Monday, May 17, 2010

pur alternatives; finally taking the guesswork out of ingredient list

Moving back to Halifax has proven to be a bit challenging with finding natural, synthetic-free products. Although I *knew* I was spoiled with a province where being "hippie" and "green" has been the rage for quite a few years now (ahem, BC) I wasn't quite prepared for the absolute lack of knowledge regarding ingredient and product lists. Quick example- lady at Planet Organic assured me that Dr. Hauchka was synthetic-free "because their product video told us so". Right.

Which is why I am very excited about "pur alternatives", a beautiful local store that has opened in Halifax. Although they have encountered some difficulties recently (like being told they couldn't put up their promo posters in the mall because it was offending other retailers (ahem, hair salons who SELL the crap), they are beautiful souls and Halifax needs them. They have extremely stringent rules regarding product ingredients and environmental footprint that they carry- which takes the guess work out! Anyhoo, they can tell it better than I:

1. As a relatively new Halifax Natural Product store, what prompted you (Stephanie) and Chris to open pur alternatives?

SK: It all started when we started researching products and what they contained just for our own use. I was trying to cut the chemicals out of every aspect of my life. I found that it was just too overwhelming to figure out what every ingredient was and if it was safe...that was when I had the 'light bulb' moment: What if somebody had done all this work for me and there was a store I could get all the safe products without having to worry about understanding everything on the ingredient label or greenwashing? This was the birth of pur alternatives.
CG: Another factor though - and probably the one that had us working together on pur alternatives - was that I, as a geologist had been spending a lot of time away from home; and as much as I enjoyed the work, it was making it hard to settle down. We'd been discussing raising a family but we weren't able to do that with me away so much. So I took the concept of opening pur alternatives as my opportunity to be home with Stephanie and move into that next phase of our lives (which of course also led to the birth of our baby, Ava)
2. Halifax (I have found) can be a bit tricky when it comes to availability of natural 'eco' products and openness to change. What sorts of things have you found difficult in the past year while getting your space up and running?

2) A big obstacle for us was sourcing the right products. We'd be searching the other 'natural' stores, and we were noticing that the 'safe' products were few and far between on the stores' shelves and almost always mixed amongst the products that still contained a few (or lots of) not-so-safe ingredients, and some kinds of products simply weren't available at all. So it ended up taking a lot of searching (including a lot on the internet) to find truly safe products that encompassed the essentials.

Of course once we found enough to start with, the next obstacle proved even more challenging; getting access to the resources to open pur alternatives. As it turns out, all those 'incentives' being offered to new businesses with green initiatives aren't as available as they let on. For example, there is no support for retail start-ups. And if you've still got student debt hanging over your head you can forget about it. Obviously we did end up getting what was needed to open pur alternatives, but it was a combination of a lot of luck, big credit cards, and being very annoying with a good banker. And we still operate on a skeleton budget.

And even once we got up and running it has been taking some time in convincing people why we would operate on such a strict commitment to ingredients. There are customers who don't understand why the items they find in the "organic" section of the grocery store aren't as natural as they think. There are always fellow businesses who feel we are cutting ourselves off at the knees by being so strict. These mindsets are by no means limited to Halifax, but preconceived notions can always go any number of ways, and as much as we've developed (and continue to do so) a loyal following who appreciate our policies, there are plenty others out there that just don't get it.

3. Your company states so pretty firm guidelines around product selection: What guidelines and 'rules' do you follow when choosing to offer a product or company?

It takes some understanding but by thoroughly reviewing the ingredient lists we can wean out the good companies from the ones who are only going halfway pretty quickly. Before carrying any product or product line we request full ingredient lists. If, for some reason, this is not provided, then we won't even consider the product for pur alternatives. We pick out all the synthetic ingredients (which are often contaminated) or the irritating ones and if they're present, those products aren't allowed on our shelves. Secondary to that is a company's overall policies on the ingredients they use.

Household cleaning products are not always required to give full ingredient lists; in these cases the exact formulation is generally classed a 'trade secret.' Some words used that you may have seen (that actually don't tell you what the ingredient is) are "plant-based surfactant" or "naturally derived" (to name just a few). And with some, it takes a bit of knowledge on how certain ingredients are derived, how they can get contaminated, and how stable they are ("urea", for example can be entirely natural, but when combined with water, it breaks down and releases formaldehyde). So it can be difficult; but it's also important to note that neither of us are chemists or toxicologists. The information is available - it just requires patience and dedication to making sense of it sometimes. In the end, product safety is always the top concern but in addition to that we look for sustainability and where possible, locally made.
4.I notice you don't carry some well known lines of natural products- why is that?

Many of the more well-known "natural" brands are only going halfway with their formulations (i.e., using some good ingredients and then using suspect or harmful emulsifiers, surfactants, and preservatives). Some of them are actually subsidiary's of larger corporations (for example, still not many people realize this, but since several years ago, Tom's of Maine has been a subsidiary of Colgate-Palmolive; similarly, Burt's Bees became a subsidiary of Clorox). So it goes without saying that we need to be careful who we align ourselves with.  

Ultimately though, it's about the ingredients; if those brands aren't going as pure and natural as we are, we won't sell their products. (Lisa-why I love this store!)

5. What do you see as the 'next steps' in pur alternative's future? What would be on your wishlist? 

We are currently trying to develop the education side of pur alternatives. We are hoping to make a few workshops and talks available in the near future, as well as expand the resources available in-store. Likewise accessibility of non-toxic products continues to be a concern, therefore one thing we'd like to be able to provide are additional locations. 

6. Over the past year of being in business, what has brought you the most joy (perhaps unexpectedly?) 
CG: For me there are two: One is return customers, who come back every time telling us how much they love our products. And the other is brand recognition: meeting new people out there who have heard of pur alternatives, and already know what we stand for.
SK: In addition to what Chris has already mentioned, I distinctly remember seeing the store 100% put together just before we opened our doors, and seeing in reality the exact image I had had in my mind's eye: that was a joy!
From Thursday until Saturday (May 20th-22nd) pur alternatives is having a "toxic product" swap! Bring in an old icky, chemical filled product and they will swap it for a clean green one (40% off!). Ridiculously awesome and fantastic for our community.

Go check them out!



  1. This is so wonderful! I don't think there is a place like this near my home--we have our hippie organic grocery, but I still scrutinize every label. (As you might imagine, I am a champion label-reader--animal products are everywhere!) As a result, and because it's so much cheaper, Red makes a lot of our cleaning supplies. It's incredible what you can do with vinegar, baking soda, Dr. Bronner's, and an old sponge. And you gave me the idea to add tea tree oil to my vinegar-and-water yoga mat wash!

  2. @ Vegan Burnout: the store is online as well, and we are more than willing to answer questions via email

  3. I so wish I didn't have to travel so far for stores like this! We have them in Ohio, but I can't visit on even a weekly basis! My trip to Asheville convinced me that at some point I need to move to a community that is sustainable, supports local and progressive in their thinking. For now, I just connect with like-minded people (like you) through my blog, and do the best I can with what I have available to me ;-) So glad you just got one step closer in Halifax!
    Blessings . . .


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