Tuesday, August 14, 2007

New green products take cue from old days

Maine Today
August 10, 2007
Edward Murphy

Very few people actually want to harm the environment or contribute to global warming, but for many, it's hard to avoid because of the impact of the products they use every day.

F.W. Horch in Brunswick hopes to make it easier for people to lessen their impact on the planet by tapping into both their better nature and a desire to conserve what's in their wallets.

"With the environment, it seemed like there were a lot of things that people could do, if they had the right product in their hands," said Fred Horch, who opened F.W. Horch Sustainable Goods & Supplies slightly more than a year ago on Maine Street in Brunswick.

The store and its Web site stock everything from home composting kits to solar energy products. There are green cleaners, electricity-conserving light bulbs and Earth-friendly paints.

"Our stationery and office products allow you to conduct your personal and business affairs with style," Horch's Web site says, "without destroying the planet in the process."

Horch came to Maine from North Carolina with his family about five years ago to work for Maine Interfaith Power & Light, which provides electricity derived from renewable power sources. But he felt his efforts to improve the environment would have a greater reach if he focused on getting green products into the broader consumer product stream.

Initially, he bought into The Green Store, which also has a location in Belfast. He opened up a Green Store in Brunswick, but felt that including items such as vitamins and all-natural health and beauty products was a little too far afield from what he envisioned. Horch also felt the wider variety of products made staffing difficult, because it required people with expertise in subjects as diverse as solar power and nutritional supplements.

So Horch sold back his piece of The Green Store, moved, sharpened the focus and looked for a new name. He and a marketing firm went through about six dozen different alternatives that sought to convey what the store offered, but none of them felt right. Finally, they decided to call it F.W. Horch, figuring that they'll build a brand identity around the name, much as L.L. Bean means outdoor gear to consumers.

The company's logo has an old-fashioned look to it, and that jibes with Horch's belief that people would be more efficient if they thought more like their parents and grandparents.

"It's really going back to the old ways," he said, noting that those who grew up during the Great Depression developed a natural inclination to conserve. Many of the steps that people take to lessen their impact on the environment mimic that instinct, Horch said.

"They were efficient and did amazing things because they were forced to," he said of earlier generations that experienced hardship. "It costs you money to be inefficient."

Societal changes are aiding the store as well, Horch said.

Like many communities in Maine, Brunswick is trying to cut waste disposal costs by broadening recycling programs while also charging a per-bag fee for garbage. That's spurred interest in composting by residents who want to cut the amount of waste they produce and the cost of disposing of it, Horch said, and his store has kits and related products to help people turn their garbage into garden compost.

"It's easier in some ways than schlepping your stuff out to the curb every week," he said.

Stores such as F.W. Horch are filling an important niche, said Denis Bergeron, director of energy programs at the Maine Public Utilities Commission.

He noted that the PUC has been sponsoring rebate coupons on energy-efficient light bulbs as part of its effort to get those products to consumers and cut electricity use in the state. The bulbs are starting to gain traction, Bergeron said, and that's reflected in the growing availability of specialty low-energy models, such as floodlights, three-ways and bulbs that work with dimmers.

"The market demand actually causes the manufacturer to put more products in the field," he said, and some of that demand is built by people who shop at stores such as F.W. Horch. "Their consumers tend to be early adopters," he said, and stores like F.W. Horch "are the ones that are likely to be the first to bring in three-way lights or floodlights and the other stores tend to follow. The whole point is to transform the market. Do stores like this help? Absolutely."

Horch said he gets a lot of ideas for new products from both vendors and consumers, but he tries to go through a formal review before setting aside shelf space. He and his staff try out most of the products, Horch said, and that not only provides an assurance of a product's quality, it also means someone in the store has experience using it.

"I feel I can really focus on what's going to make the biggest difference," he said.

Horch said the store "barely missed" turning a profit after its first year of operation, which he considers "astounding."

"We're really looking forward to this next year," he said, during which he hopes to expand the store's visibility, in part by attending events such as the Common Ground Fair.

Beyond next year?

"I dream pretty big," Horch said. He noted that "green stores" have sprouted on the West Coast, but there's a lot of fertile ground in the East for a chain or franchises, but all that's down the road a bit. For now, he's interested in drawing more people to his Brunswick store, where, on a recent day, "We had four Priuses in front of the door."

"It's a really fun store to have," Horch said. "I don't think we'll ever make a ton of money, but people come in the store and say, 'Thank you for having this store,' and that makes it worth it."

Staff Writer Edward D. Murphy can be contacted at 791-6465 or at: emurphy@pressherald.com

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