Green Pioneer Eco-Wise as
Unique as the Austin Market It Serves

For nearly 20 years, this very eclectic store has provided an eclectic mix of green products to an eclectic mix of builders, contractors, institutional, buyers, DIYers, tree huggers, and the occasional Hollywood celebrity.

You're not likely to find a store like Eco-Wise in New York, or Los Angeles, or Dallas. That's as much a reflection on the personality of Austin, Texas as it is on the store's owner, Jim Holland. Eco-Wise has been voted the city's greenest business for several years running, thanks to its mix of green building materials, green business supplies, and green lifestyle products. When Austinites want something green, they've learned that this is the place to find it.

“We're open to carrying anything and everything, because our customers are very educated and know what's out there,” Holland explained. “We have a reputation for carrying things you can't get somewhere else. Someone will come in looking for something or other and tell us we need to carry it, and they'll kind of promise to buy it, and sometimes they do and sometimes they don't. For us, the important thing is to be responsive to our customers.”

So it's small wonder that the 3,300 square feet of display space at Eco-Wise consists of narrow aisles that are stuffed floor to ceiling with its unique blend of merchandise. “It is crammed to the gills here,” admits Holland. “This building is an old post office with high ceilings, but we have a showroom area for installed hardwood and cork flooring, and we have 8 different kitchens in our green kitchen design area.”

Holland's willingness to satisfy customer requests stems from his own career history. He'd been working as remodeler for a number of years when he began seeing a growing accumulation of news about the dangers of pesticides, lead, and other toxins in building materials.

Then he encountered an article about suppliers of eco friendly alternatives. “The magazine showed some safer paints and glues and stuff that I started ordering for my jobs,” he recalled. “But it was a really hard way to go. Sometimes you'd order an adhesive from a catalog and what you'd get was nothing like what you expected. Plus, it took days to get it when I needed to use the glue on a job today.”

Holland decided to quit his contractor business and open a store that would provide everything that he had wanted as a contractor but couldn't get locally. He expected that there were other people like him in Austin, between early word-of-mouth reputation and coverage in the local media, those customers were able to find him. “Eco-Wise was kind of tree-huggerish in the beginning,” he chuckled. “People were worried about the rainforest back then, but they seemed to have forgotten about it now …although clear-cutting is still going on down there.”

Doing business in the early years was more complicated. Back in the 1990s, many green products came from mom and pop manufacturers who only made that single product, so managing the inventory could be a major hassle. There were far fewer suppliers of countertops, sustainable flooring, or coatings. The only low-emission paints were available in a very limited palette.

But some green products have been great here from the beginning. For instance, Holland began selling mega-efficient SunFrost refrigerators in the company's first year. “They are fabulous, because they can run AC or DC, which is great for people who want to live off the grid,” he described. “There was so much demand for SunFrost and Conserv appliances during Y2K that the companies couldn't keep up with demand; they had virtually unlimited sales.”

The Y2K panic turned out to be quite good for business. “It really gave alternative energy a boost; we sold a lot solar panels in that 6 month period,” Holland stated. But hot Texas summers keep energy efficiency on the front burner in Austin; an average home can expect a $200-$300 monthly energy bill during air conditioning season. That's helped EcoWise sell some pricey major appliances that wallop Energy Star efficiency standards. “Energy Star is bogus,” he feels, “They don't put enough emphasis on energy efficiency or life cycle performance. Of course, the prices are higher for products that really do. You'll end up paying $3,500 for a 16 cubic foot SunFrost model.”

In that same spirit, Holland has done quite well with energy saving Bosch water heaters, Summit's condo-sized single component washer/drier units, a variety of composting toilets, and Brac's gray water recycling systems.

When it comes to appliances, Holland prefers to offer brands that require less service after the sale. But that means he needs other hooks to keep customers coming back. One traffic builder is quite literally that: Eco-Wise has a bio-fuel filling station out front where Willie Nelson, Woody Harrelson, and Drew Barrymore have topped off their tanks.

But another approach is to help customers see the store as an extension of their own family. “We have a whole section - about 500 square feet - set aside for expectant and new mothers, and that's been a steady draw for us from day one,” said Holland. “The section has clay plaster walls, a beautiful linoleum click tile floor, and a nice rest bed. Our philosophy is, that if we can bring someone in to get paint for their baby's room and they're happy with it, then they'll keep coming back for paint forever.”

The store caters to young Austin families who are concerned about the health consequences of what goes into their home. “Toxic and non-toxic are words that get bandied about a lot these days,” said Holland. “I suggest that people make a ‘fortress of health' in their homes. Those are the rooms where you want to make sure things are done right. If you have a tight budget, you should put your dollars in the bedrooms and the kitchen, and ease up on how you do the guest room, the garage, home office, or hallway – the rooms you won't spend as much time in.”

One product for that ‘Fortress' hasn't taken off here, despite some serious ongoing efforts: kitchen cabinets. According to Holland, as many as 10 local competitors have been promoting formaldehyde-free cabinetry. “People will buy their finishes from us, and the countertops, but we haven't been able to crack the cabinet business,” he lamented.

Professional clientele. 
Despite the consumer to the retail store, Eco-Wise also goes after contractors and the institutional market. Holland had just finished selling 35 slabs of IceStone to a corporate headquarters facility, and 1,000 gallons of zero-VOC paint to a hospital,” he said. “It was a battle, they didn't think we could deliver that much paint on time, but we did. It's tough to bag those guys, the big ones. You need to keep after them.”

Eco-Wise also offers a contractor rewards program. “When a contractor hits a certain dollar amount we give them gift cards, things like that… so we know they love them,” he joked. “And we invite them to events. We're doing a benefit for a new organic grocery co-op. Contractors enjoy coming to those kinds of events, having a little wine, and kicking back with other contractors.” Those turn out to be good networking opportunities, because they can meet some potential subcontractors: plumbers, flooring contractors, or solar installers. “We want to help these guys out, because everyone wants to be able to move from one jobsite to the next knowing that the old jobsite is still working.”

What's hot in Austin. Austin's economy is perking up, and Jim Holland is fine-tuning his inventory for the next building boom. “I'm looking at a line of recycled fiberglass insulation,” he told us. “We used to carry the Bonded Logic cotton insulation, but it was too pricy. This new stuff by Knauf is formaldehyde free, and it's priced about the same as regular fiberglass insulation. That should be very exciting for us this year.”

Eco-Wise is already prepared for painters with a product mix of American Pride, AFM Safecoat, Vermont Naturals, and BioShield. All are available in low– or zero-VOC formulas. The staff of 8 is prepared to match colors with other brands they don't carry so a customer can get the palette they want without sacrificing indoor air quality.

As for flooring, “I tell people that cork is the new bamboo,” Holland declares. “If money is tight, cork is the economical option. And cork can be installed as a DIY project, versus having to hire someone to install bamboo. A lot of people here don't own, and I tell people they even a renter can use cork. If you're renting a loft that has concrete floors, you can put down a cork floor and then pack it up and take it with you when you move out.”

As for the near future, Jim Holland is looking to expand the Eco-Wise product mix to a the builder market by acquiring a lumber yard and adding a house brand of paint. “There are more green products than ever before, just a ton of stuff,” said Holland. If the building boom does indeed return, Eco-Wise will be ready.

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