Hidden Benefits, Challenges in Selling a Green Product

Everyone knows going green is a smart idea, including entrepreneurs. In January, Grow Books Press finally completed the transition from being in letterpress to being a full-fledged mass-production publisher, but with the caveat and focus of making children's books that are compostable, in a limited run, and not made in any way that will harm the environment. Believe it or not, this is actually rare in the field, and especially so in Chicago. Alyson Beaton, the driving force behind Grow Books Press, intends to change all that.

I gave her a call to see how her company has been faring, what she's learned after seven months of operation, and how the city helps out manufacturers of green products.

So what are some of the hidden benefits to selling a green product? Are there any?

Alyson Beaton: Granted, I'm not a millionaire today, but I might be in a year. [Laughs.] If it's hidden benefits, it's that stores are really attracted to the things that are green. It's a huge buzz word, obviously, which has maybe been used and abused. If you go into a store and you're working with other people and you're putting your merchandise out there, just having it be a part of it is huge. It gets people's interest and it's hard for them to do turn it down because it's altruistic: "If I do this, then I'm doing something good in some way."

As far as products to produce [green], it's hard to do it affordably. Which is why I think there are so few products that are made that way in the US. Even just printing books, but wanting to compete with the stuff that's coming from China that also says it's green is near impossible.

I guess there's been a real gray area, for me, as a producer, and for people promoting themselves as green. I think that's why consumers are a little leery of buying into whether things are green. So me as a producer, if I bring things over, certain store owners get it and certain ones don't because they just want merchandise. It does initially get you in the door.

Once the door is open, are there other hurdles you have to clear for the green status?

AB: I would have to say no, I don't think that retailers don't really care all that much. I think they trust the people making the things to give them something they can stand behind. I do think that it's hard for products to stand up against other products that aren't necessarily green. I think the localvore movement has been dying out with the bad economy. The only hurdle I could see is the store owner has to sell the product, because people don't know. If we make products that look mass produced, and they look like they were made in China -- which is always our goal, to have it look sleek and well designed and not frumpy -- that is a hurdle for them to be talking about with your product.

Some stores, the local stores will do it, but obviously the bigger sellers don't care. It's not like Amazon is going to go out of their way to make a niche market for these kinds of things, but I'm hoping they will in the future.

Are there local perks or incentives to being green with your products?

AB: If I was huge, yeah. In the US it is so hard to do anything unless you really have the trajectory of making millions of units of something. There is funding but it is so complicated. I don't want to be nonprofit. I want to make a profit on my products, because I'm making them.

The way the system is set up is it really plays to people that are meeting certain standards as far as production. The book industry is really complicated and publishers just don't make money. I don't want to do that. I want to make money on my books. I don't want to necessarily be a millionaire, but I don't want to go into each product in debt and returning to the debt cycle. I don't want stores returning books to me. That is something that a lot of these more green publishers understand that these things are compostable and they're meant to be consumed by the consumer -- they can't get returned. There are some things that are meant to be consumed and maybe it'll stop that cycle. It's a really bad business model. [Laughs.] Except for the distributor, because all they have is the warehouse and maybe 30 percent of the sale. The actual writer and the actual publisher gets 10. It just gets whittled down to pennies per the project. At the end of the day, the distributor will just throw the book away and it goes in the trash.

It's a wasteful industry. The kid's-book industry is hugely wasteful. So many people think they can write a kid's book in a day. Part of my goal is to also base the books in Chicago, because I don't feel like enough has been done in and around Chicago. All these other big cities are out there, and Chicago has been kinda left behind.

Since you've been going at this six or seven months now, what advice would you give to yourself on day one?

AB: I would say for people to really get a grasp on their branding pretty early on. I think for people are going to get behind you and support you, they have to feel like they have something to support. It's not just a person. People will support a person, but you need to seem like you know what you're doing. That's the perception I'm hoping will go out and sell our books. Understand your narrative, and don't expect to build that up overnight.

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