As a surgical physician’s assistant specializing in breast reconstruction at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Orlando, Fla., Tammy Dragon has heard her share of questions about personal care products. Some women develop sensitivities to certain ingredients after chemotherapy or radiation. Others read up on potential links between synthetic compounds and increased cancer risk, and come to her for advice on natural alternatives that really work.
So when it came time to help her husband, Paul Dragon (an herbalist and personal trainer), create a personal care section at their new Sustain Natural Market in Apopka, Fla., Tammy didn’t take the task lightly.
“Seeing what I see every day, it just motivates me more than ever to promote products that are not made with any ingredients that may have negative health effects down the line,” she says.
Step into the 3,000-square-foot Sustain Natural Market, which opened on Earth Day 2010, and the Dragons’ deeply personal commitment to the health of people and the planet is reflected in everything from the building materials to the painstakingly selected products that grace the shelves. In creating the store’s sleek, industrial-looking interior, the Dragons used toxin-free paints and glues, recycled flooring and shelving, and cabinetry Paul built out of renewable wood. When choosing meat and produce suppliers, the Dragons prioritized local, sustainable, and chemical- and cruelty-free farms.
And when it came to selecting personal care products, they took a “minimalist approach,” limiting their selection to roughly a dozen companies that met their extremely strict criteria.
Careful product selection
Tammy sought out hard-to-find products like gluten-free lipstick; aluminum-free deodorant; organic tampons and pads made without bleach; and creams and lotions free of parabens, petrochemicals, artificial colors and potentially carcinogenic ingredients such as dioxins and sodium lauryl sulfate.
Then Paul raised the bar even higher. “I narrowed it down by calling all the companies whose products I liked and asking them not only ‘what’s in your product?’ but also ‘what kind of humanitarian or environmental issues are you involved in?’” says Paul, who collected information on everything from the manufacturers’ recycling policies and carbon footprints to ingredient-harvesting methods and corporate giving.
The information he gleaned was too valuable, and at times touching, for the Dragons to keep to themselves. So they went a step further, creating colorful placards throughout the personal care section (and ultimately the entire store), which read: “You can feel good about purchasing products from …
“ … Aubrey Organics because all products are 100 percent natural, with no petrochemicals of any kind, because they don’t introduce chemicals into our air and water, because they are made by people instead of machines.”
“ … Kiss My Face because they use solar power, saving 23.4 tons of CO2greenhouse gas from being emitted each year.”
“ … Himalaya Herbal because in the summer they help provide food for children who would otherwise go hungry, they donate school supplies, they provide financial support for survivors of domestic violence.”
“It is really emotional for people to find out the commitment to humanity that some of these companies have,” says Tammy. “We’ve had people tear up in the aisles. It’s incredible.”
Sampling and loyalty programs
Aside from choosing the right products and assuring their customers know why, Paul says the store’s regular sampling opportunities have also helped to make its personal care section a growing success. The store invites in cosmetic vendors, such as Tampa, Fla.-based Aubrey Organics, Houston-based Himalaya and Apopka, Fla.-based Coconut Clean, at least once a month for daylong demos, which are heralded a week in advance on the store’s lively Facebook page.
“On a demo day, we will do 60 percent more in sales for that line, and we continue to see sales for the coming week,” he says.
To encourage recycling, the store offers discounted refills on Escondido, Calif.-based Dr. Bronner’s soaps when customers bring in their own bottle.
And to foster repeat relationships with local companies, the store is working on a loyalty program with Florida-based manufacturers to offer customers a discount when they purchase their products.
Most importantly, says Tammy, the store’s small staff of four employees personally tries nearly all the personal care products they promote. “You need to have a staff that is passionate and educated and really uses these products,” she says. “That’s what customers are looking for.”
For Tammy, who has taken to working two jobs (at the hospital and in the store), Sustain Natural Market’s efforts to provide customers with the right products can make for some very long days. But it’s worth it, she says. “I finish in the operating room, and I can’t wait to get to the store to help more people.”