Helping schools go green

For decades, children have hawked candy and cookie dough to friends and family to help fund extracurricular activities and school playgrounds.

Now a handful of entrepreneurs have set out to change that paradigm, offering ecologically friendly products for kids and parents to sell for school fund-raisers. From recycled wrapping paper to fair-trade coffee, the business owners are pitching the products as viable fund-raising alternatives for schools.

It’s good timing, as schools race to eliminate junk food in the face of rising childhood obesity rates, and state and local governments crack down on junk-food sales in schools. At the same time, green is in, and parents and teachers are paying more attention to energy use and pollutants.

Corinne Dowst, head of fund raising for the Parent Teacher Association at Henniker Community School in Henniker, N.H., says she was looking for new fund-raising ideas after her school’s disappointing holiday sale of ornaments and related items last year. Concerns about children’s products made in China helped put a damper on that sale, she says.

When Ms. Dowst saw an ad for Greenraising, a start-up fund-raising company that sells eco-friendly products, she was hooked. The school organized a spring sale around Earth Day, and circulated copies of the Greenraising catalog, which features such products as recycled gift-wrap paper and reusable water bottles. The result was the school’s most successful fund-raiser in nearly three years, grossing about $2,500, Ms. Dowst says.

To date, Greenraising has helped about 500 schools and nonprofits raise money, says Lisa Olson, who founded the Agoura Hills, Calif., company last year. The company asks schools or nonprofits to distribute its catalog, from which customers then buy directly. For an item that costs, say, $20, Greenraising keeps $12 and returns $8 to the school or nonprofit. The company has grown to five full-time employees, Ms. Olson says.

Kids hear conflicting messages in today’s complex society, Ms. Olson says, and too many school fund-raisers add to that confusion. ”We’re telling the kids about obesity and selling cookie dough,” she observes. ”We’re telling them about global warming, and they come home with this big catalog of wrapping paper with no recycled content.”

Some eco-friendly fund-raisers have come to another realization as well: It’s the parents who are taking on more of the fund raising – largely because of fears about their kids’ safety – and they’d rather buy and sell products that they want to use themselves.

”We learned whom we’re selling to – the kids’ moms,” says Corey Berman, president and co-founder of Green Students Fundraising Ltd., a Toronto-based company he started after graduating from college in 2006. ”My friends would never buy these products, but I talk to people like moms and it’s a different story.”

Green Students began by selling energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs. But as more mainstream retailers began offering them, Mr. Berman says, the company wasn’t able to compete on cost and knew it had to diversify. So, the company started selling stainless-steel water bottles, which got a lift from the recent outcry against bisphenol A, a chemical commonly found in plastic water bottles. Green Students also sells dryer balls, a reusable product that softens clothes while reducing drying time. The company, which relies on a focus group of area moms who test potential new products, became profitable in May. It uses catalogs to sell its goods and tries to keep prices under 20 Canadian dollars (about US$19.80).

One challenge these companies face is coming up with products that parents and friends will purchase year after year. Both Greenraising and Green Students say they plan to periodically change the items in their catalogs to keep them fresh, as well as offer products such as environmentally friendly household cleaners that consumers may want to purchase repeatedly.

”Every successful fund-raising company offers something that’s fairly low-priced and offers frequency of purchase,” says Tim Sullivan, founder of PTO Today, a Wrentham, Mass., magazine for parent-teacher organizations. ”Like gift wrap,” Mr. Sullivan says. ”Every family uses it.”

Lots of families also buy coffee, which is something that led eco-minded schools to contact Chris Treter, co-founder of Higher Grounds Trading Co., a fair-trade coffee roaster in Traverse City, Mich. Fair-trade coffee is a concept begun a few years ago by small producers that wanted to show consumers their coffee is produced under conditions beneficial to workers and the environment. Schools looking to incorporate lessons about the environment and labor standards will call and ask if they can purchase the coffee for a fund-raiser, Mr. Treter says.

Today, school and church fund-raisers represent about 10 percent of Higher Grounds’ business, Mr. Treter says, and that number is on the rise. So far, it’s mostly the organizations that have reached out to him. For no money upfront, he supplies coffee to the school or organization, which then sells it at retail prices. The seller then reimburses Mr. Treter at the wholesale price of the coffee.

For a company that’s not primarily in the fund-raising business, he says, the format is cumbersome. Higher Grounds has to come up with individualized order forms for each school to give to students, and explain the ordering process to teachers and administrators. ”It’s a lot more time-consuming than going into a grocery store that orders every two weeks,” Mr. Treter says.