By: Art Decker
In some ways, starting a new business is about more than making money. It’s about personal transformation. Being an entrepreneur means depending on yourself to take care of yourself — not relying on another party, such as your parents, your employer, or even a pension fund — to provide for your materials needs and the needs of any dependent family members you may have (children, aging parents, disabled siblings, etc). Starting your own business means going out in the world and standing on your own two feet — making a difference through your own actions.
Needless to say, I deeply admire people who have the courage and sense of independence that it takes to start a business. It’s not an easy undertaking. I see quite a few such self-made business people in the storage industry. Some of them are storage center owners and operators. Others are businesspeople who use self storage units as a resource to support their businesses. But the entrepreneurs I admire the most are those who commit themselves to a higher ideal, those who decide that it isn’t enough to support themselves, but that they are going to do something to make a difference in the world around them. Greenpreneurs, or ecopreneurs as some people call them, fall squarely into this camp. For them, it isn’t enough just to start a business and make it work. They feel they want to do more. So they are trailblazing, setting an example for the rest of us, and showing us how we can live and do business without hurting the environment. Here are a few examples of business people who are doing just that.
- Rain garden landscaper: In the Midwest, there seem to be quite a few homeowners out there who want to get started building a rain garden — a garden that captures rainwater and then lets it seep slowly into the ground, reducing the amount of runoff into the sewer system during a heavy storm — but lack the know-how to get started. I met a woman at a self storage facility in western Wisconsin who was unloading garden tools, rain barrels, downspouts, and other yard tools into a storage unit. She had lost her job working for a landscaping company and decided to go into business for herself, but to focus on rain gardens. She consults with homeowners, helps them select an appropriate combination of native plants to put in their gardens, and then plants the garden, or gardens, for them. Then she can maintain the gardens on an ongoing basis, or train the homeowners to do so (she keeps an inventory of gardening tools to sell to homeowners who need them, and also can provide them with related items such as rain barrels and downspouts). By doing this, she is reducing stormwater runoff from the yards she works on by 30 to 40 percent — not only reducing water runoff and runoff pollution, but also helping these homeowners to protect their basements from possible flooding. That’s what I call a win-win situation!
- E-waste recycler: Almost everyone has e-waste to deal with at one time or another. Many of us (I have to admit I am one of these people) have an old computer or printer that needs to be disposed of, just sitting in a closet. My old computer is on my list of things to do: find a nearby e-waste recycler or an organization that can use old computers. I was fascinated on a recent trip to Florida to run into a man who was renting a truck to make a series of pick-ups. He was on his way to pick-up e-waste from homeowners who did not have time to figure out where to take their e-waste, but who knew that it could not be simply thrown out in the garbage. He had set up regular routes through certain neighborhoods (to save gas), but could usually schedule a pick-up the same week that he was called. He took the electronics to a e-waste recycler if that was the most appropriate option. He charged a small fee for picking up e-waste. But he also made money by selling reusable electronics to secondhand shops and computer repair companies who could harvest the parts. Again, a win-win situation. Moreover, he was able to get his business started with a rented truck that he used only when he needed to go out and do his pick-up and delivery rounds, but he told me that he thought soon he would be able to afford a truck or van of his own for the business.
- Cloth diaper business: When I think of cloth diapers, I think of diaper services that pick up used diapers, wash and sterilize them, and deliver clean diapers to parents of babies and toddlers. But these days, many parents buy cloth diapers and do their own laundry. I was at a crafts fair with my wife, and we met a woman who was selling handmade cloth diapers and baby slings. That’s not so unusual these days. What startled me was learning that she makes all her diapers out of old clothes that she buys at thrift stores. Every bit of cloth that she uses in the diapers is recycled from old clothes. She told me the only new items that she buys for her business are velcro, buttons, thread for her sewing machine, and occasionally parts for her sewing machine. That way, she was able to get her cloth at a very low cost, especially because she could use clothing that had stains or tears — she simply snipped around the stains. I was amazed to see old baby sweaters repurposed as wool diaper covers.
- Green school fundraisers: We’ve all seen school fundraising brochures — kids usually make the rounds in late fall, selling wrapping paper, Christmas cards, knickknacks, magazine subscriptions, cookies. It always seems as though everything you buy in a school fundraiser is bad for the environment — it’s paper that ends up getting thrown away (and which uses resources even if it is recycled or printed with vegetable-based ink), or knickknacks that we don’t need, or sweets that we feel we have to eat (to support the school) even if we are watching our weight. But I met a woman recently who started a business doing school fundraisers that use artwork made by the kids. She and a friend pooled their money to buy a silkscreen printing press, and made the rest of their equipment out of used lumber and recycled fabric. Then they put together packages that families, schools and organizations could buy. Some organizations (like her local Girl Scouts chapter) chose to have art silkscreened onto quilting squares, and then they held an old-fashioned quilting bee as a fundraiser. (At the bee, the organization held a raffle, and the winning family got to take home the quilt when the night was over.) Others had artwork silkscreened onto t-shirts that families could buy as part of a school fundraiser. Most of the families were charmed by the idea, and the business owner told me that a man had come up to her and commented that her business was a wonderful way to solve the age-old artists’ dilemma: how to store finished art.
I love to see entrepreneurs coming up with ideas like these — ideas that do something for the world, while also providing a service that solves a real problem. I know it’s a cliche to call them win-win situations. But that truly is what these businesses create — situations in which a business owner is able to become successful and thrive, while his or her customers and clients have a typical problem solved with a unique solution.
Art Decker is a division manager with Self Storage Company, which operates a group of websites, including a Florida self-storage locator. Art is currently leading a green initiative within his company, called “Make Yourself Green,” which is focused on promoting green practices within the self storage industry.