Eco-crusading entrepreneur Lonica Halley hashad a busy ten years. Today, celebrating the store’s ten-year anniversary, Halley enjoysthe prestige of owning the first and longest-standing retail store in the U.S.to offer strictly natural, organic, sustainable, fair trade, and socially responsibleproducts. While her business flourishes nationwide, Halley remain deeplyinvolved in the local community. This month, we spoke to Lonica about the importanceof tending local roots for global growth.
Happy tenth anniversary! Would you have guessed, ten years ago, that NaturalSelections would have become such a success, both locally and nationwide?
Thanks. I’m really proud of what we achieved, and yet it was kind ofour goal, so I can’t really say that I’m totally shocked. I’mmostly happy that we’re still able to live where we want to live anddo something we really love and that we feel is a good thing to be doing.
In this age of corporate takeover, where lots of small businesses find ithard to keep up, Natural Selections seems to be doing booming business. Anythoughts why?
I think there are several reasons. On the personal side, we just worked reallyhard—for the first two years we really didn’t take a day off. Wewere open seven days a week. I was there every day, and so was Michael. We’vealways maintained a conservative attitude towards fiscal growth and that’sreally helped us to grow safely. Also, we make a point of carefully listeningto what our customers are asking for, and giving them exactly that, ratherthan bringing in something that we might think is fun or neat to sell.
I think also it really helps to have a product that you can feel good about—notjust what it feels like when you touch it or wear it—but that you feelgood about who made it and where it came from and the effect that producingthat product is having. Those kinds of values—feeling like you’resupporting organic agriculture, fair trade, and fair-wage labor—meana lot to us, and they’re becoming popular everywhere.
Yes, you’re part of an increasingly popular nichemarket.
Definitely. And it’s one that was an experiment in the beginning. Therewasn’t a lot of organic cotton available when we opened—everythingwas one color, there weren’t a lot of different styles—but eachyear there’s more and more. I like the thought that every year becauseof stores like us, or even stores carrying just a few organic products, theamount of acreage that’s converted to organic agriculture is huge.It’s in the thousands every year! Each year, more farmers have togo organic in order to supply the increasing demand.
How has having children enhanced your connection with the community and influencedyou as local retailers?
When you have a child, the first thing you want is for them to be safe andhappy. So we do everything we can to nourish Fairfield and keep it a strongand safe community for our family, whether it’s bringing in tourism byoffering something unique, or offering more jobs to locals, both of which westrive to do.
I also think having kids made us better business people in that we’vebeen able to test all the products that we have. I can walk into our baby section,which has about 1,000 different items, and I can know exactly how each onewill fit a baby at a certain age and a certain weight. That’s firsthandknowledge that’s really valuable to any customer, whether they’recoming in locally or calling from California.
I think that’s the kind of personal attention that’s missingfrom many corporate stores.
It’s true. At any local store you go into, for the most part, whetherthe owner’s there or not, you know that the person working there generallyhas good knowledge of most of the products. And you get personal service andgift-wrapping. You can’t go to Wal-Mart and get gift-wrapping. Personalshopping is also something that we’ve done a lot of—in big citiesyou pay a lot for that and in Fairfield you get it for free.
And you make sure that all of your products are ethically made andpurchased?
Yes. We guarantee that all of our products are certified Fair Trade or Sweatshop-free.That means that the people who make them are being paid a living wage forthe products that they’re creating. All of our women’s sweaterscome from a women’s cooperative in South America. The women knittingthe sweaters get most of the profits—the company takes a small percentage,but the women get most of it. And they’re doing an indigenous craftin their homes, they’re able to stay with their children, and yet they’reproducing sweaters at such a high rate that they can be sold through companieslike Coldwater Creek, Sundance, and stores like ours.
That’s fantastic. In addition to supporting artisans in othercountries, you also support local artisans. One of your greatest sellersis your organic bedding line [pillows, comforters, toppers, etc.], whichyou manufacture locally. Why do you make it here?
