The Capital Newspaper
Eric Hartley: Helping Us Be Greener Consumers

Strolling through the neat but crowded aisles of Jared Littman's small Annapolis hardware store, you're presented with a choice at almost every turn.

The Cascade dish detergent or the phosphorous-free Sun & Earth brand? The Scotts Step 2 fertilizer or the phosphate-free stuff, or perhaps the organic one with corn gluten? The petroleum-based oil for your weed-eater, or the oil made from - get ready - cow stomach linings?

Yes, Littman has it all. He sells about 1,000 environmentally friendly products at K&B True Value on Forest Drive, which he and his wife bought in 2007. Lawn fertilizers and household cleaners are the most popular.

Littman, a former attorney who has a degree in environmental engineering, is happy to talk at length about why he wants his store to be "Annapolis' environmentally friendly hardware store." But he's a gentle evangelist, not lecturing, just offering choices - and nudging people a bit, when they seem open to it.

His store's example is important because this is how change comes: one person at a time, from the bottom up, not the top down.

Government can set rules and encourage good choices, of course. But in the end, it comes down to purchases we make, one at a time, in hardware and grocery stores - choices about what we put into our bodies, the soil, the air and the water.

Through word of mouth, Littman is attracting environmentally conscious consumers. But he's a businessman, too. He can't get by on green business alone, so he has to offer the "non-environmentally friendly" products some people want.

Still, he makes the green products more visible through better shelf placement and eye-catching green tags hanging below them. A large green overhead sign in the back reads: "Good for you. Good for the planet, too."

And he takes a lower profit margin on some eco-friendly products. It's hard to sell $10 pack of batteries next to $3.99 Duracells.

On Earth Day every year, the store gives away 1,000 tree saplings and samples of environmentally friendly products. Littman hosts workshops at the store and uses biodegradable checkout bags.

Sometimes the first hurdle is convincing people that products without harsh chemicals work. You don't want to spent $15 on bug killer that doesn't kill bugs.

But Littman can tell people that he uses the phosphorous-free detergent and the organic insecticide himself - and they work.

To convince people to change, sometimes you just have to tell them what's really in the products they've been using unthinkingly for years. Talking about this, Littman and I began to read a few labels.

Burnout II, a natural weed-killer which customers say works well and fast, contains citric acid, clove oil, mineral oils, vinegar and water.

Walking over to a display, Littman picked up a cheaper weed-killer and said, "Round-Up has - well…" He trailed off with a chuckle, unable to pronounce anything on the label. Yet people put these poisons on their lawn because … they're cheaper?

Littman, a lanky 36-year-old with a boyish look, grew up in New Jersey and went to law school at the University of Maryland, known for its environmental programs.

He thought he had his life planned out, but gradually came to question the need for the "five-year plans" he'd always relied upon. Littman worked for four years as an associate county attorney for Montgomery County, leading civil environmental prosecutions.

But in 2004, ready for a change, he decided to start working at the hardware store his wife's parents bought in 1974. He figured he'd give it a year and go back to law if it didn't work out.

There's an attitude among some that shopping green, whether for food or household products, is some kind of feel-good elitism, that buying organic food is a luxury many can't afford.

But it's Econ 101. The more people buy of something, the more it will be produced and the cheaper it will be. If these are "elitist" items, it's only because people see them that way.

True, some people can't afford to pay a few dollars more for, say, organic food. But many people can and choose not to because they'd rather spend the money on digital cable subscriptions or new shoes.

And some "green" products Littman pointed out are decidedly low-tech: weatherstripping, sealant to close gaps and save money on energy, $2.49 outlet covers, composters, clothespins and clotheslines.

"Everyone wants to do good for the environment. No one wants to pollute," he said. "I have to show them the options."


Published 05/14/09