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Home Grown: Insight into some of Tucson’s green cottage industry makers

By Mae Lee Sun, Inside Tucson Business
Published on Monday, March 02, 2009

For budding green entrepreneurs, it seems to start with an idea.

An idea based on connection with something larger than oneself, where values of sourcing materials sustainably, focusing locally and keeping ethics at the forefront translate into action- action which generates a product or service that will benefit the whole in the long rather than short term and tend to be free of any ties to the larger grid of business as usual.

Despite the state of the economy, the green industry and emerging technology fields are generally on the upswing, especially in Tucson and where down-home ingenuity, creativity and independence have come together in the creation of some cottage industries focusing on such things as landscaping, spices and interior design.

Pamela Portwood with Greener Lives thinks the time is right to start a green business. Janelle Montenegro photo


Going green outdoors

“I’ve always been interested in the healing aspects of plants and nature…my philosophy is to provide a landscape that the customer will love, while encouraging a connection with the outdoors and nature, and bringing the therapeutic value of plants and nature into their lives,” says Penny Batelli, sole proprietor of Blooming Earth, a landscape design and consulting business.

In business since 1988, Batelli says that although work has definitely slowed due to the economy, she isn’t necessarily concerned about “growing” her company beyond herself.

Her livelihood seems inspired more from a love of the land than from creating a burgeoning corporation complete with a host of employees and a burning drive to make a huge footprint on the world.

“I’ve just always had steady employment for myself, other than the first year maybe, based on word of mouth, referrals and no advertising…(believe it or not) I’m surprised at how many of my clients really don’t seem to care much for green or sustainability, but I try to educate and encourage them through the use of low water, drought tolerant, low maintenance plant materials, water harvesting and efficient irrigation design.”

Batelli is not alone when it comes to nurturing her love of green despite the market demands for something less than that which she does provide as necessary.

Going green with food

Flavorbank, a gourmet spice company now in it’s 40th year, doesn’t necessarily tout ‘organic’ as much as it is about sharing food, community and what can be obtained through ‘fair trade’ and locally whenever possible according to owner, Jennifer English, who feels sometimes the politics and label of organic overshadow the greater value of how something is used and sourced.

“I don’t believe that ‘organic’ means what we want it to mean and symbolize anymore,” English says. “James Beard, the father of American Gastronomy, said that food unites us. I believe we are united by food (rather than label of organic/not organic).”

Her company, while thriving, is growing back to the height of its success in the 1990s when revenues were in the multi-millions. Once sold exclusively in specialty stores, Flavorbank products are facing downward pressures from chain retailers. With products such as Greek garlic rub, Hawaiian sea salts, Tahitian vanilla bean, Chipotle pepper powder and Lampong black peppercorns, English says she is committed to reviving the specialty brand, “one peppercorn, one customer at a time.” Lately she has been adding products, such as Chef Marcus Samuelsson’s Afrikya Foods, based on the Ethiopian-born star chef’s new book, “Soul of a New Cuisine.”

Living a greener life however, always seems to be at the forefront for these entrepreneurs no matter what they choose to make a living at.

Going green indoors

Pamela Portwood, a former journalist is another example. Used to working as a one-person firm, she has turned her writing about green and design into a successful and modest business of creating socially responsible interiors for her residential clients by creating a company called Greener Lives specializing in healthy, eco-friendly homes and lifestyles.

“Interior design is a second career for me,” Portwood says. “I spent over 15 years as a freelance writer. In 2008, I decided that the interest in green design had grown enough that this would be a good year for me to start my own business.”

She came to that decision after graduating with an associates degree in interior design at the Art Center Design College in 2005 while waiting for a good position to open up.

“Greener Lives is still becoming established. Although I’d love to see the business grow, I’m not thinking of becoming a big corporation,” says Portwood.

Now with several design interns and projects, Greener Lives expects to take in $40,000 in revenue in her first complete year in business.

Like other green entrepreneurs, Portwood notices not everyone is quick to spend time and money on entirely green products and services. But she is creative about how she works with that information through sourcing things at both small, local suppliers who provide sustainable products like couches covered in organic fabrics, reclaimed wood flooring and also by looking to big-box stores such as the Home Depot, which carries a non-toxic paint she highly recommends that still fits within the budget for those with monetary limitations.

For more information: Blooming Earth, or 325-7605;  Greener Lives, 548-6812;  Flavorbank, or 747-5431

Written by maeleesun

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