We like to keep it local as much as possible. We like to have control overhow it’s going to be sewn, and where it’s going to be sewn, andwe have a few women under independent contracts. It’s not more expensiveat this point, so we can do it here, which is preferable to farming it outto India or China. We also really like working with home sewers because welike to support their ability to have an income and be in the town they wantto be in, working from home.
You sell a ton of terrific organic products—everythingfrom clothing, toys, and snacks to stationery, makeup, and body products.How much of it comes from local sources?
We really do manufacture a lot of things here. We have locally made gifts,like 100 percent beeswax candles, cards, stationery, ceramics, and dolls.We have locally made makeup by Stacy Dalton, which is fantastic and sellingreally well on our website. It’s made with from crushed mica, a beautifulsparkly rock, instead of synthetics.
I love the fact that the local products are unique and selling them supportsthe local community. I’ve lived here since I was two—really mywhole life. I like working with local people because what comes around goesaround and helps keep our community strong.
What product are you most excited about right now?
Currently our best sellers are our 100 percent natural latex mattresses. They’resomething that you can’t really get anywhere, at least not the way we’reselling them. In most places you get an upholstered mattress and it’stotally synthetic and has chemical flame retardants on it, among other things—formaldehydeand other carcinogenic chemicals. So you’re spending a third of yourlife in bed and you’re sleeping with all these chemicals which areknown to cause cancer.
There are organic upholstered mattresses out there that cost about $3,000.We felt like that was way too expensive for most people. So we came up withthe idea of selling the three separate components so that people can buildtheir own mattress in as little as 15 minutes and have the same quality productas an upholstered mattress. But the advantage is you spend about $900, andyou can clean all three pieces.
Unfortunately, at some point you won’t be able to buy natural latexmattresses without flame retardants. Right now the federal government is tryingto pass a law where every bedding item—not just mattresses, but pillows,sheets, comforters, everything—has to resist burning with an open flameunderneath and on the side and on the top for 30 seconds. There’s noway that something that’s untreated will pass that test. So if you wantto buy natural beds or bedding in general, you should get it as soon as youcan because the government is quickly working to take away that right, justlike in the organic industry they’re working to take away people’srights to use herbs as supplements.
That’s so unfortunate. On the brighter side, tell us about yourconsulting business, the Organic Company.
Earlier this year I started a consulting company called the Organic Company.Over the last ten years, I’ve received hundreds and hundreds of questionsfrom moms who wanted to sew baby clothes and business owners who wanted tobring in organic products. And I noticed I was starting to answer the samequestions over and over and it was taking a lot of time. So I decided I shouldput it in a format where it’s easy to access. I formed a second companywhere we can do independent consulting with people who want to create and marketorganic products. We help them find the right suppliers to get good productsand the right channels to market them in and distribute them. Some people we’veconsulted with are owners of start-up companies, and others have been withmajor corporations that are looking to open an organic division.
What advice would you give entrepreneurs aspiring to set up their own businesses,particularly those with an ecological slant?
There are so many options! That’s part of why I founded the Organic Company,to help consult those kinds of people. First of all, I’d like to saythat if I was consulting any young people, I would probably do it completelyfree of charge, because I realize that when you’re starting out, youdon’t have anything. It’s very hard to start a business with nothing,but it can be done because I did it and it worked. So I would say the bestadvice is to look for something that’s really needed in your area andtry to fill that need. That’s what we did. And in terms of ecologicalslants, I think there are still so many opportunities out there for new clothinglines, bedding lines, housewares, furnishings—it’s really wideopen in terms of designing or marketing.
Advice for holiday shoppers?
It’s really good to support your local merchants and see if you can findwhat you’re looking for. I think you should always check out your localarea first. And if you don’t find something you like, go to your nextnearest town. It really ends up supporting the local economy and helps youngpeople find jobs in the places where their families are.