ARTS Winner Allan Palecek on Being 'Green'
This year’s ARTS Academy of Achievement winner, Allan Palecek talks candidly about sustainability marketing.
 
Allan Palecek
Allan Palecek

Residential Lighting: Palecek has long marketed “green” products. How did your company get started?

Allan Palecek: Early on, we specialized in handcrafted product. We started out by seeking out interesting, mostly natural materials. The start is sustainable. We’re not cutting big acreages of old-growth hardwood. In fact, it has always been wood that’s fairly accessible. It might be bamboo, rattan, or willow — all of which regrows very quickly. Then, all of a sudden, “sustainable” became popular. Organic foods, “save the Earth” — it all started to bubble up and be a focal point. So we were happy to put up a banner and explain that this is not made by machine. It isn’t produced with an extruder. It isn’t an oil byproduct. It grows naturally.

RL: What progress has been made?

AP: It was starting to be talked about in the industry among different councils. But when the recession fell on us, the emphasis went away. It became more about sustaining the business as opposed to promoting banana plants or rattan vines. Many felt that, to stay in the marketplace, they had to bring price points down. When you do that, oftentimes you say, “What’s cheaper?” Something mass-produced and maybe not as environment-friendly. There has been some progress among the younger generation. But when it gets into the bigger stores, I don’t hear them talking about it and doing as much as we were doing in ’06, ’07 and ’08. Being sustainable doesn’t necessarily come with a cheaper price point. People didn’t advertise so much in ’09 and ’10, so the message got postponed.

RL: Did Palecek experience any backlash to its sustainable stance?

AP: Yes. We’ve requested that vendors overseas use plantation wood. Sure enough, some sharp guy comes along and asks, “How do you know that your vendor actually went out and cut the right tree? Were you there?” Well, no, I wasn’t there on the scene. I don’t know that they didn’t switch some logs around on the truck. So, yes, it’s easy to poke holes in your story. You’re using wood cut in the middle of who knows where. What about that paint? Did you test every gallon, or did you have to take some people’s word for it? It’s hard to sign an affidavit saying something is 100-percent certified. But at least we ask whether or not the wood is plantation. We insist on a certain amount of paperwork from our vendors. And we’re not backing away.

RL: What can other companies learn from your approach?

AP: The biggest lesson everybody should learn is to be aware and ask questions. “Where did this came from? Where are you pouring your raw materials, your residue, your factory waste? Where does it go again?” If nobody asks questions at the source, we’re probably not going to get volunteered answers. So ask, “Where does this wood come from?” Then the vendor knows somebody is concerned. If the consumer asks us for the wood species, we can come up with a certificate quickly. Just having a level of awareness at the buyer level and at the purchasing level is key.

RL: Final thoughts?

AP: Unfortunately, the brainwash is still about price point and what’s on sale. That seems to always come first and not about what the product is made of. Unless there is some significant monetary gain for somebody to buy sustainable product, unless they see that gain immediately, sustainable marketing happens slowly. But we all just have to keep at it. And if we do, we’ll see more marked progress.

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