My walk through the streets of Copenhagen to meet Bryan Traum at his sustainable living store took me through Ørstedsparken an urban oasis with lots of green and a large lake. I exited the park, onto the sidewalk of Nørre Farimagsgade, surrounded by a steady stream of walkers and cyclists as I was starting to feel confident in my ability to navigate the cycling crosswalks, an essential life skill in Copenhagen. When I arrived at the store, I found myself at an oasis of another sort that particularly appealed to my sensibilities. Greeted by a sign, EcoEgo: Sustainable Living Made Easy, I entered the store that offered an aesthetic that immediately created a sense of calm that I welcomed having left the busy street.
I saw that same sense of calm in Bryan’s face when he acknowledged my arrival with a nod as he was engaged with a handful of customers. I would later learn that this type of engagement is central to his vision for his business and work for a sustainable future. In the meantime, I had a chance to walk around the store and peruse some of it its offerings. I saw a wide range of items that immediately appealed to my own idea of sustainable living such as reusable utensils and straws, sustainable cleaning supplies, and organic clothing and personal care items. When Bryan was free, he greeted me with a smile and suggested that we head out to a local cafe for coffee and a bite to eat where we could also sit and talk.
As we set across from each other with our cafe lattes and organic flatbreads in front of us, I was curious to know Bryan’s story; his vision, what motivates that vision, and the challenges that he faces. I learned that when Bryan was growing up in central New Jersey he came upon an illustrated children’s book, Dar Tellum: Stranger from a Distant Planet written in 1974 by James R. Berry. Its main character, a young boy named Ralph receives telepathic communications from Dar Tellum an alien on another planet. The reader soon learns that Ralph’s father is a scientist trying to prevent flooding due to global warming caused by the atmospheric accumulation of CO2 released from cars and factories, a relatively novel idea for 1974. Ralph receives from Dar Tellum a potential solution to sequester CO2, prevent warming, and put a halt to the flooding. Afraid to tell his father that he learned this from his new alien friend, Ralph offers this solution to his father explaining that it came to him in a dream. His father then uses this information to save the planet from catastrophic flooding due to climate change.
This foretelling story of a dreamer saving the planet was part of what set Bryan on his path towards creating better world; a journey as an educator, entrepreneur, and activist who would ultimately provide opportunities for others to live a more sustainable life. Bryan started his 25 years of training as a geographer in the area of sustainable land use and natural resource management, and working with green lifestyle, nature conservation and sustainability at Penn State University a place with which I am very familiar as a life-long Pennsylvania. When he made his own commitment to green and ethical living he found it a challenge to find products that would allow him to do so. This led to him opening his first green lifestyle store with some friends in the Penn State area in 1995. Then while traveling in Hawaii, Bryan met a Danish woman who would become his wife, and then decided to move his dream to Copenhagen.
While in Copenhagen, Bryan continued his graduate studies specializing in sustainable resource consumption. Seeing green lifestyle as the way forward, in 2008 Bryan opened Copenhagen’s first sustainable lifestyle store, EcoEgo – Green Living Made Easy, as a way to further his dream of creating a healthy and safe world by making it easy to shop green and sustainably. Brian explained that the name combines the prefix “eco” connoting things like ecological and environmental with the word “ego” or the part of a person that is conscious and thinks allowing a them to respond to and act in the surrounding physical and social world. This name reflects Bryan’s goal of not just providing products for sustainable living, but also providing information about these products for the thinking consumer. From its inception, EcoEgo had become an outlet for Bryan’s determination to use his ever growing knowledge and experience in the area of sustainable living to identify and make available a wide-assortment of environmentally friendly and socially responsible products. The store however, moves very much beyond the “eco” in its consistency with broader sustainability objectives.
The physical store is located on the periphery of the city center near the university, business and touristic centers, as well as residential neighborhoods. With the stated goal of “green living made easy”, EcoEgo features a wide range products for use in the home and office such as clothing and accessories; cleaning products and personal care; items for bed and bath, paper and office supplies, and for what many of us see as a vital need – chocolate and coffee. All are selected to meet the criteria of being either fair trade, resource saving, environmentally friendly, certified organic, vegan, natural products, made from recycled materials or otherwise produced with respect for animals and people. Recognizing that we spend 1/3 of our lives in bed, Bryan opened up a separate show room offering organic mattresses and accessories. They also have an online store furthering expanding consumer access.
