Businesses, clients lean green

Some merchants and customers become eco-friendly to enhance health or budget. And a few of those progress to card-carrying environmentalists.

Published April 22, 2007

Susan Huff had an awakening 20 years ago that unintentionally led her to a green business career.

"I was nutritionally deficient and had an eating disorder," Huff said. "Then I started eating organic and it was a huge change, emotionally and physically. But I didn't do it because I wanted to be a better person. I did it because I had to."

Huff's dietary shift later transformed into Midtown Munchies and now Integrity Organics, a restaurant and meal plan business she runs from two locations along Fourth Street N. She's now an avid environmentalist, but arriving there by necessity parallels the way her customers and other green businesses are growing more environmentally conscious.

Environmentalism used to be a moral issue, but recent converts have personal motivations. Sometimes going green, for whatever reason, leads to other behavior changes.

"Once you get into the dietary aspects, you get into the others," Huff said. "You get into green building and composting. I can't not recycle now. It would be hypocritical."

Health is one of the motivators for the growth of many green businesses.

"When we started, we focused on people with chemical sensitivities and allergies," said Tom Chasm, who runs Healthy Home and sells nontoxic paints and cleaning materials. "Unfortunately, that market continues to grow, but over the last five years we're also seeing more of a change to green building materials."

Chasm said his health customers started asking for other green products, like bamboo flooring or soy-based paints, items that might not affect their health but would be kinder to the environment generally.

Other businesses are being driven by cost-conscious customers. As energy prices rise, people are seeking ways to trim their bills.

"It isn't ever about saving the planet," said Darren Brinkley of REAL Building, a year-old company involved in building green homes. "It's about having an efficient structure and, by the way, it helps save the planet. If people can lower their bills and build a better environment, it's kind of a no-brainer."

Sometimes greening business is about even more business. Grady Pridgen manages about 3-million square feet of commercial space in Pinellas County and wants to keep it full of business clients. Being green is one way to do that, he said, because it offsets those businesses' other increasing costs.

"What can I do to keep them coming here?" Pridgen asked. "I can attack utilities costs, water, sewer, garbage. The cheapest way to save is to conserve."

Pridgen recently put a high-efficiency roof on a 120,000-square-foot building used by Honeywell and saw the energy usage drop 15 percent. He's gradually applying such energy-saving retrofits on the rest of his properties, and plans to include them in future residential projects.

Architect Tim Clemmons incorporated several green initiatives in his 475 condominium building nearing completion on Fifth Avenue N. He said he'd do more today, but still thinks the improved air conditioning, insulated windows, Florida-friendly landscaping and other upgrades will make the units easier to sell in a tough market. The adjustments cost only about $50,000 in an $8-million project.

"On some projects, it's not a penny more," Clemmons said.

Even remodeling is going green, said Don Strobel of Strobel Design Build. For his high-end clients, in a retrofitted condo in the Snell Arcade or a home on Pass-a-Grille, the issue is quality.

"The homeowners we talk to aren't particularly interested in green, but we put it on the table for them," he said. "Most of our clients are not concerned about saving money, but they are interested in value."

Owners of green businesses say the benefits of buying green are becoming clearer to clients. Huff said her organics customers are realizing that their bodies are worth caring for more than their possessions.

"My cell phone can go down, but if my body does, I've got problems," she said. "You put people in enough pain and they'll change."

Paul Swider can be reached at 892-2271 or pswider@sptimes.com or by participating in itsyourtimes.com.