Based on news accounts of its closing last month, it seems fair to say that the Green Building Center, in Salt Lake City, had, during its first few years in business, successfully attracted customers who valued ecologically sound products and supported green construction and remodeling practices. When it came to weathering the recession, however, the store, which opened in October 2003 and expanded to Utah’s Park City in 2008, didn’t have the resources or breadth in its customer base to keep its doors open.
As the store’s founder, Ashley Patterson, told the Deseret News and the Salt Lake Tribune, the demand-crushing effects of the downturn alone have, since the summer of 2008, reduced traffic to the store just as severely as they hammered Utah’s real estate market, which, the Tribune notes, saw new-home construction permits drop to about 4,400 in 2009 from a high of 15,400 in 2006.
Price and a green imperative
But of course other factors came into play. While the Green Building Center’s core customers were local builders, remodelers, and homeowners, Patterson told the Deseret News that the store could have done more to forge relationships with high-volume builders and architects. Beyond that, though, there were shifts in the green-products retailing that made it increasingly difficult for Green Building Center to compete on price. One of the most obvious examples: green-labeled products finding their way onto shelves at big-box chain stores, whose economies of scale and discounts can make competing difficult for independent building-supplies retailers.
Pricing became the key issue. Patterson noted that her store’s commitment to environmental responsibility meant carrying products that were made according to high ecological standards and, very often, with U.S. labor. Alternative products, meanwhile, often were made by manufacturers in overseas locations where labor is relatively cheap and additional cost savings are achieved by ignoring environmental issues.
“I grew really weary,” she said, “and everybody who worked here, we grew really weary about people almost mad at us because stuff wasn’t cheap.”