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What Compostable Kids Books Can Teach Us About the Green Economy

"My goal is to produce products that have an end of life that becomes worm food," says Alyson Beaton, founder of the Chicago-based Grow Books Press.

"My goal is to produce products that have an end of life that becomes worm food," says Alyson Beaton, founder of the Chicago-based Grow Books Press. Beaton's hand-made children's books teach kids about building sustainable communities before they're laid to rest in the backyard compost heap. "I don't want to be a part of the cycle that creates waste at all," Beaton explains.

That's a tough position to hold in the book industry, where booksellers routinely return unsold product directly to publishers, who end up trashing the extras. (And in the fickle world of kid's books, there can be a lot of extras). Beaton hopes to cut through the waste by publishing very limited runs of books with recycled paper and vegetable-based inks that are designed to be totally consumed—by kids first and worms second.

Since launching the full-fledged press in January, Beaton has been candid about the challenges of running a green company. Over e-mail, she expanded on lessons she's learned:

"Green." When it comes to products that brand themselves as eco-friendly, "I think it is a complete free for all," Beaton says. "I have never found a standard." Before she launched Grow Books Press, Beaton did significant academic work on "how we view the things in our lives as only meant to last a very short time," whether it's "the houses we live in [or] the relationships we have with each other," she says. Today, it's up to the individual producer to counter those attitudes. "Since ['green'] has not been defined or standardized, most of us are just trying our best and doing what we can under the system that exists," she says. "Let's just say my conscience is wrought with guilt."

Scale. For Beaton, being a sustainable book publisher "boils down to making products for people who will buy them rather than producing 10,000 of something and then it becoming trash," she says. But it's getting easier. "The internet has brought the customer directly to the seller," Beaton says, "so it makes it easier to know who is interested in your products and to market directly to them."

Being cool. Creating products that minimize environmental impact is tough. Getting those products to compete with the mass-produced product of the moment is even tougher—particularly when you're making stuff for kids. "Things that are trying to push the envelope in terms of eco production can be a harder sell if the customer just doesn't like it," Beaton says. "There is a line of kids toys made in the USA from recycled materials called 'Green Toys' and I bought them just because they were green but not because I liked the way they looked," she adds. "It is a hard balance to strike."

Geography. Like all manufacturers, "green" producers need to find ways to keep their products competitively priced—particularly given the cheap "green"-labeled stuff being produced abroad. Competing "with the stuff that's coming from China that also says it's green is near impossible," Beaton says. And outsourcing production overseas is out of the question. "The reason I do not produce my products in China is because any amount of 'green' that you put into a product is erased by shipping it to the U.S.," Beaton says.

Photo via Grow Books Press

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