For many garden centres, though, it can feel a bit like keeping up with the retail Joneses – when they don’t have the Joneses’ resources and expertise. Forget that. Every business is unique, every situation is different. Becoming more sustainable shouldn’t be an all or nothing commitment. We all have to start somewhere, and we all have our own unique circumstances we’re operating in.
The first step is to educate yourself about the many options available. Energy-saving and eco-friendly technologies and innovations are becoming more affordable and more readily available, including geothermal heating and cooling, environmentally-preferable CO2 refrigeration systems, temperature sensors that turn on heat and cooling only as conditions require, and light sensors to control the amount of light.
Garden centres are well positioned to extensively incorporate skylights into operations, reducing the need for artificial light during the day. Other power savings can come from enhanced insulation that reduces heat loss in the winter, and from white roof membranes that reflect the sun’s heat in the summer, reducing the need for air conditioning. Many businesses are turning to heating and cooling via radiant floor systems, which are far more efficient and less energy intensive than conventional systems.
Water is an expensive part of operating any garden centre, but there are ways to reduce usage. Shaded cupolas that get plants out of direct sunlight will limit evaporation, while the latest in sprinkler sensors will limit wastage. Mowing lawns less frequently so that grass remains longer will shade roots, reduce evaporation of water from the soil, and limit the need for irrigation. Finally, we encourage homeowners to use barrels to collect rainwater, but now some forward thinking businesses are doing likewise, harvesting rainwater for irrigation.
Recycling is an easy way to reduce your carbon footprint. Multi-stream recycling containers, allowing you to separate plastic, cardboard, polystyrene and wood into their own bins, will help divert waste from landfills.
Retrofitting a store to low wattage interior lights can reduce a garden centre’s carbon footprint in a meaningful way. It’s not unusual to see a store of about 4,000 square feet in retail space go from using 18 kW to 5 or 6 kW, for a savings of hundreds of dollars every month. (For information concerning lighting retrofits and energy savings programs across the country, visit the websites listed in the sidebar on p. 27.)
All of these options are viable, will save your business money in the long run, and can be leveraged to create goodwill amongst members of your community. But all of these projects are relatively large-scale and may appear daunting at first glance. How do you take your first, tentative steps to becoming a more sustainable business? Here are five suggestions.
- Start simple. Don’t try to do everything at once. Creating a more sustainable business is an evolution, so tackle the “low-hanging fruit” first to create momentum and build on your successes.
- Conduct an energy audit. An energy audit will help you determine where to start and what projects will net you the greatest return on investments.
- Take advantage of rebate and incentive programs whenever and wherever possible. Look to your local utilities and all levels of government for rebate or incentive programs. There are many programs available to retailers that offer free upgrades, or substantially subsidized incentives that make the return on investment concerning energy conservation projects very attractive.
- Most importantly, engage staff. You cannot move forward with any kind of sustainability plan in a meaningful way without having the support of your staff and/or management. The key to success is creating a culture of conservation in your business, and it all starts with the staff. Make sure that they are fully empowered to make meaningful decisions, offer suggestions and create meaningful change. This will help create a cultural shift in your organization.
Beyond best practices, there is another way garden centres can make a positive environmental impact: convince customers to be more eco-friendly. This isn’t a merely altruistic goal, born of a desire to create a better world. Rather, there is an opportunity here to generate sales. Bear this in mind: retail studies show that Generation Y (those young people in their teens and early twenties who will be homeowners and your customers in a few years) shape their shopping habits as much by social and environmental concerns as by pricing and branding. A centre that promotes “green” gardening positions itself to do well in the coming years.
Here are a few ways to do just that:
- Encourage customers to grow their own food. Even a few tomato plants will reduce the customer’s carbon footprint, considering how far fruits and veggies travel to reach supermarkets. Of course, to do this you need to have a good selection of plants and companion products, and more importantly, staff that are knowledgeable and passionate about them. Too many centres consider vegetable plants little more than an afterthought.
- Encourage customers to return plastic containers and flats, and make sure to reuse them yourself.
- Offer eco-friendly containers made from renewable natural resources or recycled plastics, and, what’s more, promote the fact you’re doing it. Announce it and be proud of it. Customers will take notice.
- Carry a selection of native plants and use signage to attract attention to them. Native plants are hardier (they’ve endured droughts to survive for generations) so they usually require less water than non-native varieties. Many also attract honeybees, butterflies and hummingbirds.
- Just as garden centres can invest in water-saving technology, so too can gardeners — and in a far less expensive way. Offer for sale and encourage the use of rain barrels. Rainwater saves tap water and is better for your garden because it contains 30 to 40 per cent more oxygen, which plants thrive on. Just as importantly, it’s warm. (Plants don’t like cold water. This is especially true for tender annuals.)
- Educate your staff and, through them, your customers on the benefits of companion planting. In the chemical-era we got away from gardening methods that have worked for centuries, including companion planting, a pesticide-free way of deterring pests. It’s well established, for example, that garlic, when planted near roses, minimizes aphids. From a sales point-of-view, this is a real winning strategy, since by definition you’ll sell additional plants.
- Push mulches. You can do this through salesmanship and by mulching demo gardens on your grounds. Just be sure to stick to natural mulch in your displays since dyed varieties require chemicals and need more manufacturing. The use of mulch will reduce weeding by as much as 90 per cent and watering by as much as 75 per cent. That’s great for customers. Mulch is also great for garden centres. Since it needs to be laid heavily to be most effective (three-inches thick) and will decompose after a few years, you’ll sell a lot of mulch and will be able to count on repeat sales to customers over the years.
Going green, and encouraging your customers to do the same, just makes sense. Being eco-friendly is all about efficiency, which is good for the environment and good for any business.
Energy Savings Programs
British Columbia Hydro Power Smart Product Incentive Program
Quebec Hydro Empower Program
Efficiency New Brunswick