Nonprofit grassroots environmental organizations, park stores, nature centers, and interpretive centers are the front-line for communicating about the need for a healthy planet. This ‘green’ messaging often includes themes as conserving resources, preventing pollution and minimizing waste, but sometimes the products sold at these front-line locations are not in context with a green message. For help, make use of an underutilized resource – your vendors.

Your vendors are part of a supply chain; you are linked to them and they are linked to the suppliers of raw materials. The actions of one link in the chain affect the other links. This is a push-pull relationship. If enough people/organizations want certain features or requirements such as recycled materials, reusability, low toxicity, responsible labor practices, environmentally friendly packaging, low impact manufacturing, or the reduction of environmental hazards, the vendors will listen. The catch is that enough of their customers (organizations like yours) need to ask and buy green products.

These fifteen questions can help you to better communicate with vendors about green products:

1. What is your organization’s goal?
Before communicating a ‘green’ product vision to vendors you need to understand your own organization’s expectations and goals. What is the purpose of having a retail arm to your organization? What blend of product strength is needed? What is the typical dollar amount spent by customers in the store? What products will benefit the local resource? Will the products map to interpretive principles and be in context with the local resource?

2. Is everyone on board? Understand your organization’s pre-existing feelings and expectations for vendors. Are the decision makers (in the product approval process) open to new items? Do they consider vendors a tool for helping your store’s mission, or are they viewing vendors as money-hungry pests that want to turn your spot of nature into a big box store? If you do not already know, learn about what they will and will not approve.

3. Are there any recommendations? Talk to similar organizations about what companies are great vendors, and who are the not so great ones. Which vendors have a history of making low-quality products? Do any vendors have a history of greenwashing (saying they are green but really are not)? Who walks their talk? Which vendors come recommended?

4. What makes your product so great? Ask your vendors this question: “What makes your product so great?” It quickly tells you about the product and provides the vendor with a short opportunity to communicate the product’s benefits. If you see or hear things that can further your green messaging, the door is open to learning more. If you need to move on, let the vendor know that you’re looking for items that better support your organization’s message.

5. Does the vendor have a green strategy? Does the vendor have a strategy for incorporating green processes into their products? Can they demonstrate how the processes are being implemented?

6. What is the product’s life cycle?
Learn about the life of the product. Is the product a cradle-to-cradle or cradle-to-grave product? Most products today on store shelves are cradle-to-grave; this means the product is manufactured (cradle), it is used, and then at the end of its life is thrown away (grave). Ask if the product is transitioning to cradle-to-cradle; this means the product is manufactured (cradle), it is used, and then at the end of its product life undergoes a recycling process (cradle). The recycling could be biodegradable, made into an identical product or be used for another purpose. It is important to let all vendors understand this is the preferred direction.

7. Who is in the supply chain? Understand the vendor’s supply chain. The supply chain is a system of activities, people and organizations that move products from supplier to customer. Most vendors consider their work as only one link in the ’supply chain’ – to sell a product to your store. Look for vendors with a broader view further up and down the supply chain.

8. Any plans for closing the supply chain loop? How is the vendor working to close the loop on the supply chain? What is closing the loop? Does the vendor have a plan, or are they planning to incorporate a production “process where the old product can be collected and in which post-consumer waste is collected, recycled and used to make new” products? Reference: Earth911.com.

9. How transparent is the vendor’s business practices? How ‘transparent’ is the vendor about their business practices? Do they have goals and accomplishments posted on the website or marketing collateral?

10. Is there a ‘Made In Sweatshop’ label? If you do not see any transparency in the supply chain, ask some pointed questions, “Is this a sweatshop product?” and, “Where do the products come from?” These can be a hard question to answer for many vendors because of the abundance of overseas suppliers and multiple middlemen that blur the supply-chain. If you do not see any transparency and the vendor cannot effectively answer these questions, find a new vendor.

11. What about heavy metals? Ask for information about whether the products are tested for lead and other heavy metals. Are lead (Pb) levels below the recommendations set by the Consumer Product Safety Commission? How were the products tested? What processes are in place to further reduce the presence of lead or other metals?

12. Are they a green business? Does the vendor have any green certifications? Does the vendor work with suppliers who have received any third-party certifications or awards?

13. Do they have other customers? Inquire about other outdoor and education groups with whom the vendor works. Is the vendor associated with organizations that support green principles? Do their employees have any special training from these organizations? What trade shows does the vendor exhibit?

14. Who to Choose? Evaluate a vendor’s feedback and consider who can best help with greening the products in the park store. Obviously, some vendors because of size, limited resources or absolute focus on the bottom line will not view going ‘green’ as an option. Avoid vendors with a complete lack of will. Evaluate all vendors based on the product needs and goals of your organization. Nurture the vendor relationships that are on a green track.

15. Green means Green Profit. Most vendors understand that working toward a healthy planet is good business and believe that a long-term business relationship is good for themselves and the park store. It is important to remember that pursuing earth-friendly products is time consuming and currently more expensive than traditional methods. Vendors must see a return on their investment or they will not continue to pursue a green line of business. Do everything you can to help a good vendor succeed in their business, so they can help you succeed in yours.