Nam, it seems, was years ahead of his time, but the times have caught up to him and other green retailers, thanks to increased knowledge among consumers.
“The shift towards environmentally-friendly living has been gradual but there is a lot more awareness now,” Nam says.
More and more American consumers — even in conservative cities like Birmingham — are spending a lot of green on products that define their lifestyles as green. Certain shoppers seem more concerned than ever with their own health and that of the environment.
Golden Temple sells a wide variety of items, from herbal remedies to vegan lunches, and the store has an extensive recycling program.
“Everything sold here has no chemicals, additives or pesticides,” Nam says. “It’s as natural as possible.”
Nam is adamant that all of the choices we make as consumers, especially regarding food, have environmental and even moral consequences.
“The best way to make a difference is to be a vegetarian,” he says. “That is better than not driving a car.”
Another pioneer in local green retail is Terry Proctor, who opened Gaia's General Store in Forest Park in 1991. Named for the Greek goddess who was Earth personified, Gaia’s was Birmingham’s first green boutique, with an inventory that included eco-friendly cosmetics and cleaning products, recycled paper towels and bath tissue and environmentally-friendly housewares.
“At the time recycling was still a relatively new thing, so we sold products to make it easier,” Proctor remembers.
Gaia’s sold reusable shopping bags nearly a decade before most Birmingham retailers were even asking, “Paper or plastic?” In the beginning, the store also carried Birkenstocks, Teva sandals and Earth Shoes. Over the years, Proctor increased the store’s inventory of shoes in response to consumer demand.
“It was a natural change because the people who were going to shop here were the kinds of people who were going to be outdoors, and they were going to need shoes that would last longer,” she says.
For Nancy Tran, who opened her store Green Central Station on Earth Day of this year, picnicking items serve as a strong complement to the inventory of green products in her Lakeview store. Amid organic cleaning products and all-natural sodas, she has vintage picnic baskets and a selection of edibles with which to stock them.
“I love picnics,” Tran says. “You get to enjoy the great outdoors.” Furthermore, she adds, picnicking can be a green choice in a financial sense, too — an inexpensive source of entertainment in tough economic times. “I know I’ve had to get creative in trying to entertain myself, and the best part is that spending the day at the park is free.”
Of course, if you go on a picnic, you need food, and what better choice than locally grown, organic food? That’s where Edwin Marty comes in. The executive director of Jones Valley Urban Farms is determined to teach Birmingham how to keep a sustainable routine, one handful of leafy green arugula at a time. That leafy green is on offer every Saturday at the JVUF booth at the Pepper Place Farmer’s Market in Lakeview, along with fresh-cut flowers and a wide variety of locally grown food and other green-friendly products.
“We grow food,” Marty says. “We sell food, usually to local markets, and the proceeds go to our educational programs that teach kids how to grow their own foods.”
Many local farmers, such as Marty and David Snow, of Snow's Bend Farm in Tuscaloosa, grow everything organically. “Buying locally grown foods is a great way to help the environment,” Snow says. “There is less gas to use in transportation, but most importantly there is more nutritional value and flavor. We’re proud to grow crops without the use of chemicals like pesticides.”
Rather than locally grown food, Nomad Supply offers locally made clothes, jewelry and candles, plus other handmade wares from artists around the country. Store owner Beau Armistead spends several months of each year traveling around the country to concerts and music festivals, developing Nomad’s inventory by creating relationships with like-minded individuals he meets on the road.
“While we may not necessarily be green, we are committed to being environmentally aware,” Armistead says. “Most of our products are handmade by people I have met on my travels or they’re organic. We wanted to bring the sense of community and their unique products from the road to Birmingham.”
In addition to a storefront on 23rd Street in Southside, Nomad has a Pepper Place booth, where stainless steel canteens are among the most popular items for sale. What makes canteens a green product, of course, is that their use reduces the number of plastic water bottles sold.
Shopping your conscience may mean buying eco-friendly products, fair-trade goods, organic produce or locally made merchandise exclusively. Or maybe it means boycotting big-box stores and investing in the community by patronizing mom-and-pop shops whenever you can. For most of us, it’s a combination of these strategies, and a realization that when it comes to shopping, the frog was right – it ain’t easy being green.
GAIA'S • 3900 Clairmont Ave. Birmingham’s original green retailer, now with an extensive inventory of comfort shoes and other footwear. (205) 591-4242.
GOLDEN TEMPLE CAFE NATURAL GROCERY & CAFÉ • 1901 11th Ave. South, Southside. All natural grocery store and a selection of vegetarian dishes. Open seven days. (205) 933-6333. www.goldentemplehealthfoods.com
GREEN CENTRAL STATION • 2717 Seventh Ave. South #101. Specializes in picnic supplies such as antique baskets, organic foods and outdoor games. Open Mon., Thurs-Sat. (205) 202-4056.
SNOW'S BEND FARM • Tuscaloosa. Historic farm uses natural methods to produce crops. www.snowsbendfarm.com
JONES VALLEY URBAN FARM • 701 25th Street North. Reclaimed land turned into an eco-friendly, non-profit community farm. (205) 429-7213. www.jvuf.org
PEPPER PLACE FARMERS MARKET • 2829 Second Avenue South. Dozens of local farms and businesses gather in an open air market. Open 7 a.m.-noon Sat. (205) 802-2100. www.pepperplacemarket.com
WHOLE FOODS MARKET • 3100 Cahaba Village Plaza, Mountain Brook. A 'big box' organic foods store. (205) 912-8400. www.wholefoodsmarket.com
NOMAD SUPPLY • 916 23rd Street South. Organic and fair-trade store and hang-out spot. (205) 252-9359. www.nomadsupply.com