Sustainable products, sustainable business in Minneapolis

  • Article by: TODD NELSON , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 8, 2013 - 2:00 PM

Ryan and Tina North are planning to open a St. Paul location of Moss Envy, their retail store that offers organic mattresses and other “eco products.”

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Tina and Ryan North own Moss Envy, which features eco-friendly products. The Twin Cities actors met while performing in the long-running “Tony and Tina’s Wedding.”

Photo: JIM GEHRZ • jgehrz@startribune.com,

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Offering a variety of sustainable “eco products” helps Ryan and Tina North build a growing, sustainable business at Moss Envy, their shop near Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis.

Instead of stocking mostly gifts or knickknacks, the store holds a department store-like range of products, including organic mattresses, beds and bedding, bath and body products, baby gear and, of course, some gifts.

Everything at Moss Envy fits into one or more categories, Ryan North said: recycled, reclaimed, natural, organic sustainable, vintage, energy- or water-saving or fair trade. Many products are the work of local artists, designers and craftspeople.

The Norths also attribute much of Moss Envy’s growth to customer service that emphasizes education about environmentally conscious products instead of judgment. Moss Envy also avoids the hippy or high-end extremes that could scare off some shoppers.

‘Mainstream face’

“We present a mainstream face,” Ryan North said. “We want anyone to be able to walk into our store. You might not have any sustainable mind-set but you can come in and find that our products are useful and attractive and at a fair price.’’

Said Tina North: “I’ve gone a few places where the mission was similar and felt like somebody was looking at me very ‘judgy.’ That’s horrible because that’s not going to encourage people to want to live this way.’’

The combination of variety and customer service has helped Moss Envy’s sales grow at least 20 percent a year since the Norths opened the store in 2010. The store’s continued growth has the Norths actively looking for a building and financing so they can open a St. Paul location in 2014 and considering possible sites outside the Twin Cities for additional stores.

Shoppers come from farther away — the Dakotas, Michigan, even Canada — to check out Moss Envy’s organic mattresses for children and adults. (Although they also could shop online at the store’s website.) “There’s no one like us in the Upper Midwest that has a dedicated showroom of organic mattresses,” Ryan North said. “It’s nice to be that kind of magnet.”

Moss Envy’s growth earned recognition over the summer as Tina North received the Expanding Business Award from WomenVenture, the St. Paul-based nonprofit that supports women-owned businesses with microloans, working capital, education and consulting services. Tina North has been a WomenVenture client since she took a class on writing business plans there. The nonprofit provided financing in addition to consulting with the Norths.

Moss Envy is the latest venture into “eco-entrepreneurship” for the Norths. In 2006, they launched Re Gifts, a small boutique in south Minneapolis that featured sustainable gifts made from reclaimed items, many of which Tina North produced herself. They expanded to the Uptown neighborhood in Minneapolis in 2007, opening Twin Cities Green, a larger retail shop that featured furniture, home goods and mattresses. (To cut costs, they folded Re Gifts into Twin Cities Green when the recession hit.)

The Norths relocated and rebranded three years ago, moving to their present location and relaunching the store as Moss Envy. The move came as they attracted a growing number of return customers and benefited from heightened awareness in the marketplace of sustainable and health-conscious products.

Their retail exploits marked a career transition for the pair, who previously worked as stage and commercial actors and still occasionally continue to perform, direct and teach theater. They met in 1999 while working and performing in “Tony and Tina’s Wedding,” the long-running local theatrical production.

Regular Moss Envy shoppers Tim Graff and Jalynn Graff of Bloomington said they like shopping for a variety of sustainable products in one place instead of searching for them online. Their young sons sleep on organic mattresses from Moss Envy.

“They’re not pushy at all,” Tim Graff said of the Norths and their employees. “They just lay out the information and let you choose. Some people who live that lifestyle can look down on you but I’ve never gotten that vibe from them. They have great customer service and that puts them at the forefront.”

The expert says: Katy Burke, the former WomenVenture consultant who worked with the Norths, said their success has come in part from watching their finances and carefully tracking sales and expenses.

“They have used best practices in planning, financial management, inventory and personnel,” said Burke. “To me, entrepreneurs like that are few and far between. They’re constant learners, so they’re open to new ideas and new ways.”

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