If a guy who frets about paper towels and trash bags can have a eureka moment, Chris Nolan can have one too, and he did just that nine years ago.
Nolan, president of H.T. Berry Co. of Canton, a distributor of janitorial and sanitary supplies, was in Ohio visiting Spartan Chemical Co., which makes cleaning chemicals that H.T. Berry sells to restaurants, office buildings, hospitals, schools, and other clients. Everywhere Nolan looked, researchers were experimenting with cleaning products made from natural, nontoxic ingredients such as soy and sunflowers.
It was then that Nolan realized that by focusing on environmentally sensitive or “green” products, H.T. Berry could carve out a niche and survive in a consolidating industry increasingly being dominated by big players such as Staples Inc. of Framingham, Sysco Corp. of Houston, and AmSan, a unit of Interline Brands Inc. of Jacksonville, Fla.
That shift has not only helped H.T. Berry survive, but prosper, increasing its revenues by 40 percent since it began putting more emphasis on green products in 2006, according to the company. Today, 75 percent of the paper products and nearly 50 percent of the cleaning supplies that the 51-year-old company sells are recyclable, compostable, and otherwise sustainable. In 2014, about 60 percent of its annual revenue came from green products, H.T. Berry said.
Berry is part of the greening of the supply chain as companies, whether for corporate responsibility or public relations, increasingly adopt environmentally sensitive practices. This trend has been “going on for a decade, but only in the last few years has it achieved critical mass,” said Liz Harriman, deputy director of the Toxics Use Reduction Institute at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
One company keen on green products is Boloco, a Boston-based restaurant chain known for its burritos. Boloco set a goal a few years ago of using only sustainable products, gradually phasing out plastic utensils and bowls and Styrofoam cups and replacing them with compostable items.
Partly by working with H.T. Berry, Boloco, which operates 20 restaurants in the area, has largely met its goal, chief executive Patrick Renna said. One item that’s holding them back, however, is tin foil, which Boloco uses for wrapping the burritos. So far, a substitute that is both cost-effective and compostable has yet to emerge.
Renna said most customers are just looking for a good burrito at a fair price, but a small but growing vocal minority appreciates Boloco’s drive toward sustainability. “We feel this is the responsible way to operate a business,” Renna said.
The growth of green products has been fueled in part by falling prices. A compostable corn-based soda cup, for example, costs about 8 cents, compared with 6 cents for a conventional plastic cup, Nolan said. Compostable trash bags can cost 40 percent more than conventional ones, or about $80 for a box of 100. A few years ago, that box of compostable bags cost nearly $100.
Distributing toilet paper, cups, and cleaning products is not a sexy business, Nolan conceded, but it’s fiercely competitive. As a result, said Henry Berry, the company’s 88-year-old chief executive, “We must try to change the game.” And focusing on green products became a strategy to make change and grow.
“We’re competing against billion-dollar companies with the same product mix,” Nolan said. “It’s just another box on the truck for them. For us, this is our world.”
For Henry Berry, paper products have been his world since he took a job more than 50 years ago working for a cardboard box company. That company, Berry recalled, was owned by a Yankee so gentle with a buck that he “had money with dust on it.”
In need of more dust-free money coming his way, Berry decided to strike out on his own, founding his company in 1964. His mother was skeptical. “We’ll all be on welfare!” she told him.
By 1977, Berry had done such a good job of staying off welfare that he needed more room and relocated to Canton. About 30 years later, Berry and Nolan unveiled a “Sustainable Solutions” initiative that targets customers interested in green products.
Revenues have since grown, to $31 million last year from $22 million in 2006. The company considering expanding to a second location as it sees new opportunities. Among them: office buildings that want to qualify for LEED certification, the green-building certification program. One way to earn credits toward that designation is to use green cleaning services and green products in restrooms.
When big companies look for new office space, they increasingly want buildings that can qualify for LEED certification, said Kathy Gonzalez, general manager of One Channel Center. Located in Boston’s Fort Point Channel neighborhood, One Channel Center recently leased space to State Street Corp., the Boston financial services company.
Sustainability is “big on their radar screen,” Gonzalez said.
Berry, meanwhile, is finding other ways to operate green. The company recently installed a solar-panel system on its roof, boasting that it is “the only distributor to be off the electrical grid.”
Chris Reidy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.