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Photo by Joel Ross

Heidi Reimer-Epp wants people to make eco-friendly choices whenever possible, but especially when sending a birthday card, writing a thank-you note or throwing confetti at a wedding. Her booming Winnipeg- based seed-paper company, Botanical PaperWorks, manufactures, sells and distributes a vast array of plantable paper products, all with non-GMO seeds for wildflowers or herbs embedded right in the compostable paper. Just plant the cards or paper in the ground and presto: you’ve got a tiny patch of garden growing. “Our products are made from Forest Stewardship Council-certified, 100% post-consumer material,” says Reimer-Epp, who co-founded the company, in 1997, with her now- retired mother. “What they leave behind, in the form of flowers and plants, provides a habitat for bees and butterflies and birds.” Even the company’s corn-based “plastic” packaging is biodegradable.

Launching the business was an idea that took a while to germinate and take root. The eco-conscious Reimer- Epp had been working in the market- ing department of a biotech firm – and creating handmade paper alongside her schoolteacher mother, Mary, as a hobby – when she gradually began to feel as though her creative side was, in her words, “withering away.” She also realized her long-term goals had changed. “I started to take a hard look at my career path,” Reimer-Epp says. “I didn’t want to make my whole life about marketing.’”

In 1996, she and her mother produced an informal test line of paper that five local shops agreed to sell. Within a year, the business was officially born. In the beginning, they made specialty papers “inspired by the forests, grasslands and gardens of the Prairies,” with tiny pieces of their local environment embedded within each sheet – a few blades of grass, grains of sand and the like.

The bigger, seed-paper concept sprouted a few years later, when Reimer-Epp and her mother were commissioned to write a book detailing 300 papermaking ideas. The result? “Around idea #153,” she says with a laugh, “while we were experimenting with how to use all the different parts of a plant [in the paper], we stumbled on the seed-paper idea. We didn’t put it in the book because we thought it was really cool and we saw the potential.”

The pair promptly incorporated seed paper into Botanical PaperWorks’ product line. By 2003, sales of the seed paper far surpassed those of their other specialty papers, so the company rebranded itself and moved entirely to seed-paper production. Reimer-Epp credits increasing global awareness of environmental issues for the surge, and ongoing growth, in sales. “As people were becoming more environmentally conscious, our seed paper became more of a popular choice,” she says.

Things weren’t always rosy, though. She and the company faced unique challenges as a small, eco-conscious operation, especially at the outset. Gaining credibility was an issue, and the company was sometimes dismissed as a “mom-and-daughter craft club.” Likewise, early on, Reimer-Epp ran into supply-chain gaps when sourcing components and materials that supported the company’s overall green initiatives – many of the things they wanted (e.g., recycled-paper envelopes to accompany their cards) simply weren’t as readily available as they are today. The growth of the internet, and the new ways businesses marketed themselves, also resulted in a learning curve. “Things were shifting from print advertising to online and digital,” says Reimer-Epp. “It was so exciting to be there in the beginning of it all with our little three-page website.”

One of her biggest pet peeves, however, is greenwashing – wherein a company tries to cash in on the green movement by purporting to offer so-called eco-friendly goods that don’t actually conform to green guide- lines – which was, and still is, something she encounters among her competition. “[Their] paper makes its way to the end user and it doesn’t grow,” Reimer-Epp says, “and it’s then a blemish on the entire industry.” While Botanical PaperWorks ensures the seeds it sells are certified (by the Canadian Food Inspection Agency and the U.S. Department of Agriculture) for planting in North America, the same can’t always be said of other similar businesses.

“We decided long ago that if the customer asked us for a seed that we knew wasn’t going to grow, like a tree seed, we would decline,” she says. “I’ve seen really great jobs go to competitors after we’ve turned them down, and it smarts. But, for the sake of our integrity and our commitment of value that we’ve made to our custom- ers, we just don’t do it.”

What she and the company will do, however, is continue to evolve. Despite high-profile recognition from the likes of Martha Stewart, Rachael Ray and The Today Show, Reimer-Epp isn’t one to rest on her laurels. New seed-paper products are always in development, and Reimer-Epp says her thirst for knowledge is something she hopes is never fully quenched. In her opinion, it’s something all entrepreneurs need in order to succeed. “Read, attend seminars and continue to learn, because you shouldn’t ever stagnate,” she says. “You always want to be growing.”

Fast Facts

Company: Botanical Paperworks

Location: Winnipeg

Founded: 1997

Number of Employees: 20

Variety of Seed Blends Available: 15

Number of Seeds in One 8″ x 11″ Sheet of Seed Paper: 1,200

Price of One Sheet of Seed Paper: $1.45 to $3.40 each, depending on colour and size

Projected Revenues for 2013: Over $1 million

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