I recently had the chance to talk with the co-founder of VivaTerra, Bonnie Trust Dahan, about her motivation to found the catalog- and online-retailer of high-design, green products. Dahan had authored three books on interior design and headed merchandising and/or branding for major retailers including Banana Republic and Smith & Hawken. However, it was her personal shopping preferences that made her want to market beautiful products made from organic, recycled, and renewable sources.
I have noticed that a number of entrepreneurs have started business based on their personal frustration at not finding a source for a desired product or service. (Another example is Beth Gerstein’s fiancé wanting to buy an engagement ring that he could feel good about, and Beth then co-founding another green business, Brilliant Earth.)
When asked about having the vision to start VivaTerra, Dahan says, “It wasn’t cool to be green yet. Even as recent as five years ago organic and green products generally looked pretty awful. I was committed to buying eco products, but I didn’t want to sacrifice style.” Dahan figured there were more people like her, certainly enough to support one retailer, so she started writing a business plan in 2000. 2001 did not turn out to be a great year to start a business, so she re-launched, with partners in 2004, and her timing couldn’t be better.
Sourcing Green Products in This Market
I asked Dahan how she went about finding the first products for the catalog, and Dahan replied with a process that sounds like private detective work, “I first had to figure out what materials I would use and what sources would be reliable. Then I did lots of calling around and networking. Word got out that I was looking for beautiful eco products, so people started sending me leads.”
Now most VivaTerra products are made for or sold exclusively by the company, and Dahan admits that there are a lot more interesting products available to her green business. When I ask if it is exhausting, searching for new products and sorting through all of the unsolicited product proposals from manufacturers around the world, Dahan only sounds happy to have that type of problem. She clearly loves what she does.
Eco Sourcing Has Changed for the Better
It isn’t just that VivaTerra is known, but it is also easier to source environmentally friendly products because there are more green materials available. Dahan recently wrote a newsletter article about the fact that the growing market for bamboo has encouraged more supply to come to market.
Dahan is very happy about this development. She says, “Now that there is more demand, costs can come down for the consumer, and the demand ripples back through the supply chain, such as by encouraging more farmers to grow cotton organically.” In another newsletter post, Dehan described other eco textiles that have become readily available.
Personal Taste Matters
Dahan is still very involved with selecting products for VivaTerra. According to her, a good green product “needs to be beautiful and affordable, and eco, of course”. Her strategy is to look at the world of green products and then to see what stands out as beautiful and high quality. Despite the fact that her interests as an entrepreneur are served when people buy more, she believes that consumers should “buy things once and think about using it in multiple ways.” She wants everyone to buy quality products that can be used and enjoyed for many years (perhaps even passing them on to an heir).
For other budding green businesses, Dahan recommends these strategies for vetting products: “Ask a lot of questions, and be suspicious of generalizations. What does ‘natural’ mean? Sellers should be able to answer your questions. And certification is certainly helpful.”
Photos from VivaTerra