Today I attended the first day of “The Politics of Food”, a conference organized by the Environmental Leadership Program. The goal of the conference is to bring together young leaders who have different causes they are working for (workers’ rights, environmental protection, hunger relief, nutrition education, etc.) so they can rally around the idea of changing our food system to address all these issues.
So far it has been fascinating but a bit overwhelming. How do you create a food system that is fair to all the workers who make it (including farmers, processors, transporters, cooks, and waiters) and that protects the environment (in production, transportation, processing, and distribution) and is accessible to everyone (by price, location of retail outlets, timing)?
I also must confess I got a little worn out by all the strong opinions and the cries for action. I deeply respect people who dedicate their lives to improving the world and work hard for positive social change but it seems sometimes activists are unable to switch off their rallying cry and well-rehearsed rant. Even when I agree with the topic at hand, sometimes I just get tired of hearing it.
Overall, the first day of the conference is great but I haven’t had time to process it into a nice concise post. I was most intrigued by the afternoon session, which was a panel discussion about sustainable business. There were three businesses profiled – Honest Tea (low sugar organic beverages), Niman Ranch (naturally raised meat products from family farms), and Equal Exchange (fair trade coffee, tea, chocolate, and snacks). All three talked about their core values and how they structured and ran their companies to achieve them.
There were two big questions raised that I am still mulling over.
1. What does a sustainable business look like? (What parts need to be sustainable? How would you judge them?)
2. Does a traditional corporate structure make it impossible to have a sustainable business? (This partly came up because HonesTea is now partially owned by Coca-Cola and may eventually be bought out, as happened with Stonyfield Farms and Burt’s Bees. It also partly came up because Equal Exchange set up their business with a totally different structure to make it (they believe) more democratic.)
I hope to craft my thoughts into a coherent educated post later this week but for now I have only questions. Have any answers?