As we chatted it became clear that Bryan’s commitment moves well beyond the products sold in his store. First and foremost, Bryan sees his store as an education and networking center for sustainable living; though he refers to himself as an ecogeek, he, his staff and others with whom he networks really are ambassadors for sustainable living. He thinks of his EcoEgo family as a group of “fiery souls” who are passionate about the possibility of a more sustainable world with each offering specific areas of expertise or “superpowers” as he calls them. He also offers a variety services to help individuals, companies, organizations, and institutions to be more sustainable. These include workshops, lectures, training and consulting services. His operation of the physical and online stores is also consistent with sustainability principles. Since opening they have and have consistently made efforts to minimize their negative footprint while maximizing their positive impact. EcoEgo has been a carbon free partner with Carbonfund.org, through which they either buy energy from renewable sources, or offset any carbon from fossil fuel sources of energy they consume including all transport. They use only recycled paper and non-toxic printed materials; energy-saving electrical products and lighting; and water saving fixtures. Orders are shipped in recycled packaging and they have an active recycling program.
When asked about what drives his passion, Bryan responded that he was motivated by his desire to create a better world, and when it really comes down to it, his passion starts with family, creating a better future for his child, or at a minimum to provide opportunities to not make the planet worse for future generations. Bryan recognizes this as a very personal passion, but also that the solutions move beyond personal because of an urgent need to work together and act now. This is reflected in Bryan’s desire to make readily available information about the environmental, health, and social impacts of the manufacture, use, and potential discard of everyday products; essentially to significantly contribute to a growing movement of sustainably informed consumers. This why his greatest joy is to be in the store to talk to costumers and create a dialog about the products he sells, and why he is less interested the growth model of expanding into a chain or relying solely on internet sales. Whether it is through this type of interaction or through his teaching and consulting beyond EcoEgo, Bryan at heart is an educator and activist hoping to transform the way we approach consumption by providing accurate information about products.
Barriers and Solutions
As we picked at the crusts of our flatbread and sipped our coffee, I asked Brian to talk about the barriers that confront him and his thoughts on potential solutions. He began with describing some systemic problems by making the case that we have not been honest with ourselves in thinking that consumption of material goods leads to true happiness. He argued that this is a lie we tell ourselves when in reality it comes from a culture of greed, disregard of the environment and people; and that it does not lead to happiness. It is lie perpetuated by big business with their enormous marketing efforts. This is a real barrier to sustainability, but it can be overcome when we make ethical choices about the things we really need. However, this becomes a challenge with the proliferation of greenwashing, a term coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986, that refers to the practice of making an unsubstantiated or misleading claim about the environmental benefits of a product, service, technology or company practice.
One solution to the barrier of greenwashing is through product certification programs that certify that the product meets specific environmental and health standards, and more broadly human rights violations by the companies that make them. However, these certification programs have their limits. Often the certification processes are time consuming and costly limiting the ability of smaller businesses to participate, and example of this is organic certification of farms in the US which was co-opted by larger food corporations and is now a challenge for small, locally based farms to obtain and maintain that certification. Also, when certifying products, the entire supply chain from cradle to grave is not always considered. Bryan told me about Nodic Swan the official Ecolabel of the Nordic countries with multinational government support. However, he went on to call them into question given that they have certified petroleum jelly based on its purity regardless of the fact that it is by product from fossil fuel extraction, is not renewable and may have potential health risks for its users.
Bryan addresses greenwashing and potential problems with certification by researching products on his own and sharing that information with his customers. His goal is goal is to educate those who are seduced by and find complacency in greenwashing; to get them to transition away from the “belief over best decision” in choosing products particularly because those beliefs are created through billion-dollar marketing efforts.
Finally, I asked Bryan how we might scaleup his model of sustainable product choice, more informed consumption, and move beyond mere greenwashing. He responded despairingly that no one is stepping up in a leadership role to accomplish this. One way he suggested is that governments can hold companies responsible for providing accurate product information, but governments feel more pressure from corporations than they do from their constituents. Given that governments and for the most part corporations are not likely to change on their own, he argues that the people must demand change from both. It is left to the consumer to demand sustainable products and accountability; to use the power of the purse to influence companies and politicians and to show that we mean it by making the tough decisions and ethical decisions when we shop. Bryan has dedicated himself to provide consumers accurate information about products so that they can make decisions that will ultimately cause businesses and politicians to change. This movement can grow when shops like his move beyond a model of competition, and begin to share product information, create a culture of information-based ethical consumption, and in so doing begin to empower individuals to make real sustainable change.
- Update: It is with great sadness that since this post, The Covid-19 pandemic and the introduced shutdowns have unfortunately hit Eco Ego hard and has been forced to file for bankruptcy, resulting in the closing of this store. We will keep this post up as Brian’s story is truly inspirational. I will continue to follow Brian’s journey and and will report on the next chapter in the life and work of this important changemaker.