One of the attention-getters at Ideas Are Us LLC is the Elephant Poo stationery. It’s not a common commodity around Atlanta – which is exactly why Ruksana Hussain saw a niche for eco-friendly Fair Trade gifts and décor handcrafted in India by local women’s groups.
Seeking an entrepreneurial venture after moving to the U.S in 2006, she used the Fair Trade Federation website to connect with groups near her hometown that supported women without education or training. Now, working with Fair Trade certified suppliers and pursuing her own certification, she offers their handicrafts wholesale.
With that social responsibility comes environmental responsibility.
“It was interesting to see that, even at that grassroots level, there was this awareness of having to be green,” Hussain says. “To see that these people are not educated about being green and yet they’re using the resources around them to make the best of what of they have, that was what occurred to me as being very special.”
Likewise, she looks for opportunities to be greener in business – which unfold into other benefits, too.
“You know, for every single thing that you can use, there’s so many other ways that you can make it more effective and make a less negative impact for the planet,” she says. “There’s definitely a lot of untapped potential.”
Easy tips for being green
Ideas Are Us is green in its products, which are made from natural resources like banana fiber and the aforementioned poo. But Hussain is also green in her practices. Here are three simple tips you can borrow from her:
- Stay home. “I’ve tried to stay out of having a brick and mortar store, and I think it removes one big cost and one big (environmental impact). I’m selling retail only through the shows I do and any stores (that) will feature my products. But my website is going to be solely wholesale. If you do have a brick and mortar place, I would strongly suggest getting an energy audit done. If you can prove that you have certain criteria covered, there are tax benefits to that.”
- Stop printing. “Secondly, I would focus on paper usage. You start printing out everything and you start filing, and it’s a lot of paper. And after a year of having that paper, everyone’s just going to shred it, and not everyone goes around recycling. You don’t have to print everything. Just back up things virtually; put it on a hard drive. For promotional (materials), I have a business card and a post card and that’s it. If somebody wants a catalog, I mail them a PDF catalog of my products. There is no printing involved. You can do your transactions online. It even eliminates having to send out checks; you can do payments online. There’s really a lot you can do without having to waste any paper.”
- Don’t dump. “The third is to make sure that all of your electronic equipment is recycled the right way, including printer cartridges and eco-friendly [light] bulbs. Don’t just throw it in the trash. All office equipment needs to go to the right place, so go to a recycling place.”
Going green saves green
As simple as green can be, it has a snowball effect in terms of savings. That’s a desirable competitive edge for any business in this economy – especially small ones like Ideas Are Us.
“Being a small business, you want to keep your costs low so that you’re not adding to your price points in any way,” says Hussain, who works with interns to save labor costs and, at the same time, prepare future entrepreneurs.
Because her business is home-based, she avoids the overhead of maintaining an office – even saving on supplies like paper and ink because she keeps paper usage to a minimum.
“Being eco-friendly also helps to be cost-effective, just because I don’t do any printing except for what is completely necessary,” she says. “Now I don’t have printing costs, so that helps to keep the business cost low.”
If green practices equate to cost savings, then why do eco-friendly products seem so expensive? Think about where you buy them.
“The minute you go into a big mall and buy something made from dried grass, you’re obviously going to pay a price that’s worthy of you having gone into that big mall,” Hussain says. “It really depends on how you market your products. If you keep your product local and you (remain a) small business, you can still afford to give people pretty good price points on your products.
“Once you start involving more people in the chain, then that’s how many people are trying to make a profit out of it. You will have that much more percentage added to the actual product.”
By working directly with the women’s groups, Hussain’s price points only account for two parties. As an added bonus, because she visits India annually, she can see how the women use the money – like building the foundation for a cresch to house children while mothers work.
If instead, she worked through a middleman who provided products to a department store, she’d add rungs to the profit ladder.
“When you buy a bamboo table from a big furniture store, you’re obviously not just paying for the table,” she says. “You’re paying for the store and the employees and the electricity bill, and everything that goes to keeping the bamboo table in there.
“A lot of people go by that, and then they’ll be like, ‘Oh, these things are so expensive. They say it’s eco-friendly but then it costs so much.’ Well, look where you’re going to buy it!”
Smart consumers can save with eco-friendly products, but only when businesses are operationally smart.
“You can make eco-friendly choices and it can definitely be healthy on your purse strings,” she says.
Developing green habits
If green can be both easy and cheap, why isn’t everyone greener? Old habits die hard.
“For a lot of people, it’s still something that they’re not able to completely identify with,” Hussain says. “When you use terms like ‘global warming,’ it’s just a scientific term and they have no relation to it, and therefore, they don’t necessarily see that their actions are going to affect that.”
Even though the green buzzword is everywhere, people need to see examples in action before the urgency sets in. It will take a domino effect, like being surrounded by an eco-minded community, to bring people onto the green bandwagon.
“It’s not their intent that they don’t (act green) – they do try – but it takes a lot of practice,” Hussain says. “I mean, it took me a while before I could take cloth bags to go grocery shopping. It’s the simplest thing you could do, but you forget, take it home and forget to put it back in the car.
“It’s a pretty consumer-heavy society; you just use a lot of stuff and the whole idea of reuse, recycle and reclaim is pretty new to a lot of people. Small businesses are the ones that need to educate people on this. Start small – if you teach the next five people that you can do this, then that’s how many more people will learn from them. It’s just little things, but we tend to forget these things.”
Between being green and cost-conscious in small ways, and helping women make better lives in much bigger ways, Hussain is propelling Ideas Are Us forward.
“When people hear that you’re trying to help someone else lead a better life, you’re trying to help other people earn fair wage and you’re being eco-friendly,” she says, “all of these things help to put yourself apart from other businesses.”
How to reach: Ideas Are Us LLC, (404) 934-6181 or www.ideas-are-us.com
See the company's Ele Poo products in Fast Company.