had people from lots of different departments come to me and tell me why they wanted to help,” she explains. “So sure, there’s obviously consumer demand for green, but that is because people everywhere are beginning to care about the environment in a whole new way, including the employees of Topco Sales.”According to Duffie, Topco makes sure its facilities exceed California environmental regulations and makes “absolutely certain our materials are tested and safe.” “We do RoHS and WEEE [Waste from Electronic and Electrical Equipment] testing on all items received from China and other countries,” she says. “Also, our lab is one of the only FDA-registered labs in the adult industry.”"Our Special Projects Team looks for ways to reduce our waste, increase our reliance in renewable energy, and reduce our use of traditional energy sources,” McCarthy adds. “‘Green’ does not have to cost more if you are willing to research it thoroughly. Every project is analyzed for a cost-benefit and [return on investment], but ‘green’ is the driving force behind these projects.”After investigating the RoHS lab facilities in China, Topco decided to buy its own state-of-the-art equipment so it could have total control and responsibility over its products’ adherence to RoHS standards. This means that, in addition to required tests, the company checks for contaminants such as arsenic. McCarthy asserts that Topco has already earned back the cost of the equipment, having saved on lab fees and RoHS-related fines.Topco recycles as much of its excess packing material as possible, decreasing disposal costs and the contribution to the waste stream. Through a project underwritten by the city of Los Angeles, the company also has arranged to recycle its office paper.McCarthy recently submitted a proposal to replace Topco’s warehouse and production mercury-halogen lamps with fluorescent lights. These require half the energy to operate and 1 percent of the hazardous and hard-to-dispose-of mercury vapor. Long-term financial benefits include energy savings, tax benefits, and rebates.Topco is still working on a solar-energy proposal that would reduce its dependence on natural gas. Solar energy would be used to preheat the steam-boiler inflow and provide daytime hot water to laboratories and bathrooms. State and federal government incentives and improved technology will make this viable within the next two years.On a smaller level, Devine Toys, a manufacturer of cute, compact cases and containers for novelties, has been measuring, tracking, and reducing its emissions with the help of the Environmental Protections Agency’s “Climate Leaders” program and has been green from the get-go. Aside from ensuring that nontoxic glues are used in the manufacturing process, Devine Toys has never spent a dime on packing and ship-ping materials. The company simply reuses packaging that has been discarded by local companies. Devine Toys also stopped printing catalogs and sending physical invoices-hard copies are available upon request-and started doing it all digitally.Also, Trigg Laboratories, manufacturer of WET personal lubricant and massage oil products, has launched an eco-conscious initiative with its packaging, shipping, and marketing materials. The company now uses a plastic called PET (polyethylene terephthalate) instead of PVC (polyvinyl chloride). Though both are technically recyclable, PET is more practical to recy-cle and has broad future uses, such as being made into polyester fibers. Styrofoam peanuts and air-filled plastic cushions are popular void-filling options, but both create masses of landfill waste. WET chooses to pack its shipments with biodegradable peanuts. Additionally, its displays are 90 percent recyclable.Smart choices and innovative eco-friendly solutions in day-to-day operations like Devine’s and WET’s show that being green doesn’t always require an intrepid special projects team.GREEN RETAILINGShining examples of retailers that have green business practices and demonstrate concern for the health of their customers are Pleasures of the Heart, TheSensualVegan.com, and the chains Good Vibrations, The Pleasure Chest, and Babeland.Pleasures of the Heart and TheSensualVegan.com are green as extensions of their owners’ personal lives. Pleasures of the Heart owner Jennifer Islas runs her shop as she runs her life, from using energy-saving lights to using eco-friendly cleaning fluid and dramatically reducing personal waste. She requests that vendors use as little packing material as possible, and many comply. Lingerie manufacturing company Arianne, for example, now ships garments without hangers or individual garment bags. Excess packaging materials, such as plastic bags, are reused as garbage-can liners. By reducing and recycling, in the past two and half years of ownership, Islas has reduced Pleasures of the Heart’s weekly waste from a full dumpster load to a small box of trash. A government grant helped cover the cost of replacing her lighting with energy-saving options. The savings made back the out-of-pocket money within the first month of this green initiative.And Islas leaves no carbon footprint in her daily commute: She walks. As an unexpected result of her serious green commitment, Islas’ store is a high-profile, model business in her community, which is nearly unheard-of for an adult novelty store. “It’s a struggle to be accepted, and this is definitely a huge boost to our business,” Islas says, noting her membership in the Downtown Business Improvement District, the city’s green task force, a speaking engagement at the San Rafael Chamber of Commerce, and participation in a local benefit/reward program for students who actively pursue a greener lifestyle.Furry Girl, owner of the TheSensualVegan.com, grew