As Leigh Neary reclined in her plane seat, names started popping into her head. At first she thought “Live Green” would be a good name for an online, eco-conscious business. But when she went to register the domain name, she realized someone beat her to it. As she flicked through related words in an online thesaurus, one stood out.
Sixteen years later Neary attached the name to her zero waste market and eco-friendly boutique store she opened in Omaha in 2019. Exist Green allows customers to bring in reusable containers or jars to shop for anything from local, organic groceries or self care and hygiene products. Customers receive a 5% discount for using any plastic free containers while shopping. Neary and her team are hoping Exist Green will inspire the community to try a zero-waste or plastic-free lifestyle.
The business fulfills a longtime passion that started when Neary was growing up in west Omaha near Harry A. Burke High School. As a kid, she loved playing in the dirt and creek behind her childhood home where her love for the environment, and the drive to keep it clean, began to bud.
After graduating from Colorado State University with a degree in environmental engineering, she got a job with the Chevron Oil and Gas company and later a consulting firm, both working on oil and gas projects. But something didn’t feel right. She wanted to do more for the future of the environment.
“You’re solving problems from 30 years ago and then you’re hearing about these new problems,” Neary said. “I wanted to kind of be part of a greener future instead of always trying to remediate, and clean up the past.”
Her mind drifted back to the name Exist Green and the idea of opening a business in her hometown. So in May 2017 she decided to move from the San Francisco Bay area back to Omaha to try a career change.
Once she got back to Omaha, she started looking for a building she could really imagine starting a business in. What she found was a red brick storefront with apartments up above right near 50th and Underwood streets in Dundee. But the building, built in 1907, needed some renovations. Over the next couple years she installed solar panels on the roof to provide the store power and converted the space from a standard retail store to a food service establishment. She spoke with multiple suppliers for both the construction and the purchasing phase to ensure she was meeting her sustainability and aesthetic goals.
In May 2019, Exist Green’s doors were opened. Neary was unsure how the public would respond to a store like hers — after all the 5,000-square-foot niche shop is hardly related to the HyVees and Baker’s that most Omahans frequent. But as more people started venturing into Exist Green, Neary started to see curious customers turn into regulars who came back week after week.
“I felt like many people really had no concept of what we were trying to do at the beginning, but, as I hoped, it seems word has gotten out,” Neary said.
Neary and store manager, Mary Range, hope to getOmahans talking about a more eco-conscious lifestyle. Neary and Range encourage everyone that comes into Exist Green to use reusable containers or jars, even providing free jars to those who forget. Range just wants to spread awareness to the unique lifestyle.
“We don’t have all the answers, but to have a place where people can come and learn about zero waste can help,” Range said.
That desire to educate shows up whenever a sheepish person walks through the door, looking at Exist Green’s items more like artifacts in a museum than everyday grocery items. But Neary loves to preach her products, with everything from bamboo toothbrushes and stainless steel razors to local, organic groceries.
“It’s like you can just buy what you need. So if you just need a tablespoon of some interesting spice for a recipe, you don’t need to have that in your cupboards to eventually throw out,” Neary said.
When COVID-19 touched down in Omaha in early 2020, even established local businesses around the country wondered if they’d be able to weather the storm. For a small, niche grocery that had barely opened its doors, the pandemic could have meant the end.
Instead they offered customers curbside and delivery options for essential items that Neary fortunately had an abundance of, such as basic groceries and recycled bamboo toilet paper. Neary even partnered with local farmers to provide fresh produce while the Farmer’s Market was put on hold. Neary also had time to think of ways to improve her business, like having employees handle food orders refilling reusable containers as customers continue browsing.
“We have heard from multiple customers that this form of a refill concept is preferred pandemic or not,” Neary said.
It’s also given Neary more time to reflect on her constant goal of making sure the products she sells are 100% zero waste, sustainable.She doesn’t want her or her customers becoming victims to greenwashing, a term used when products are falsely labeled as eco-friendly.
Neary’s also in the process of creating a vending machine with all her products inside for purchase, and hopes to one day build a greenhouse in front of her shop.
It’s just one of many evolutions Neary hopes to see the store go through year after year as she and her team challenge Omahans to reduce waste in their lifestyle and try to be a little more sustainable. They believe that their store and other stores like theirs can be the first step.
“I want shops like mine to be in every little nook and cranny,” Neary said.
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