City Life

Ethical Consumers Cooperative: Affordable Sustainability

What if there were an organization that offered ethical, environmentally friendly products and services and could fund itself by sharing the difference between retail prices and wholesale costs?

By Amy Kenny
Published January 08, 2009

It started in the bathroom. Two years ago, Todd Bulmer was looking for an affordable, high-efficiency toilet, but couldn't find one for any less than $320.00. Of course, one supplier joked, if you want to buy ten, I can give them to you for $200 each. Ten cost the same as six.

Bulmer called his bluff, bought ten and started to wonder how many more green products were being sold with similar markups. What if there were an organization that offered ethically sourced products and services, a corporation dedicated to reducing the ecological footprint of individual households, one that could fund itself by sharing the difference between retail prices and wholesale costs?

Fast forward two years. Bulmer has taken a leave of absence from his job as a high school science teacher so he can focus on pushing The Ethical Consumers Cooperative - the organization that he and his neighbour, Mike Pattison, developed with the help of the Skydragon Community Development Cooperative.

The ECC started as a sign-up sheet on a bulletin board at the King William Café, but Bulmer and Pattison (currently co-directors of Skydragon) quickly realized the Internet is a far more effective tool for such an effort.

When it comes to going green, how many hundreds of people turn to Google for tips, advice, starting points, product reviews and research? The web provides easy and immediate answers, but even green companies have marketing departments. How can environmentally minded consumers tell the difference between pure fact and PR fabrication?

"Our hope is that the answer here is community," Bulmer says. "For now, we are [offering advice] ourselves and largely counting on as much reliable third-party data as we can gather."

The ECC depends on information collected by a small team of volunteers and recommendations from the Ontario Natural Food Co-Op - a group whose ethical purchasing protocol has been setting standards for 30 years.

Since the ECC is primarily an online entity, the idea is that once numbers increase, members will offer ever cleaner, more efficient and local options via a wiki-style, self-moderated online forum.

Bulmer is aware that some people will view the organization as a green Costco, join simply to score easy, online savings, and assume a passive position when it comes to online debate and discussion. However, he is also certain of the ECC's potential to attract (and act as a tool for finding consensus among) like-minded individuals.

"All of the decisions [the ECC makes regarding] suppliers will be 100% transparent and democratic," Bulmer says. "I'm confident that it will reflect the best thinking and intentions of progressives and environmentalists in Hamilton."

Though the ECC's official launch is January 14, their site has been live since late in December 2008. Visitors to ethicalconsumers.ca will find significant savings on household hardware items including dual flush toilets, tankless water heaters and water softeners.

The site also offers ethical food and personal care products like wheat and gluten-free cake mixes, Cocoa Camino chocolate, Green Beaver soaps and lotions, organic peanut and almond butters, olive oil and dressings, recycled facial tissues, juice, tea, soda and much more. ECC members will even enjoy deals from local all natural cleaning service, Clean by Nature.

An annual membership with the ECC costs $60.00. If you're interested in finding out more about the organization, take your questions to their site launch at Skydragon on Wednesday, January 14. Check with Skydragon closer to the event date for information on start times.

Amy Kenny graduated from Ryerson University's journalism program in 2004. She is currently a Hamilton-based freelance writer who loves the arts and the outdoors. In addition to Raise the Hammer, she writes for H Magazine, The Corktown Crier and TorontoPlus. She cycles everywhere, all the time and urges you to do the same.

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted January 10, 2009 at 10:30:45

Amy, the same products offered by this group are offered by Home Depot for much less. The dual flush toilets are about $120 at HD while ECC sells them for $250. 7.4 L tankless water heaters sell for $1500 at HD, but are 50% more at ECC. If this group is not concerned with making profits, why is it that their products cost consumers so much more?

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By Amy Kenny (registered) | Posted January 10, 2009 at 22:48:20

A Smith--I suggest you take that question to Skydragon on Wednesday night.

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By todd (anonymous) | Posted January 11, 2009 at 20:10:46

This is THE question: What IS the ethical choice? The questions can be complicated and the answers are constantly changing.

The toilet example is a perfect one. What toilet SHOULD people buy now? What toilet will cost the least in the long run and save the most water?

Not all toilets are created equally. The cheapest toilet may not last as long and it may not flush as thoroughly requiring more than one flush per... event. If the valve leaks quietly for a couple of years you might as well keep your old toilet. There's lots of people out there testing toilets right now.

(link(a little gross)-> www.veritec.ca/uploads/13th%20Edition%20Full%20Report.pdf)

Based on reliability, durability, and efficiency, there are two standards that qualify a toilet as being environmentally 'kind' and make them eligible for government grants:
The U.S. EPA WaterSense Specification and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power Supplementary Purchase Specification.

That $130 toilet at the Home Depot may be great, but it is not currently US EPA certified and it only got the Los Angeles SPS in December, 2008. So at the time that we started offering 'our' toilet on the ECC site, the only comparable, grant-eligible toilet at the Home Depot cost over $300.

We chose the specific toilet we did based on consumer reports, warranty, cost of replacement parts, and satisfactory treatment of the workers who made them. It was the best we could do. We're hoping that the ECC turns into a reliable resource that will allow people to make good choices without spending hours becoming experts (in toilets or whatever).

It's quite possible the Home Depot has just put us out of the toilet business. I think that's great. I'm not saying capitalism works or anything but if tree-hugging, cutting-edge has turned mainstream in a matter of months; it's good news.

It turns out there's new technology in toilets that will make them cheaper, better and use less water. Stay tuned. We do welcome any ideas or suggestions. Todd

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By A Smith (anonymous) | Posted January 11, 2009 at 22:00:51

Todd, being energy efficient is not a bad thing, but neither is making lots of profits. If you bring people products that help them save money and make them feel like they're helping their environment, then you deserve to be rewarded for doing so. If you don't help people, you won't have to worry about making too much in profits, because people will buy elsewhere.

Furthermore, if you make lots of money selling products you believe in, you can use this money to invest in research that adds even more benefits to society.

Therefore, rather than feeling bad about making lots of money, just focus on putting out the best, most useful products you can. If you do this, you will undoubtedly give more to society than you keep in profits. Finally, if you still feel bad about having lots of money, give portions away to groups that can buy conservation land on the open market. However, if you never make any money, you ultimately limit the amount of influence you can have on your world.

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By todd (anonymous) | Posted January 12, 2009 at 14:34:27

Not-for-profit organisations can make money but it is called 'surplus'. The difference is that the surplus must be, as you suggested, used to promote the stated objectives of the organisation. In our case, these goals are to build local economy, create good jobs everywhere, and reduce the damage we're doing to the environment.

Trust me, I won't feel bad if the ECC makes lots of money. That's plan A.

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