Categorized | Multimedia

The Green Economy, a work in progress

and Aisha Al-Muslim, Damiano Beltrami, Anastasia Economides, and Kate Zhao

New York entrepreneurs are figuring out how to get the green by being green

Green businesses are popping up all over the city—from Flatbush Avenue in downtown Brooklyn to the Bowery in Manhattan. But the term “green business” is somewhat amorphous. Entrepreneurs who are striving to be “green” are still figuring out what that means. What is the best model for a green business? Does every green business have to be green in the same way?

Take the Metropolitan Exchange building, in Brooklyn, which houses sustainable and cooperative businesses. Or Green Depot, in Manhattan, a supplier of environmentally friendly and sustainable building products, services and home solutions. Each one represents a different example from a complex mosaic, but they can both give some insight into exactly what it means to operate a green business in the city.

The Brooklyn Model: Sharing Space and Recycling

Al Attara, a visionary and community-oriented Brooklynite, as well as a self-described junk collector, is finally seeing his green dream take shape. And he’s not trying to buy anything new. For years, his seven-story building (with 6500 square feet per floor) at 33 Flatbush Avenue, now dubbed the Metropolitan Exchange building, was filled with furniture and other thrown out items Attara has collected and kept in storage. Now, the antique desks, tables, shelves and chairs are being recycled by young and creative entrepreneurs and innovative green start-ups. By opening up the loft space and connecting sustainable collaborative businesses, he has created a cooperative working environment. He sees it s an ongoing and constantly developing project.

“Everything’s in flux. You never know what’s going to happen from one day to the next. You just have to be flexible,” said Attara.

LISTEN to Al Attara talk about his vision for the building:

Attara’s building houses various organizations, such as EcoSystems, an eco-furniture design and consulting firm; Treehouse, a shared rentable workspace recently founded by EcoSystems on the same 4th Floor; an organic clothes company; and a co-op of architects and urban planners Attara helped form called Metropolitan Exchange.

On the 5th Floor, another tenant, Green Spaces, rents work space to socially conscious small businesses, green entrepreneurs, and low-impact start-ups looking for an affordable and collaborative environment.

LISTEN to some of the tenants in Green Spaces in their own words:

Tom Grace, 38, FarmsReach

“You get to network with folks, work with folks, you know, who are doing similar things.”


Sean Dimin, 26, Sea To Table

“It’s the people, it’s the space, it’s the furniture in the space, and it’s the overall camaraderie of start-ups.”


Franziska Seel, 27, Global Youth Action Network

“The space has a great vibe, it’s a great atmosphere to work here with everyone.”


John Hodges, 39, SunOne Solutions

“This space is very vibrant, dynamic.”


Green Spaces founder Jennie Nevin, also of the networking group Green Leaders, opened the environmentally conscious business in May 2008. The space houses more than 20 organizations and 35 people are currently using the space.

For $425 a month, tenants get their own permanent desk area, access to filing cabinets, high-speed internet, fax machine, copy machine, conference room, kitchen, and interns. A person can also rent a choose-your-own-space from the lounge for $225 a month. Nevin said she plans to open other GS locations through the nation.

Find out what makes Green Spaces an environmentally friendly business:

Attara says he still plans to fill the rest of the floors with like-minded people. There are plans in the works to install a green roof, and maybe even a vegetable garden. A poster just inside the front door tallies votes how the space should be used. For now, it’s still a cooperative work in progress.

The Manhattan Experiment: Selling eco-friendly products

For those who would rather buy their green materials than scavenge them, there is now at least one city location you can go. Green Depot opened a new flagship store—its first retail store—on Bowery Street in Manhattan in February. With its warehouse store in Brooklyn and other locations along the East Coast, the green building material supplier has begun to broaden its sales from contractors to everyday consumers.

The Manhattan store offers a variety of items from no-VOC paints (which don’t contain harmful chemicals) to energy consumption monitors, from eco-friendly cleaning supplies to organic rugs. Green Depot offers its own products, but they also sell products from competitive green brands. Restaurant owners, design professionals and building contractors seek out the store specifically for its green supplies.

When you walk in, you’re struck by the scent of the countryside coming from a pair of soybean candles ($39.95) made of the U.S.-grown soy wax and organic essential oils. Then you brush past a soft baby towel ($19.95) made of un-dyed, unbleached, 100 percent organic cotton. You sample a sip of water from the Aquaovo Ovopur water filter. It looks and tastes pure ($650). For those willing to pay, the store offers myriad possibilities.

“This retail store is kind of the link between a user or consumer and those builders’ products, ” said Christopher Zappala, operational manager of Green Depot for four months. He said that new parents are some of the store’s best customers, as they are excited about the store’s new baby line. Zappala himself even uses Green Depot diapers for his seven-month-old baby.

Check Out What’s Inside Green Depot:

However, even supporters of green businesses are not sure now is the right time for materials and supplies that are expensive, even if they are “green.”

“It’s not the right model to survive in hard times,” said William Baumol, an environmental economy professor at New York University. In the long run, however, Baumol thought the government should reexamine the tax instructions for the whole green business industry and help them for the public good. In an economic downturn, it’s much harder than ever for green business to survive—to be sustainable, if you will.

Some critics, such as Albert Wang, an investment manager from Qualcomm Ventures, said that the overheated investment in the green industry might ignite the next round of investment bubble. But most venture capitalists, economists and entrepreneurs look positively at green businesses.

“Today it’s a good time to invest in the long-term development since the costs are lower than any other times,” said Baumol.

In the federal stimulus bill passed in February, there is $50 billion available for green companies. The government will provide tax rebates, tax cuts and other supportive measures for green businesses. Both Green Depot and the Metropolitian Exchange building could benefit greatly from this sort of investment.