Retailer of the Year - Best Sustainable Business: Half Moon Outfitters leads the way in green building

Patagonia, Prana, REI, Timberland. There are a handful of companies in the outdoor industry that have become synonymous with being green. Founded in 1993, Half Moon Outfitters has gained a similar reputation for being a leader in sustainable business practices. A collection of eight specialty stores in South Carolina and Georgia, Half Moon Outfitters received the 2009 SNEWS®/Backpacker Retailer of the Year award for "Best in sustainable business."
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Patagonia, Prana, REI, Timberland. There are a handful of companies in the outdoor industry that have become synonymous with being green. Founded in 1993, Half Moon Outfitters has gained a similar reputation for being a leader in sustainable business practices. A collection of eight specialty stores in South Carolina and Georgia, Half Moon Outfitters received the 2009 SNEWS®/Backpacker Retailer of the Year award for "Best in sustainable business."

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In 2007, Half Moon made headlines by opening a 10,000-square-foot distribution center in North Charleston, S.C., that achieved Platinum LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification, the highest rating that the U.S. Green Building Council gives for a green facility. The first Platinum LEED building in South Carolina, that facility incorporated eco-friendly components such as solar panels, rainwater harvesting, salvaged wood, a highly efficient HVAC system, effective use of daylight and interior lights that react to motion sensors.

For Half Moon owner Beezer Molten, this significant investment in green building was partly a personal mission to follow in the footsteps of his father, an architect who, when Beezer was a boy, built their family home using solar panels. But the construction of the distribution center has caused a ripple effect that has greatly enhanced his business, changed the lives of his employees and improved communities surrounding Half Moon stores.

"The most important ripple effect is we give a number of tours of our distribution center to children and teen students and developers," Molten told SNEWS. "Having a building that is kind of a learning experience in its simplicity and the way it interacts with the natural world, it's fun to see how much people appreciate it." When we spoke to Molten, he was preparing to give a tour to 50 high school students from a South Carolina school. And he knows that when young people show up for the tour, he better be on his toes.

"We had a group of home-schooled kids, and they were so up on it. No other group has tested me on my facts as much as they did," he said.

Half Moon employees and outdoor manufacturers agree that the distribution center has raised awareness of sustainability in South Carolina and surrounding states. "There are many dealers in the Southeast who are making great choices in regards to the environment, and Half Moon is playing a major roll in bringing that vernacular to the forefront in the territory," said Matt Weaber, inside sales manager for Prana. "I certainly would say they influenced the industry in that territory to understand more about sustainability and being good environmental stewards."

While the North Charleston distribution center made a big splash, it was just the first stone cast into the pond, and the ripple effects are now seen in all Half Moon stores.

Eco ethics

Within the past two years, Molten has opened stores in Athens and Atlanta, Ga., which incorporate a variety of eco-friendly building materials. In Athens, Half Moon moved into a facility previously occupied by Charbon's Outfitters, and Molten bought out that store's assets and reused as many materials as possible, such as shelving. Molten said he also created fixtures out of locally harvested or sustainably harvested cedar and pine, which he uses in every store renovation.

"And we always use salvaged cash/wraps," he said. "Of our eight stores, at least half have salvaged cash/wraps. For the ones that aren't, we use Ecowood." A company in Mount Shasta, Calif., Ecowood manufactures retail displays made with wood from dismantled buildings as well as waste wood from other manufacturers. "It's some of the prettiest fixturing out there, made with old pine and fir," Molten added.

For the store located in the Virginia Highlands area of Atlanta, Half Moon brought in Ecowood fixtures as well as steel shelving. "By the U.S. Green Building Council's standards, steel is 64 percent recycled," said Molten.

The buildings in Atlanta and Athens are old structures that Half Moon leases, so Molten is limited in just how eco-friendly he can make them. However, Half Moon and 17 other businesses in Virginia Highlands formed an organization called The Corner, and in 2008 each business purchased carbon credits to offset their CO2 emissions. Antje Kingma, founder and CEO of Eco-Bella, an organic lifestyle store, led the effort to form The Corner.

"In part because of Half Moon and their stance on environmental concerns, I got the idea for our shopping district to become carbon neutral," said Kingma, adding that Brian Jolly, manager of the Half Moon store in Atlanta, was the first person to voice support.

