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Case Studies in Social Innovation: Grassroots Environmental Products

In 1994, when Rob Grand opened the doors of his Toronto store, Grassroots Environmental Products, the terms “social innovator” and “triple bottom line” were not yet part of the Canadian vernacular and the word “green” was more commonly associated with a colour than a lifestyle. Not surprisingly, little choice existed for consumers looking for environmentally friendly products. As Canada’s retailing pioneer of socially responsible products, Grand was determined to expand those options, to bring sustainable, low-impact products to the marketplace and to guide consumers toward more a more responsible lifestyle.

Two decades of growing a green business and a triple bottom line

Grassroots sells green products, including organic, natural mattresses and bedding, non-toxic cleaners and natural baby products. Over the last two decades, as the importance and awareness of environmentally conscious lifestyles have grown, so have the options for green products. In 2013, Grand’s green business now operates two stores in Toronto as well as one online.
When Grand decided to launch Grassroots, he turned to companies like Ben & Jerry’s and The Body Shop for inspiration, impressed with their ability to meld a passion for the environment with one of community-building. Profitability was important too. It had to be. But only in so far as it didn’t undermine his social purpose and remained aligned with it. Triple bottom line as we know it well today became the backbone of Rob Grand’s startup.
At first it was lonely on top, and sourcing products, especially high-quality ones, was challenging. Soon though, other Canadian organizations and companies joined the environmental chorus and Grand felt much appreciation for the evolving community of like-minded activists, social entrepreneurs and innovators.

Challenges and opportunities with the rise of “green”

Of course, the rise in popularity of “green” brought with it opportunities and challenges in equal measure. The selection and product availability from manufacturers grew. The range and variety of products that Grassroots can offer customers has expanded tremendously over the years. And the quality of those products have improved by leaps and bounds too, says Grand, relating how a hemp shirt—once an expensive and uncomfortable product—is today comparable to the best products available on the market.
However, as with most trends, the green movement with its low barrier to entry attracts many cash-hungry players. Grand is facing increased competition not only from equally committed companies but also from those who are jumping on the bandwagon. In reality, every product is not created equally, and the days of earnest retailing has evolved to a present-day situation where many companies are driven by a penchant for green that goes beyond being socially and environmentally responsible.
The internet has changed the playing field too, with flashy sites drawing in customers who may not have time to do ample research on different products. And when big retailers like Walmart, Loblaws and Shoppers Drug Mart start stocking their shelves with green products, the challenges intensify.
However, Grassroots offers customers unique added value. It is recognized as an authentic leader of environmentally sustainable products. Before products arrive on the shelves, they are carefully researched and tested by company executives. Products are also third-party certified to ensure credibility. The goal is to ensure customers get the real deal.
While a big company may promote a product with an eye to its profitability rather than its environmental and socially responsible merits, Grassroots works to uphold the integrity of their triple bottom line. The company also provides bulk refills, so that customers can re-use bottles and save money.
Grassroots offers dependable and informed customer service. Its staff are experts on the environmentally responsible products they sell and can answer questions about what ingredients a product contains.

Working as a leader in the community

As with other businesses, the green landscape is always changing. Grand remains committed to improving the ways in which his company can make impact, while staying true to his roots. While a few years back Grand made an attempt to scale up and pursued potential investors, the recession of 2008 and its aftermath have put those plans on hold for now.
Establishing oneself as leader in this field can be accomplished on a smaller scale, however. Over the years, Grassroots has further enhanced its commitment to community through the introduction of educational programs. For example, it organizes workshops on environmental sustainability, showcases artwork by local artists and has held in-store book signings with authors. The company has also partnered with a variety of environmental organizations, such as Evergreen and the David Suzuki Foundation, to help build public awareness about key issues.
Grand’s efforts in bringing green products to Toronto consumers have not gone unnoticed. Grassroots was voted Best Eco-Store in Canada by Today’s Parent magazine and the company won a Green Toronto Award.
The Case Studies in Social Innovation database is a joint initiative between SiG @ MaRS and the Ontario Ministry of Research and Innovation.