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Four Inspiring Eco-Entrepreneurs From the South

Change starts from the ground up. That’s the attitude of these four innovative entrepreneurs who are looking beyond the bottom line to build community.

mobile farmers market

If you live in the city gridlock, it’s often hard to make it to the farmer’s market. But if you live in Richmond, Va., Mark Lilly will bring it to you. Lilly is the owner of Farm to Family, a business he runs out of a 1987 school bus that’s been converted to look like a country store on the inside. At the beginning of the week, Lilly drives out to small farms in central Virginia and fills the bus with locally grown fresh fruits and veggies. Then he spends the rest of the week taking his mobile market to different spots in Richmond’s busy urban areas. He’s been at it for less than a year, but brisk business proves Lilly is on to something. He provides the missing link for those who feel stuck with corporate grocery options.

“I just bought some vegetables and hit the road,” Lilly says. “I didn’t know what was going to happen, but the response has been overwhelming.”

The son of small family farmers, Lilly worked in the restaurant business for two decades, doing stints as a manager in New York City and California. After getting married, he decided to settle down in Richmond, where he enrolled in a master’s program at the University of Richmond to study disaster science and emergency management.

Farm to Family: Lilly’s mobile farmers’ market is a converted school bus. Lilly gathers fresh produce from farms across central Virginia, and then sells the produce in urban centers that often lack access to local food.

“I learned about how our current food system is set up, and it disgusted me,” he says.

Lilly sells local produce—and a recent addition of Joel Salatin’s Polyface meats—at eight regular weekly stops. Lilly needs the reliable crowds in The Fan and Maymont Park to pay the bills, but he also parks in low-income neighborhoods like Highland Park, where he becomes more of an educator than a grocer.

“I’m trying to make people more food secure and energize the next generation,” he says.

Lilly says he can’t keep up with the current demand. He’s also getting calls from people in cities around the country inquiring about copying his business model. His answer: feel free.

This summer, he and his wife will begin eating straight off their bus for a full calendar year.

Matt Mahler uses discarded bicycle inner tubes to create upscale travel bags.

bags from bike scraps

With a little perseverance, Matt Mahler has turned a nighttime hobby designing new products with reusable materials into a thriving independent business. Mahler is the owner of Tierra Ideas, which makes high-quality messenger and travel bags out of recycled bike inner tubes.

Mahler, who still works as a full-time air quality engineer for the state of North Carolina, was inspired while visiting his sister at Earthaven Ecovillage, an intentional community located across the state in Black Mountain. There he visited a building constructed entirely out of wood from recycled apple crates, and he immediately became fascinated with making products from reusable materials. Back home he bought a sewing machine on Craigslist and took lessons on threading the needle. Then he started experimenting with bike tubes in his garage for five frustrating months until he successfully made his first bag.

“When you take the time to experiment, it’s amazing what can be made out of what others consider garbage,” Mahler says.

His diligence has turned local bike shop scraps into a sleek line of urban bags. While many recycled products result in haphazard hippie arts and crafts, Tierra Ideas’ bags have a striking upscale style. The staple Piedmont Messenger and Laptop Bag mixes bike and tractor inner tubes and uses a a recovered auto seat belt as the shoulder strap.

“It’s exhilarating to take something that you know would have ended up in the landfill and turn it into something someone will pay for as a new product,” Mahler says.

He also recently made a deal with Delta Airlines to use their old airplane seat covers, which are usually discarded after only nine washes, for a new line of bags.

“After I put the kids to bed, I spend my nights sewing in the garage,” says Mahler. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s work that satisfies both my creative urge and my concern for the environment.”

organic mechanic

Fixing cars is a dirty business, but Charley Wilson doesn’t mind taking a few extra steps to clean it up. Wilson runs the Organic Mechanic—an innovative auto repair shop in West Asheville, N.C., that’s found ways to reduce the greasy grimy impact that comes with working under the hood.  Wilson relies especially on bioremediation—using naturally occurring organisms to clean up grease, oil, and other pollutants. His permeable concrete lot directs any runoff to a deep gravel bed where bacteria break down any remaining contaminants. He also has a strict recycling policy. Instead of an industrial-size dumpster, he only generates one residential garbage can of trash every two weeks. He even recycles oil, which is sent off to be re-refined so he can use it again.

“This is a business that constantly deals with contaminants, so my goal is to make sure they don’t get beyond my shop.”

Dirtball Fashions founder Joe Fox makes funky eco-apparel from recycled water bottles and local materials.

green-living dirtball

Joe Fox was sick of seeing jobs disappear from his native North Carolina, so he’s bringing them back, one recycled t-shirt at a time. Two years ago, Fox started Dirtball Fashion—an eco-friendly apparel company with products made solely in his home state. Fox spent 10 years as a professional race car driver. When he decided it was time to slow down, he found his calling from an old buddy, who made him a hat with the Dirtball logo. Soon Fox was getting constant inquiries about where he got it. From the response, he decided to go back home to Hickory and start a company that could help the local economy.

Dirtball’s funky t-shirts are made with 65-percent recycled cotton and 35-percent recycled polyester. The poly is made from recycled water bottles. For every 100,000 shirts that he produces, 400 tons of carbon emissions stay out of the air, 500 barrels of oil aren’t used, and seven full-time manufacturing jobs are saved.

The company’s yarn comes from Hickory, then travels to Lincolnton to be knitted. From there it goes to Granite Quarry to be assembled, and it’s screenprinted in Rockwell. The total travel distance of each shirt is only 140 miles. Dirtball also offers recycled poly shorts and hats.

“There used to be an abundance of textile industry jobs in the Southeast, but now my hometown has 15 percent unemployment,” Fox says. “If I can bring just a few of those back in a conscious way, it’s a step in the right direction.”

But he still has a long way to go, and he’s seen his fair share of roadblocks. Because his production costs are higher than most, tight margins have prevented him from getting into multi-chain retailers.

“This isn’t the easiest way to do business,” says Fox. “But it’s the right thing for our region, and on a bigger scale, the environment.” •

Misty Mountain
Misty Mountain makes all of their high-quality climbing harnesses in their own North Carolina textile facility. The company also only ships products with reused corrugated boxes from local retailers and suppliers.

Blue Water Ropes
Blue Water, which makes climbing ropes out of Carrollton, Ga., has had a strict recycling program since the 1970s, and now they have reduced process waste to less than half of one percent.

Green Label
Based out of Floyd, Va., Green Label makes 100-percent certified organic cotton shirts with cool designs printed with PVC-free inks.

Astral’s PFDs are handcrafted by paddlers on the banks of the French Broad River in Asheville, N.C. The company recently introduced a new line of “By-Products” made totally from factory scraps, including the Astropad dog bed made from leftover PFD foam.

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