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Growing Green Business

Ori Sivan (GMcC05) scans a display of kitchen tiles and picks up one that catches his eye. The blue brick backsplash tile is made from fly ash — a residue from coal combustion — as well as cement and other recycled content. "That's pretty cool, huh?" he says, offering it for inspection. "It's made out of garbage."

If that's not cool enough, how about the kitchen countertop created from layer upon layer of recycled paper? Or the strand woven bamboo floor that's stylish and durable and, best of all, comes from a highly renewable resource?

There's more. Sivan, the high energy co-founder of Greenmaker Building Supply, bounces past the rain barrels, worm hotels for composting enthusiasts and insulation made from retired blue jeans — all products that line the shelves of his eco-friendly building supply store on Chicago's Northwest Side.

An engineer by training but a businessman by nature, Sivan and his high school friend, Joe Silver, launched Greenmaker in 2005 when Sivan saw the market for green products emerging from Chicago's nascent environmental initiatives. Conventional retailers, he realized, could not satisfy the growing green interest.

Greenmaker filled the gap, topping $1 million in sales in 2006, and the company won one of Gov. Rod Blagojevich's (WCAS79) six Innovate Illinois awards.

Sivan admits that going green does cost customers a little more, but as demand increases for environmentally friendly products, he says, prices will come down. It's all about economies of scale.

"The only reason it costs more is because it's new," he says.

But John Vlahakis (C80, KSM85), president of Earth Friendly Products based in Winnetka, Ill., says green products shouldn't cost more. "Being green is not a premium," he says. "It's for our customers' health and welfare. That's not something that people should have to pay a lot of money for."

Inspired by the birth of his daughter and his concern for the world she would inherit, Vlahakis launched Earth Friendly Products in 1993, well before green came into vogue.

Vlahakis' firm manufactures household cleaning supplies and personal hygiene products. Sales took off about six years ago, then doubled in the past year and will likely double again in the coming year. "We're growing tremendously with the awareness that's hit the marketplace," says Vlahakis, whose products can be found across the country in major grocery chains, traditional health food stores and increasingly in big box retailers. "People are paying attention. Retailers need to get on the bandwagon."

And it won't be long before the big household product developers catch on, too. "I'm expecting a pretty tough competitive push from Cincinnati," Vlahakis says, referring to industry giant Procter & Gamble.

But Vlahakis is quick to differentiate himself from his competition. Earth Friendly Products uses plant-based, rather than petrochemical-based, solutions in its detergents. It has a patent pending for the formula to its phosphate-free dishwasher detergent. "The big companies say they need three years to develop phosphate-free detergent," Vlahakis says. "We've been selling it for years."

The company also uses 100 percent natural essential oils or 100 percent organically certified essential oils. Earth Friendly Products refuses to test its products on animals and uses no animal ingredients, no dyes and no synthetic fragrances. The company also publishes a "Freedom Code," a list of chemicals that the company will not use in product development.

It is installing photovoltaic solar panels, which convert sunlight directly into electricity, on the rooftops of its manufacturing plants. And in terms of production and packaging, the company uses only the most recyclable plastics and corn-based film for wrapping.

"From a production standpoint, we're trying to reduce our impact and footprint," Vlahakis says. "Our goal is to be completely free from petrochemical contaminants." — S.H.

See Ori Sivan's five tips for quick and easy environmental-minded improvements to your home. John Eskandari, trees and shrubs manager at Chicago's Gethsemane Garden Center, and Jens Jensen, an ecologist with Pizzo & Associates and great-grandson of the famous landscape architect, offer advice on how to "green" your lawn and landscaping.

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Ori Sivan.Photo by Adrianne Hawthorne
John Vlahakis.Photo by Bill Arsenault