Outlook 2013: Retailer specializes in chemical-free, sustainable furnishings
SARATOGA SPRINGS Karen Totino’s Green Conscience Home & Garden showroom in Saratoga Springs doesn’t smell like new paint or new furniture.
“It doesn’t smell like much of anything, really,” she said. “People always comment on that, though I think our sea-grass rugs smell a little bit like black tea.”
Her flooring, finishes and bedding products don’t give off that new house smell because they’re all eco-friendly, toxin-free and responsibly made, basically the standard definition of “green.”
Totino started the business back in 2009, right in the middle of one of the poorest economies in recent history. It’s still a small operation, turning only about half a million dollars in gross revenue each year, but considering the grievously timed launch date, Totino said that’s pretty great. In large part her success is due to the rapidly growing local green movement.
“When I first opened up, it was a very niche market,” she said. “Only a certain type of person searched me out.”
In the few short years she’s been in business, that has changed. As eco-awareness spread, her clientele shifted and grew.
“More people see their purchases as a statement these days,” she said.
Vegans aren’t the only ones thinking hard about how their new rug was made — everyone else is concerned as well, and that helps Totino’s business a lot.
That said, she pointed out that even people who couldn’t care less about the environment, local producers or sweatshops in India still shop at her store.
“There is a selfish aspect to all this,” she said, which brought her back to the black tea smell of her shop.
She explained that the classic furniture smell is actually a combination of largely toxic chemicals like formaldehyde and petroleum products being “out-gassed” into the air.
“Studies have shown indoor air is two to five times more polluted than outdoor air,” she said. “Unless you work an outdoor job, you’re in that polluted air for about 90 percent of your life.”
Her products don’t really out-gas much of anything.
The wool carpets on the Green Conscience floor, for example might be backed with latex, but it’s all-natural latex.
“My first priority is to sell things that are safe to bring into your home,” she said.
In the name of the environment, she’s even attempting to bring back linoleum, a material synonymous with frumpy outdated kitchens. In its heyday, linoleum was backed with asbestos, which is a carcinogen.
The actual material, though, is totally safe to make, use and dispose of.
Today, what people think of as linoleum is actually vinyl, which is toxic to make, can leach toxins through its productive life and will never decompose.
“Actual linoleum is a great durable material,” she said, “and it comes in all sorts of great colors now.”
Totino started her green career in 2005 with an organic lawn care service. One day she was walking along her street in Ballston Spa with her two very young children and saw the DPW spraying storm drains with chemicals,
“Looking around, I started to notice all the Chemlawn signs,” she said, “and I thought, all that stuff is going to end up in the Kayaderosseras Creek.”
Since then, her kids have grown up and she opened her current venture.
It may have been bad timing economically, but it was the perfect time to catch the eco-wave.
Relatively speaking, she’s new to the green industry.
“We were green before we knew what that meant,” said Dan Roseberger of Legacy Timber Frames.
Roseberger was building timber frames in the early ’80s, back before the average person took time to think about their impact on the earth.
“In those days we were building mostly small rough-sawn beam homes for back-to-the-landers,” he said.
Little places are still his favorite to build, but since the general public became eco-conscious, his business model has changed.
Now Legacy mostly builds for well-heeled professionals looking for a beautiful way to help out the earth.
“It’s more upscale now,” he said, adding that timber frames, even the big ones perched on pretty bits of lake shore, are as eco-friendly as ever.
All their wood is cut from local forests, which saves on transportation fuel and helps out the local economy.
“There are less board feet of lumber in a timber frame than a house built of two-by-sixes,” he said, “and they’re incredibly efficient to heat.”
To hold in the heat, Legacy uses panels of foam that are sandwiched between layers of wood and drywall.
The foam isn’t exactly kind to the environment, but overall, Roseberger said his homes are better for the earth than conventional buildings.
“They’re built to last an indefinite amount of time,” he said. “If you keep the structure between a roof and foundation, it should last forever.”
Legacy doesn’t make many more houses than they used to, but since “green” became a popular term, they’ve been able to consolidate their business mainly to Saratoga Springs and Lake George rather than traveling all over the state.
Even though a house of timbers costs 15 percent more than one of two-by-sixes, Legacy wasn’t really hurt by the bad economy because he was buoyed through by the green movement.
To read all the stories from the 2013 Outlook special report, click here.