It all dials back to the number seven. Seven founders, seven seas, seven continents, and now—in the struggling-to-revive Chinatown section of downtown Portland—Seven Planet. Dubbed the world's first "green general store," the ambitiously socially conscious retail concept opens its doors this Saturday, September 12, in the midst of the Old Town Block Party.
As explained to me by one of the seven founding owners, John Friess, Seven Planet came to be when seven young Portland-based entrepreneurs put their heads together to decide what the single most significant issue in the world today is, and the most effective way to make a mark. They settled on global warming and ("for better or for worse") a brand. With their great-grandparents' generation in mind, they landed on the concept of the general store—which Friess describes as having "everything you need and nothing you don't"—as an emblem of a simpler way of living, and thus Seven Planet's raison d'être was born.
The concept is more complex than it would seem. Seven Planet is built around the aim of whittling your lifestyle down to the essentials, only purchasing what you absolutely need (in recognition of the subjectivity that implies, Seven Planet's answer to that includes reusable "lunch skins" to replace Ziploc bags and an eco-friendly dry cleaning service as well as mineral makeup and incense). Once the necessary purchases have been determined, the company's philosophy then proceeds that one should make the most environmentally sound purchase possible. Naturally, that's where they come in.
Seven Planet has a list of—ahem—seven criteria that they use to select the products on their shelves. All suppliers must meet at least four of them, and while Friess says that many of their suppliers meet six or seven, the company is happy to mix in the ones that only rate four—part of their mission being to provide outreach and education to the start-up companies they favor as well as to their customers. As on the web store, Seven Planet's brick and mortar will have a company profile posted in the aisles next to each product, along with which of the seven criteria the products meet.
Additionally, the company has a goal (already in place at their initial physical location in Priest River, Idaho—more on that later) of keeping their shelves stocked with 30 percent of products sourced locally (as defined by within a 70-mile radius), and the other 70 percent from within the United States. The original idea was to go 50/50, but they ran into difficulties finding enough local products to fill out the—oh, yes—seven categories of necessities that the store caters to: apparel, energy, food, health, household, shelter, and travel.
Another key to Seven Planet's stocking strategy is the emphasis on start-up companies. The goal is to be a kind of staging ground for ever-more innovative products. That means—even though it would seem so natural—you won't be able to find Seventh Generation household products at Seven Planet. Once a company becomes prominent enough to be found on the shelves of a store like Fred Meyer, they'll graduate off of Seven Planet's shelves because, as Friess explains, there's always going to be a younger company out there figuring out how to take it to the next level.
The Portland store is kind of an experiment. The first, in Idaho, is too—the rural experiment. This is the urban version. Ultimately both models will ideally be exportable to other parts of the world, replicating the national/local formula of ratios anywhere they land.
Oh, and there's more: You can come into Seven Planet and browse, select a couple of items, and leave, just like any other store. But, for the truly committed, Seven Planet provides a consulting service whereby—to whatever degree of privacy you are comfortable with—they will evaluate your entire household and your purchasing habits and coach you through aligning it with the eco-mindful philosophies the company espouses. At its most complete, Seven Planet's vision can involve everything from furniture building and home remodeling to design consultation, as is underway in Southeast Portland's first Seven Planet Home—Friess says the company hopes to take on 100 such projects within the next two and a half years. Customers can also sign up as members of the store, committing to make at least 70 percent of their necessary purchases there in exchange for a 30 percent discount. Friess says they are open to similar arrangements for people who want to start with, for instance, only their pet-care needs.
The Seven Planet vision is nothing if not ambitious, and the irony of operating a store—which by nature encourages consumption—is not lost on its well-meaning founders. "We're an oxymoronic business in many senses," admits Friess. "We're telling people to only buy what they need, and we have stores. But by filling our lives with stuff, what you own starts to own you, and we're trying to make future generations more aware of that." (Seven Planet Grand Opening, 412 NW Couch, Ste. 112, Sat Sept 12, 3:57 pm)