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Business of the Month: A Sustainable Village, 318 East 9th Street and 50 University Place

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It’s rare to come across a store with a mission that benefits humanity. It’s even rarer to find one that sticks with that mission even though, were it accomplished, it would drive the store out of business. But that’s exactly the case with our April Business of the Month, A Sustainable Village at 318 East 9th Street at Second Avenue, and at 50 University Place between 10th and 9th Street — a remarkable store that aims to educate the public in the ways of low- and zero-waste consumption. Treating each transaction as a small step toward changing lifestyles, communities, and industries, this store’s ambition is nothing short of averting a planetary environmental apocalypse.

The story of A Sustainable Village begins, in a limited sense, with its launching in the East Village a few years ago by Em Hynes and her then-partner Jaclyn Roster. The idea for the store, however, can be traced back several decades, through several junctures along the way that shaped Em’s views on consumption and waste.

Em was born in what was once Cambodia but is now Southern Vietnam, where, as a Khmer Krom, she belonged to an ethnic minority. As a little girl, during the late 1980s, she lived in a refugee camp, where she would spend weekend afternoons in a landfill with other kids, hunting for plastic bags, a precious commodity that could be sold for the price of half a piece of candy. During this period, her family used a single bar of soap for all cleaning needs and reused disposable containers until they broke apart and had to be recycled. Em’s family members survived their journey out of their homeland and immigrated to the United States, where Em grew up, pursued an education, and embarked on a career in the fashion industry that lasted for a couple of decades. This period coincided with the rise of fast fashion and with a more general trend towards single-use convenience products. This trend spread so far as to insinuate itself into her family home, where her frugal mother began using laundry detergent pods to save herself, one supposes, the trouble of measuring to the amount appropriate for a laundry load.

The amount of waste that Em saw all around did not sit well with her; and this turned her into a more conscientious consumer, especially when, after becoming a mother, she started confronting products like disposable diapers and fruit squeeze pouches that would long outlast the life of her newborn child. Em also began to feel, however, that her own lifestyle choices or even those of friends whom she might influence hardly stacked up against the enormity of the challenge. Inspired to do more, she spent time researching with her friend Jaclyn the possibility of launching their own low-waste product line and discovering the many challenges that such an endeavor would entail. And then the pandemic hit.

The various business meetings that Em and Jaclyn held around town may not have led to a product launching, but they did unexpectedly lead the two to pursue a different kind of low-waste-oriented business venture. The many empty storefronts that they noticed with dismay as they made their way along half-deserted streets to their meetings inspired them to open a store! Beyond addressing the retail crisis by eliminating a vacant storefront, a retail space would offer an opportunity to bring attention to low-waste products and to educate the community on consumer choices that might lead to a more sustainable lifestyle. And so, with this idea of promoting progress, not perfection, they opened A Sustainable Village.

One of the main components of the store is a refillery, which helps you do away with cleaning product packaging waste once and for all. You just bring an empty container (or buy one) and fill it with the liquid soap or detergent of your choice. As an alternative, the store also stocks solid shampoo and conditioner bars, which provide another way of cutting down on packaging and shipping waste.

Beyond the refillery, the store also offers a wide and growing range of products, most of which offer the possibility of replacing less sustainable counterparts. Unpaper towels, for instance, are attractive, reusable paper towel alternatives.

Other items include bamboo toothbrushes, composting accessories, ziplock back substitutes, non-plastic highlighters, reusable straws and cups for on-the-go coffee, tea, or bubble tea, reusable toiletry travel containers, and adorable, reusable dryer balls.

This last product takes the place of laundry sheets. You just add a few drops of an essential oil of your choice and throw the ball in the dryer. We tried it, and our clothes have never smelled so fresh!

The pursuit of a more sustainable world through the widespread adoption of low-waste alternative products has instilled an expansionist logic into the business model of A Sustainable Village. The more locations the store has, the more communities it can reach, and the greater its impact. With this in mind, Em, now the sole proprietor of the store, decided to open a second store last year. The location, on University Place, sees far more foot traffic than the original store — a great advantage when your hope is to increase exposure to the alternatives you offer. The new store also reaches a different population that includes plenty of students. Students may not be the best customers — the few inclined to clean anything at all seem to arrive supplied with a semester’s worth of products — but they offer a tantalizing target with long term impacts for Em’s sustainability gospel.

Em would like to have a store (or for there to be a low-waste store like hers) in every neighborhood in town. She has had to reconcile this desire for expansion, however, with her limited resources and with the numerous challenges associated with running even her existing storefronts. Still, Em recognizes that her stores have already had a substantial impact. For one, they have thus far sold over 25,000 refills. But beyond total impact, Em has, as she explains it, come to acknowledge the power of incremental change. Says Em:

It’s OK if people are doing just one thing. If a customer comes in and fills in just one dish soap, I always try to get people to do more. But then I realize, you know, if they do one dish soap, that is more than most people in New York City. So that’s incredible. And I have learned to appreciate, while they may be small steps — and they are small steps — it is impactful and meaningful for them, and it’s impactful and meaningful for the whole community if you add every single use that they’re swapping out.

Em’s appreciation of any level of commitment to low-waste alternatives stems from a recognition that, without them, she would never be able to compete with the Unilevers of the world and with the convenience and low-cost that they can offer. Ironically, she also fears that, should low-waste preferences become pervasive, a multinational will enter the market and drive her out of business. Asked whether that wouldn’t be a good thing, Em hesitates, before agreeing that it would be a very good thing, a lost battle, but a won war.

Because we’re nowhere near there (yet), however, we are thrilled to name A Sustainable Village our April 2024 Business of the Month.

What special small business would you like to see featured next? Just click here to nominate our next one. Thank you! #shoplocalnyc

Here is a map of all our Businesses of the Month:

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