her retail site as an extension of her alt-porn site VegPorn.com. She gives people a Whole Foods-esque sex-toy shopping experience. “For people like myself,” she says, “it’s a normal part of the shopping experience to factor social [and] ecological issues into what I buy, whether its organic apples or silicone vibrators.”In addition to similar initiatives with energy-saving lighting, David Ballow, national director of operations for The Pleasure Chest, has started a “don’t drive to work by yourself” initiative. Employees get a “kickback” from the company if they carpool or use public transportation. Ballow seems to be most passionate about saving energy. He’s glad to know all electrical equipment is shut down at the end of each day, but he is happiest to see the sparkle and fine light quality his 2,700-kelvin color temperature lights gives to the more than 5,000 SKUs in, for example, the company’s Los Angeles store. (An added bonus is that the installation of these light fixtures was subsidized by Edison.)It’s clear that going green often comes from the heart and consciousness, but it also yields benefits when you take advantage of local, state, and federal programs. But how does this reach consumers?The answer from each retailer was “education.” Babeland Marketing Director Mae Schultz, Good Vibrations Buyer Coyote Days, and Ballow say a well-educated staff is key to pushing green in their stores. “We think of the end user from the start,” Days says. “I look for an assortment of toys for the savvy shopper, from the $12 battery vibe to a $175 rechargeable. I look at the ingredients, et cetera, and how they will impact the customer.”While Pleasures of the Heart has signage around the store to explain the benefits of phthalate-free, wooden, glass, solar-powered, and other eco-minded toys, Good Vibrations merchandises its stores according to toy category and makes sure its “sex educator/sales associates” are highly trained in explaining the possibilities of pleasure. With eco-erotics, this means toys that are built to last, will have no negative impacts on the body, and are solar-powered or rechargeable, and body-care products that are made from natural ingredients.”Customers have been buying these products for years, and it’s no surprise to them that they also happen to be better for the environment,” Schultz says. “That said, we also have customers who have seen clips on YouTube or read blogs about hidden poisons in their sex toys and don’t know much else about it. We love talking to these customers about the wide array of toys that are out there and what materials they are made from.”In fact, Babeland designed its Eco-Sexy Kit for people looking for green basics in one place. The kit includes condoms, a massage candle, organic lube, and a well-made vibrator without phthalates or other chemicals, showing that “there are many options for cute, effective sex toys,” Schultz notes.Another element of being green is concern about products’ effects on the body. Health scares about how chemicals and compounds used in manufacturing impact the body and the environment have led to changes in manufacturing and buying practices on corporate and consumer levels, such as Earthly Body’s “paraben-free” labels on its as-organic-as-possible, natural, hemp-based line of body-care products. Also, Sliquid is going all the way with Sliquid Organics, a new line of vegan, organic lube, to be launched at this year’s ANE. President Dean Elliot says, “As always, our organic line begins with the mantra ‘safety first.’” The ingredients themselves are more than just body-safe; they’re body-beneficial. “Some of the benefits of our botanicals are aloe vera heals and moisturizes, while vitamin E and flax restore your skin’s natural elasticity. Green tea extract acts as an anti-inflammatory, and the natural powers of hibiscus soothe and relax,” Elliot explains. To round it off, the bottles are recyclable PET, the product is made in the USA, and it is cruelty-free.News scares about chemicals, like phthalates and parabens that are inconclusively linked to causing cancer and disruptions in the body, can shake customers. Thus, Earthly Body’s labeling and Sliquid’s active incorporation of a kind of holistic body care philosophy into their new products take steps to putting consumers at ease and making them feel cared for. And if your customers feel cared for, it’s likely that they’ll be loyal.There is a notable gap in the market for education and organized opportunity to recycle and properly dispose of adult novelties. Most novelties, the ones that buzz and whir, fall under the WEEE category of products, like toasters and consumer electronics. U.K.-based online retailer LoveHoney has the leading example of sex-toy recycling. Under its “Rabbit Amnesty” recycling program, the company gives consumers an incentive to recycle their old Rabbit vibes. (They get credit toward the purchase of a replacement toy.) In compliance with an European Union WEEE directive that, in July 2007, made it illegal to just toss your vibrator or sandwich maker in the trash, consumers send their dead toys to LoveHoney, which passes them on to a specialized recycling plant. Efforts to contact representatives of SexToyRecycling.com, a seemingly similar U.S.-based website that promotes a similar initiative, yielded no response.Though the immediate benefits of going green may seem too altruistic for a competitive business model, it also appears that companies that have embraced the growing eco-consciousness are enjoying savings in day-to-day operations, closer relationships with their customers, and-just as Siemens and GE have found-greater awareness of their businesses in the public eye. And that’s the kind of positive publicity money can’t buy.