Creating a Counter-Balance: A hairstylist who specializes in chemicals and color seems like an unlikely pioneer for eco-friendly salons. But to Maria Sigman, a green salon is a labor of love that also makes good business sense.

“We work in a pretty toxic industry — we need to counter-balance that,” Sigman says. As a veteran of the beauty industry, she understands some of the necessary evils in salons. But others, she says, can be eliminated without sacrificing service — or style.

“We wanted to build a healthier space to work and receive treatments in that was still beautiful and relaxing,” she says.

In November 2005, after 26 years in the salon industry and three years of planning, Sigman and her husband Gary opened Salon Echo, an eco-friendly full-service salon in the Chicago neighborhood where she grew up. Here, botanical and organically derived products and formaldehyde-free nail products are just the beginning.

Green Is as Green Does: The product of Sigman’s hard work and collaboration with an interior designer and a materials consultant is a sophisticated and eclectic eco-chic salon. The design was also influenced by Sigman’s belief in feng shui, which is thought to bring harmony, comfort, and balance to an environment.

Most modern building materials, such as paint, carpets, and treated lumber, release gases of the chemicals used to produce them, Sigman says. “The air gets polluted and people breathe it all day,” she says.

Everything from the flooring materials to the paint on the walls to the shelving made from wood scraps found in alleys is carefully planned to make the salon and its services as eco-friendly as possible. The salon was built with 85% recyclable or sustainable materials. The salon’s floor is recycled poly-vinyl with an under-padding of rubber made from old tires. “It’s great for our knees,” Sigman says.

Cement floors that have been colored with an organic compound are also used. In the spa, Sigman opted for mesquite floors. “Mesquite is a weed — it’s a sustainable resource,” she says. All the fabrics in the salon are made from recycled soda bottles. Paint with no- or low-volatile organic compounds was used to paint the walls in earth or water hues.

Mass-produced fixtures and appliances were overlooked in favor of antique or hand-made versions. Hand-worked copper bowls set into a slab of reclaimed granite serve as pedicure bowls. The reception desk and dispensary are built of wood made from compressed bits of bamboo.

“I grew up in the ’60s and ’70s with that whole idea of saving the earth. The more I realized we’re destroying our environment, the more I felt the importance of using sustainable resources and creating jobs for people. And, I’ve always loved old things,” she says.

Healthy Disposition: Clients don’t feel deprived at Salon Echo. “We offer the same sorts of services — we just make up for [the pollution] in other places,” Sigman says. Their services are standard fare, ranging from hair treatments, massage, waxing, and skin care to hand and foot treatments.

“We still use some chemicals where we have to,” Sigman says. “There’s no such thing as an environmentally friendly hair color. But where we can, we use botanical or organically derived products in our other services.”

That means natural nail services, and wholesome, no-frills manicures and pedicures. “We’re in the business of growing healthy nails,” Sigman says, “not building them.” Hot stone massages, pumpkin enzyme peel facials, chocolate and strawberry skin care treatments, and microdermabrasion keep clients from feeling deprived, and the salon’s prices are competitive with other full-service salons in Chicago. “Some of our nail and skin care services are a bit more because we have to offset the price of the organic products, which can be expensive,” she says. Sigman, who says she joined the beauty industry to make people feel good about themselves, now also focuses on helping them be healthy and eco-conscious.

During the month of April, Salon Echo offered a 25% discount to first-time clients who rode their bikes to the salon. Throughout the year all retail items in the salon are eco-friendly, and Salon Echo donates a portion of its proceeds from certain items to local environmental charities.

The salon’s clients are drawn to its healthy, earth-conscious vibe, but Sigman says the majority aren’t as green as she is. “They definitely feel the effects of it. They like the fact we’re concerned with sustaining the earth, but maybe 30% of them share my beliefs on wellness,” she says.

But that doesn’t bother her. “We try to educate the community. We do the best we can,” she said, noting even some of her staff doesn’t fully understand the whole earth-friendly mentality. “I sometimes catch my stylists throwing their plastic water bottles away in the trash. I have to remind them that, hello, we recycle,” she laughs.

Green To Stay: While Sigman designed her salon so it wouldn’t leave a mark, she hopes her green perspective keeps the business and local economy healthy for a long time. Salon Echo also has a room that is used for yoga classes, but is also available for lectures and gatherings. The salon hosted a mixer for local professionals in May.

The salon’s stylists, estheticians, massage therapists, and yoga instructors are on a sliding commission scale. Nail techs are hard to come by, and Sigman says she is in the middle of expanding her nail staff. “I hope to build four manicure tables,” she says. Then, she’ll need more techs to fill the chairs. Sigman is hoping the mentoring internship program she started in April helps with that problem. Once the salon is humming along, Sigman says she hopes to work with a chemist to develop her own line of botanical and organically derived products. “That way, we’ll have exactly what we need,” she says.

For reprint and licensing requests for this article, Click here.