Angela Topp opened her first Tree Huggers
in August of 2010 in Holland. The earth-friendly, no-waste retail store there, she says, had the same response when it first opened as when she opened her Grand Rapids branch in East Hills (947 Wealthy St. SE) this summer.
"[Customers are] a little hesitant at first, thinking that we may try to convert them to veganism or have them join Greenpeace," she says, "but they usually get excited once they look around. I think I get more hugs and 'thanks for opening up' than your average business."
What Tree Huggers provides consumers is different. It's a very conscientious form of environmentalism. Topp investigates each product in her store. She is weary of anything that contains ingredients the average person can't pronounce. She uses local companies and artists, and many of the products she sells are made from recycled items -- like a toothbrush made from yogurt cups and toys made from milk jugs. It's important to her that everything is made from the safest materials. She talks about finding cleaning products with full ingredient disclosure. "If it's good for you, it's good for the environment," she says.
But Tree Huggers is meant to be more than just a store.
"The store is the front of something bigger," she says. "It's really the educational facet that we have behind the scenes."
They have free recycling at the store. There are certain items you can bring in that they will take care of for you. They know what to do with hard-to-recycle materials. They can help you learn how to compost. It's a community, she says, that expands broader than selling.
Topp says she's been concerned about the environment for a long time, starting with animal rights. She became interested in knowing which companies tested their products on animals or contained animal ingredients. She quickly became a vegetarian, committing to sourcing local foods and trying to live as green as she could.
"I was met with a lot of frustration," she recalls. "Oftentimes, if I had to buy something, I had to get it online. [In Holland], I opened the store not really knowing how many green people there were in the area or how many people would come to the store and appreciate it. I was pleasantly surprised."
Topp is a huge advocate of vermicomposting
, which is composting indoors, using worms. The worms, called red wigglers, do not like light. They are happy being placed in a container and feeding on waste. Topp can teach you what to put in, and can even order you worms from a local source.
"When I started composting, that was basically the path to the store," she says. "I had to order everything on Amazon. My worms showed up and I just sat there. I was so worried I was going to kill the worms and that it would smell. I wished there was somebody I could talk to. The idea for Tree Huggers started as a consultation where I could help someone with their composting or recycling."
So, if you're interested in greening your life, stop by. Browse candles, bags, dinnerware, clothes, toys, bath and body and cleaning products, and ask Topp all your questions. If she doesn't know the answer, she'll find someone who does.
And don't start greening by doing too many things at once, she says. Don't get overwhelmed. "Do what you know you'll actually do, changes you know you can for sure make, and start there," she says. "Like bringing your own grocery bags to the store. Start recycling… A lot of research is available to you, it's just tapping into it. And now that I'm so far into [living green], it is really easy to do, and I can say that it all started one step at a time."
Tree Huggers is only 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Mon-Thurs., 10a.m.-5 p.m., Friday and Saturday. For more information, call 616-502-4016 or visit them here
or on Facebook
J. Bennett Rylah is the Managing Editor of Rapid Growth Media.