According to Kingma, this is not only the first carbon-neutral retail zone in the country, but her research indicates it may be the first in the world. And other companies in the area are taking notice. "A number of businesses have approached us," said Kingma. "For example, a commercial real estate broker picked up the idea and turned his business carbon neutral. It is slow because of the economy, but it is having a ripple effect."

Five other Half Moon stores have offset their emissions through Prana's Natural Power Initiative. Launched in 2005, the initiative purchases green certificates based on wind power to offset the emissions of some 250 retail stores. For the remaining Half Moon stores, emissions are offset by credits purchased through Sterling Planet.

With the Natural Power Initiative, a retailer has to do little more than supply Prana its square footage and zip code. But Half Moon goes above and beyond to make each retail facility as efficient as possible.

In Mount Pleasant, S.C., Molten had a misting sprinkler installed on the roof of the Half Moon store, which occupies a building that was once a Napa auto parts store. "It mists every 20 to 30 minutes to keep the roof cool and damp so we don't bake in here, and the air conditioning unit doesn't have to work so hard," said store manager Amy Black.

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The Half Moon flagship store in Charleston, S.C., is located in an old movie theater, and Molten negotiated into the lease that the landlord would insulate the building to exceed codes, install an efficient HVAC system and install large windows to supply ample natural light. "Once the landlord bought into what we were doing, he go into it and asked if they were using the right kind of wood and things like that," said Molten.

"The interesting thing about the stores and their green elements is that a certain aesthetic is coming out of it," he said. "The cedar and raw steel are becoming our signature." In a very tangible way, Half Moon is developing a unique identity that is directly tied to green building. But this identity extends beyond the look and feel of the stores and exists in the values and actions of the employees.

Paying it forward

Staff members at the Half Moon store in Savannah, Ga., have become religious in their recycling efforts. "I was amazed to see their recycling center, and those employees have broken it down to exactly what you can and cannot recycle in that community," said Molten. "They have examples of each thing glued to the wall -- examples of No. 2 plastic versus No. 5 plastic. Basically, just making sure they get it right. I was impressed to see the level of detail, because that stuff is hard to keep straight."

Weaber of Prana was impressed by Half Moon's participation in a window display competition that Prana held two years ago to highlight the Natural Power Initiative. "We were amazed at the level of participation from our dealers, not only in terms of the number of dealers that participated, but the thoughtful effort that they put into their displays," said Weaber. "Half Moon really embraced the contest and clearly got their staff behind the idea. Half Moon's displays were very creative, professional and fun. Their hard work and enthusiasm for the competition was obvious."

He added, "The way they treat their staff, their vendors, their ethics and environmental stewardship, I feel like, in every aspect, they're doing business the right way. I've been working with them nearly 10 years, and they're one of our best partners in the industry."

Aside from participating in company projects, employees are also making changes in the way they live day to day. Black, the manager of the Mount Pleasant store, purchased a 1984 Mercedes diesel car to replace the gas-guzzling Chevy Tahoe that she and her husband inherited from family. "We thought a bio-diesel would be a good, affordable option for us," said Black, noting that Molten, who once had a Mercedes bio-diesel car, gave her his old tank to store bio-fuel at home.

"People gravitate toward Half Moon because they have these values, and they're doing things on their own," said Black. "I have an employee whose family only has one car, and he never uses it; he rides his bike or skateboards to the store."

Black moved to South Carolina from the Bay Area four years ago, and though it was a bit of a culture shock, she has stayed partly because of the opportunity to work for Half Moon. "I felt fortunate to find a company that shared my values as far as the environment goes. It was easy for me to love Half Moon, and I'm proud of the store's identity," she said.

Her feelings about the business may represent the greatest benefit in all that Molten has worked to build. Sure, some green construction techniques offer immediate, financial benefits, such as relatively low utility bills, but other things such as solar panels will not show a profit for five or seven years. The most important impact may not lie in the bottom line, but the mindset of employees, the business community and the visiting high school students who see Half Moon as a leader in sustainable development, rather than just a gear store.

"They're all intangibles, and it's hard to say how it affects your bottom line, but it feels right, and it seems we're staying true to our mission," said Molten. "It honestly feels more meaningful than it did five years ago."

--Marcus Woolf

Photo credit for Charleston, S.C., store: Wes Fredsell

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