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February 25, 2009
Originally published in Renovate! Reuse! Recycle!
Tired of carting supplies back and forth from Ukiah to the commune where he lived in Northern California, John Schaeffer decided to start selling environmentally friendly wares himself.
Once a humble collective for Deadheads and Domeheads, Real Goods has since grown into an emblem of conscientious living. Founder John Schaeffer stands proudly next to the eco-friendly company's biodiesel fueling station.
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schaeffer john portrait
Once a humble collective for Deadheads and Domeheads, Real Goods has since grown into an emblem of conscientious living. Founder John Schaeffer stands proudly next to the eco-friendly company's biodiesel fueling station.

Real Goods, the largest and oldest supplier of healthy-living, renewable-energy, and sustainable-living products in the nation, was founded in 1978 in the sleepy town of Willits. A year later owner John Schaeffer acquired several used solar panels from ARCO Solar and became the first retailer in the world to sell a photovoltaic system.

At the time, the 29-year-old burgeoning conservationist had no designs on creating the consumer mecca for all things green. But by 1998 Real Goods had become the player in the market, and the amount of carbon dioxide saved through the use of its products was said to be over a billion pounds; the number continues to grow today. Real Goods’ stats were so impressive that in 2001 the Colorado-based company Gaiam decided to merge with them, and they are now known as Gaiam Real Goods.

The nonprofit spinoff of Real Goods, called the Solar Living Institute, is located at the center’s headquarters and is an example of the outfit’s philosophy. Located in Hopland, California, the institute welcomes some 200,000 visitors to its 12 acres of permaculture gardens every year. The structures on the campus are all completely solar powered and were built using straw bale construction and other natural methods and materials. Programs such as the ecological design workshops are doubling in size each year.

Schaeffer’s perennial efforts are finally coming to fruition, as sustainability has gained traction in recent years. Incentives have played a large role in this trend, and according to Schaeffer, Germany’s example is the one to follow. “They’re doing more than double the solar sales than the U.S. with a sixth of the population and much less sun, all because the German government’s dedication to combating global climate change provides lucrative solar incentives.”

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