Greening the Garden Centre

August 14, 2012
Written by
When deciding where to shop, today’s consumers care about more than just value for money, the range of products available, and the overall shopping experience. Two-thirds of Canadian consumers (67 per cent) report that they prefer to shop with retailers that have corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs in place, according to the latest Nielsen Global Survey of Corporate Citizenship.

CSR can include a number of activities. Starbucks has won kudos for being the world’s largest purchaser of Fair Trade Certified coffee. For Tim Hortons, CSR runs the gamut from sponsoring children’s sports teams and sending kids to camp, to offering recycling and composting programs in-store. In recent years, these types of environmental and social activities have proven to be a sure-fire way to build buzz about your CSR initiatives.

In 2010, packaging and tissue producer Cascades Inc. was named to the Maclean’s Top 50 Socially Responsible Corporations list for developing a wax-free, 100 per cent recyclable box for food items.

Focusing on the environmental side of CSR is a natural fit for a garden centre. After all, your store is a showroom for the incredible range of plants produced by Mother Nature. The trick is to balance any green shifts your garden centre plans to make against the cost implications those changes will have for consumers.

The Nielsen survey found that only one-third of Canadian consumers (33 per cent) would be willing to pay higher prices to support a business’s CSR initiatives.

The good news is that being a bit kinder to the planet doesn’t have to be costly or complicated. Establishing a pot return program can go a long way in reducing a garden centre’s environmental impact. On a larger scale, collecting garden plastics during the Canadian Nursery Landscape Association’s (CNLA) annual National Plastics Recycling Event is a low-cost, low-commitment way to build your garden centre’s green cred. Last year, more than 40 garden centres participated, collecting an incredible 63,150 pounds of plastic in six provinces. The program promises to divert even more recyclable material from the landfill in future; this year the program expanded to include 57 garden centres in eight provinces.

Taking a greener approach to business can also mean rethinking how you sell in your centre. Faced with threats from invasive plants, some provincial governments are taking steps to curb the sale of these plants and encourage consumers to plant both native and non-native non-invassive alternatives. For example, in June the Ontario Invasive Plant Council (OIPC) launched a nursery outreach project called “Grow Me Instead.” OIPC and its partners are now working with garden centres across the province to educate consumers about garden plants that can become a nuisance when they escape the yard and put down roots in natural areas.

At Wildflower Farm, focusing on native plant species is nothing new. Since 1988, the nursery and garden centre, located in Coldwater, Ont., has been growing and selling native wildflower seeds. “These are real wildflowers that have been here in North America for thousands of years and that best support all the pollinators that we need to stay healthy as a society and as a planet,” says Wildflower Farm co-owner Miriam Goldberger.

“We’ve been at the green thing for a very long time, back before people even started using the word ecology,” she says. “Now it’s something that’s very trendy to talk about.”

The Green Shift
Over the last decade or so, Goldberger says she has seen a shift in consumer behaviour. “Consumers have, for the last eight to 10 years, been actively seeking out answers to some environmental issues they’re at the very least uncomfortable about,” says Goldberger.

In recent years, she’s seen growth in demand for lower maintenance lawns that thrive without a lot of water and chemical treatments. Some homeowners are doing away with grass completely, choosing other landscaping options that replace turf with a variety of drought tolerant plants. Perennial plants that burst into bloom year after year are also piquing consumer interest, as cost- and eco-conscious shoppers alike question the wisdom of annual spending on plants that aren’t meant to survive beyond the season.

“What we’ve seen is that more and more garden centres are listening to their clients,” says Goldberger. “I think the garden centre [staff] were mostly trained very traditionally and were taught that this is the proper way you do things: you use lots of chemicals, lots of products that will make your life as a human being more convenient and allow you to control nature.”

But she says customers have started to realize that this approach can backfire. To cater to those who still want lush lawns without the environmental toll, Goldberger and her husband, Paul Jenkins, developed Eco-Lawn. The blend of seven fescue grasses can be grown in sun or shade and was developed to withstand drought. The Eco-Lawn also requires less fertilizing than many other grasses, so homeowners can apply fewer chemicals and still enjoy a lush lawn.

“I don’t think everyone should only grow native plants,” says Goldberger, “I think you have to be careful as a business owner to do everything in moderation, but it’s a good idea to be aware, to educate oneself on these issues, and to make steps in [a more sustainable] direction.”

Greener from the Start
For Tricia Ingram and her husband, John, operating in a more eco-friendly fashion means controlling how their plants are grown right from the start. The team behind Calgary’s 40,000-square-foot Cobblestone Garden Centre grow many of their own plants in production greenhouses designed with the environment in mind.

“One of the reasons we got into the industry in the first place was that we liked the green footprint – we liked that we were making things better,” explains Ingram. “What really struck us when we started our production greenhouse facility, just from talking with other greenhouse growers, was the sheer amount of chemicals that other growers were using as a matter of rote in their greenhouses.”

At Cobblestone, rainwater that runs off the greenhouse roof is collected in a giant catch basin. Staff use this recovered water to care for the plants. Inside the greenhouse, varieties with similar water requirements are grouped together and moisture levels are monitored closely. “When you’re controlling the water, you’re allowing the plants to operate with nature and not forcing them so much. What happens is the bugs stay under control and you don’t get disease,” Ingram explains. “The plants are hardier and so, as a result, when the customer takes those plants and puts them into their own garden, it’s a tougher, hardier plant to start with.”

Temperature levels inside the greenhouses are also determined with an eye on environmental impact. During the day, the greenhouses heat up to around 20 C before staff vent them. Come nighttime, temperatures are allowed to drop to just 3 or 4 C.

Once plants are ready to leave the greenhouse and go up for sale in the garden centre, the attention shifts to greening the retail side of the operation. Cardboard packaging is always recycled, and a pot recycling program recaptures between 70 and 80 per cent of the plastic that customers use to transport their new plants home.  In addition, customers who return trays to the garden centre receive a 50 cent discount off their next purchase.

A fraction of the plants that are damaged or past their prime are sent back to the farm to feed Cobblestone’s compost pile.  This year, the Ingrams set a goal to compost 20 per cent of all product that cannot be sold.
“We’re very happy to see our garbage bill go down, because that soil is heavy and wet,” said Ingram. “We’re going to see how long it takes to compost that [pile] before we can, if nothing else, spread it out on the field.”

Elsewhere in the garden centre, changing over to more energy-efficient light bulbs has allowed the store to operate with four fewer lights turned on. Customers at checkout are asked for their e-mail addresses, allowing Cobblestone to directly target its customers and cut back on the quantity of print flyers it distributes. Staff are also always on hand to educate their customers and the broader community about the environment.

“Clearly, being stewards of the environment means we need to do the right thing ourselves, but we also need to get the information out there,” says Ingram. “We as businesspeople need to make some money so that at the end of the year we don’t have to close the doors, but on the other side, we still try to do something beneficial for the community – by that, I mean the environment that we all use.”

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