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The Zero Point in Leslieville offers another kind of green to eco-minded Toronto homeowners

For Kay Valley, owner of The Zero Point, an eco product, renovation supplies and design centre in Leslieville, it all comes down to care and protection for people and the earth. Her interest in ethically, environmentally responsible products became so great that it usurped both her successful acting career (she had a roles in, among others, The Newsroom and Da Vinci's Inquest) and her law school ambition. As a consumer of all things organic and ethical, she waited patiently for her favourite Ottawa store, The Healthiest Home, to expand to Toronto. When that didn't happen she asked herself, "How hard can it be to start up a store?" She's spent the past two years learning just that.

With examples like The Healthiest Home and Grassroots as her business model, and with fair and ethical human rights as her guiding principle, Kay Valley is looking forward to growing her company with education, inspiration and integrity as its hallmarks. "I think back to when people were enslaved and wonder how could some let others suffer like that? And I also wonder if it were like that today what would I do? I feel like we're living in similar times; we're taking advantage with cheap goods and other people are paying a huge price for it. I don't want to take advantage of people, I don't want them to live in sub-standards and I really don't think it's my right to have every single thing I want just because I want it and I can buy it and other people have to suffer. And so that for me that's where it is and where it starts from."

In 2008 she and her husband, an IT specialist, took over a Queen St. East restaurant, transforming it into a storefront retail space for lifestyle, household and paint products with a building supply showroom and design centre in the back. With their own savings fuelling the business they took a year to renovate the space and were ready to open the doors in 2009. The Zero Point has a client base comprised of regular homeowners, architects, business owners and contractors. They come in to buy American Clay plaster, milk paints, breathable paints and paints that block off-gassing, and adhesives, sealants, insulation made from denim, lighting, paperstone counter tops, glass back splashes, reclaimed wood flooring and bamboo cupboards.

"It's so basic," says Valley, "In your home, even if you can't do anything else, you'll spend a few hundred dollars on paint. So if you have the option you really don't have to poison yourself and your kids every time you decide to change the colour of your walls."

Kay is the mother of two young children, and so chose a location close to home and to their schools. She plans to expand, possibly to Bloor West, but knows she first has to work out some growing pains in the primary location. "We had some problems with a contractor in the beginning that wasn't what he claimed to be, so that set us behind a bit," says Valley. Last year construction to replace water mains meant months of obstructed entrance to the store.  Profitable in its first year, Valley is hoping that the construction didn't take too much of a toll for the second. She and other area business owners took the proactive step of meeting with the Mayor and the local councilor, Paula Fletcher to try to postpone long-term construction on the streetcar tracks.

For now its business as usual. The Zero Point offers design and renovation consultations. Two employees, Katie and Maura, design for clients and then contractors are brought in to execute the work. Experts conduct workshops, like the American Clay tutorial, showing customers how to use the breathable plaster on their walls. The tutorials can be held at a clients' home, killing two birds with one stone; they learn along with everyone else, and what doesn't get finished in the workshop is completed for them. Valley also holds introductory events for architects and contractors to familiarize them with the various supplies and building materials. Her ideal scenario, and future plan which she sees about a year down the road, is to turn the entire store into a showroom to capture clients' imaginations about the beauty and affordability of greening their homes.

"There's still a learning curve. To inspire people you have to also educate them, show them both what is possible and how easy it is to do," says Valley.

All the steady success of The Zero Point has been mostly achieved by word of mouth. Valley's next move is to look for investors who will help fund marketing and social media efforts, her showroom vision, and eventually the expansion to other areas in the city.

Since Kay Valley's idea to open The Zero Point began with the question "how hard can it be," what is her advice to other small business hopefuls? "One, make sure to have lots of money," she says. "And two, love what you do because that will get you through the rough spots."

Although she began her store with the intention that it would feature lifestyle products, it eventually turned into a construction oriented one. "When customers ask us to consider carrying certain products we do the research and if it fits, we bring them in." That kind of personal service bodes well for The Zero Point and so does the fact that its owner is writing a book in what little spare time she has. The topic?  Everything she has learned about the eco-industry, how it all ties together with human rights to show that producing goods should not harm people's lives and cultures. "I'm tired of the common idea that "green" is this thing in and of itself, like it has no legs or life outside of itself." 

Carla Lucchetta is a Toronto-based writer, TV producer and essayist for TVO The Agenda with Steve Paikin. She keeps a blog at www.herkind.com.
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