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Local suppliers building a green marketplace

Marilyn Jones launched Chicago-based Consolidated Printing 34 years ago, well before going green became trendy.

Her firm has been ecologically friendly since Day One, and over the years has grown "greener and greener," Jones said.

That made Jones a perfect candidate when the Environmental Protection Agency sought an expert several years ago to talk to Illinois printers about green business practices.

As part of the Illinois Great Printers project, Jones addressed the printers, but "they didn't get it," she recalled. "They were asking, 'How much money does this cost, and how much time does it take?' I would never have been successful if I was looking at money and time when I was starting. I needed to create a safe workplace for my employees and dispose of chemicals properly. That was my main thing."

Today Jones' philosophy to merge entrepreneurship with environmental awareness is being shared by an increasing number of small businesses, which seek to meet a growing consumer demand for green products and services.

When Co-op America, a Washington, D.C. non-profit organization, initiated its Green Business Network in the early 1990s, it had about 500 organizations that met its criteria, spokesman Todd Larsen said. Today, that number has surged to 3,000 and continues growing.

Among Chicago-area businesses is Greenmaker Building Supply, a 2-year-old retailer selling green construction materials on North Pulaski in Chicago. With a staff of 12, the 5,000-square-foot store reaped $1.2 million in revenues in its first 18 months, selling non-toxic, energy-efficient, water-efficient and environmentally friendly products from plywood to paints, said Ori Sivan, who with Joe Silver co-founded the company.

Another is Distant Village Packaging, which creates custom, hand-made packaging for the specialty gift industry, said founder Rich Cohen. The 7-year-old, nine-employee Chicago company is, Cohen said, the only U.S. packaging company that makes packages from "tree-free papers," using wild grass paper, banana fiber paper and other paper varieties.

Jones' Consolidated Printing on Northwest Highway is a commercial printer that uses all-vegetable ink and recycled paper approved by clients. The firm has demonstrated that a passionately green printer can land big jobs, including printing materials for the Clinton Presidential Library and both of Gov. Rod Blagojevich's inaugurals.

Greenmaker Supply, Distant Village Packaging and Consolidated Printers are among the 100 green businesses expected to fill out Green Exchange when the business incubator opens next April on Diversey Avenue near the Kennedy Expressway. The exchange is billed as "the nation's largest sustainable business community."

"In order to be a tenant in Green Exchange, you must be doing something to advance the green marketplace, whether [producing] a product or service," said David Baum, who co-founded Green Exchange with his brother, Doug.

"This is a place consumers will be able to go for information, buy products, hire an architect to build a green home, hire a landscape architect to do green landscaping and get an energy audit of their home," Baum said.

Those who have founded green businesses urge introspection when starting out.

If an entrepreneur were to tell Jones he planned to found a green business, she would ask, "Why?" "If they answer they want to make money, I would say you're going into the wrong area. There's money to be made in green -- a lot of money to be made. But you're not going to make it if you're not passionately green," she said. "You have to do it by walking your talk."

Sivan says entrepreneurs entering the green marketplace must define what green means to them and what products or services they want to focus on.

"There are many kinds of green services and products," he said. "And there are all kinds of different ways to address this market."

Before establishing his company, Sivan networked with individuals already working in the green building industry, querying them about products that would be useful to them.

"The networking helps you identify your customers, and the research helps you on the back end, helping you identify what is green about your product, how green it is and how you will talk about your product to customers."

Green Exchange also will be a resource for Chicago green businesses, providing a building wired for phones, cable and Internet, with shared conference rooms offering video conferencing, a venture capital company doing green business incubating on the premises and a built-in opportunity to network with other green tenants, Baum said.

Another resource is Co-op America, www.coopamerica.org, which offers its member green companies benefits such as conferences that help entrepreneurs connect with other green businesses and a monthly e-newsletter.
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