The high price of ‘going green'


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SALT LAKE CITY -- It seems as though a lot more buildings have been "going green" in recent years as builders try to reduce their impact on Planet Earth. But the trends failed to keep alive a small Utah business dedicated to a greener earth.

The signs went up a while ago: the Green Building Center at 1952 E. 2700 South is out of business. A young woman's dream has crumbled, and she says it's because people aren't willing -- or able -- to pay the true cost of being green.

When Ashley Patterson started her store in 2003 she was enthused about doing something good for the planet that was also good business. She offered "green" building materials for home remodeling projects. They were meant to be resource-friendly and environmentally sustainable. Her goal was to sell, as much as possible, building products made in America from recycled materials.

Ashley Patterson says her business is closing because people are no longer willing to pay the higher prices to get environmentally-friendly products.
Ashley Patterson says her business is closing because people are no longer willing to pay the higher prices to get environmentally-friendly products.

In a 2003 interview, Patterson was optimistic. "The green building movement is just starting to take off in Salt Lake," she said.

That was then. Now Patterson is cleaning up, packing up, and tying up loose ends with the last customers. Her store is out of business.

"You know, quite honestly, when all this is cleaned up and I'm done with this place, it's going to be a huge relief," she said Monday.

The Green Building Center did fine for five years. Then the bottom fell out of the housing market.

"With the downturn, people simply stopped remodeling the kitchen," Patterson said.

Homeowners grew reluctant to invest more money in homes that were losing value, according to Patterson, and banks are still reluctant to lend money on devalued real estate.

But the heart of Patterson's business problem was pricing. As the economy soured, customers began looking for cheaper alternatives.

"I grew really weary; and everybody who worked here, we grew really weary about people almost mad at us because stuff wasn't cheap," Patterson said.

It costs more to make environmentally "green" products from recycled materials, she said, because they require lots of expensive American labor. Foreign building products have a pricing advantage, "using low-paid labor with low environmental standards," according to Patterson.

As an example, she said a granite countertop might sell for $50 a square foot because the granite is strip mined with cheap labor in a foreign country that has poor environmental regulation. On the other hand, a countertop made from recycled glass might cost $100 per square foot, because used glass has to be collected, cleaned, crushed and reconstituted. That generally involves American workers with higher wages, significant health care costs and more expenses to meet higher environmental standards.

She acknowledges her store failed to develop professional relationships with high-volume builders and architects. Instead, the store relied on do-it-yourself remodelers. That made the store highly vulnerable when homeowners began worrying about the economy more than the earth.

Another factor in the store's demise, ironically, may be the spread of the "green" mentality through the industry.

Patterson notes that many large-volume national chain stores have begun marketing "green" building materials. She calls them "lighter green" because, in Patterson's opinion, they are often less environmentally-friendly than what she offered and are often produced overseas with cheap labor.

Still, the competition hurt. "As more big companies started coming out with a greener option," Patterson said, "our prices didn't look as good."

As potential customers went elsewhere, settling for cheap instead of green, Patterson found herself coming to work every day essentially for nothing.

"It's not sustainable to provide a community service for free," Patterson said. "I would very much doubt that this community will get another place like this for a while."

E-mail: jhollenhorst@ksl.com

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