Paint me a Picture of Sustainable Business

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? this!

5 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    Karen said,

    September 23, 2008 @ 6:50 pm

    i don’t really have answers, but it’s coincidental you bring this up because i was up late last night reading about industrial organic farms in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and how while their farming techniques are so much better than that of the conventional industrial machine, the amount of tilling and just overall extra TLC they need generally end up consuming just as much, if not more, energy and resources that it takes to operate the CIM’s.

    i really think a return to local sustainability, which emphasizes variety and periodic crop rotation, is our best last hope. unfortunately, when has the mass ever bought into anything Albert Howard or Wendell Berry has said? if all communities ate locally, sure we might not have too exotic a plate, but we’d be doing best by the earth, and using it as it would intended to be used. it would improve health and give more jobs back to americans, versus migrant farmworkers (not that i dislike the migrants for any particular reason!). the carbon footprints of transporting both the food and the consumer transporting himself together would also be drastically reduced. i also think nearly every american that can should receive some sort of incentive for growing their own backyard fruits and vegetables.

    what say you?

  2. 2

    Karen said,

    September 23, 2008 @ 6:51 pm

    oops i meant to say local growing emphasizes varietal diversity (meaning not just mass produced corn, but a number of different crops all contributing to the delicate/fragile balance of compost and humus needed to produce nitrogen naturally to keep the growth cycle strong)

  3. 3

    Karen said,

    September 23, 2008 @ 6:57 pm

    oh and to somewhat shed light on your last question, another thing i was reading in Pollan’s book about gene kahn, hippie-turned-lexus driving corporate organic farmer (his cascadian farm is now a subsidiary of general mills) …ichichich SELLOUT (sorry ahem) …. to give him some credit, his business partner did in so many words tell pollan that … if you can’t beat em join em, sure, but they have kept some of their original intent intact, and are proud that they are responsible for hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland on once-conventional industrial land that are now organically farmed, thus reducing the impact on environment. supposedly, though that argument flips back onto the previous extra-TLC idea i said before.

    I suggest reading the book if you haven’t already … there’s so much more well-researched info i’m not myself adequate at explaining … i am mostly referencing chapter 9, Big Organic here, but he does address many of the questions you have, i believe. sorry but i need to stop, i am very passionate about this stuff and could do on forever.

  4. 4

    Maggie said,

    September 24, 2008 @ 10:31 pm

    Karen –
    I read “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” awhile back and enjoyed it very much. I’m currently very active in my own community (re)building our local food system and I totally agree with you that it’s important to return to sustainable local food production but I am also seeing that it’s really hard to actually do. It’s very difficult to balance the needs of the consumer (affordable food) with the needs of the farmer (reasonable income) and treat the land well and get the food distributed properly and make sure everything is done in a safe way. I wonder if it’s something our society will be willing to subsidize or not and I wonder how many individuals will be willing to grow some of their own food.

    There’s also the issue of producing enough food locally. There are some areas where the land simply can not produce enough food for the density of people around. What happens then? And should we be trading at least some food so we can enjoy things like rice and bananas? And how do we take water needs into account? And where is the balance point between farmers making “enough” money and food not being “too” expensive? And what happens when one farmer decides to sell at slightly lower prices?

    Okay, I’m starting to sound like a naysayer when really I am hopeful but man, the logistics seem complicated! It goes way beyond farming, too. Are we still going to have processed food? Lets consider crackers, a food I enjoy greatly but haven’t figured out how to make at home. How do we produce them locally with labor that is paid a living wage and distributed in an environmentally sound way but still have them be affordable to the average consumer? What does that business model look like? What does the farming business model look like?

    I think it’s possible but only if people are willing to pay more for their food, either directly through the price or indirectly through government subsidies. Admittedly, a lot could be done by taking the subsidies away from crops like corn and soybeans that underwrite our unhealthy food system, but even if we agree that’s better in the long run, we have to acknowledge it would be devastating to farmers who have depended on those subsidies for years, and we have to figure out how to deal with that.

    Whew. I guess I could go on forever too. 🙂

  5. 5

    Rodney North said,

    September 29, 2008 @ 9:52 am

    Good topic & discussion.

    I’m one of the worker-owners of Equal Exchange and because our unique worker-owned/worker-governed co-operative business model was raised I thought I’d offer these two links.

    The first one describes the model and can help one understand why we think it offers an example of how a business can be sustainable, fair AND resist being bought up by the Coke’s and Unilever’s of the world.

    And this second one (from our blog )tackles the challenge of our co-op maintaining our democratice values and practices even as we keep growing. We now have 86 of whom are worker-owners, and another 15-20 folks who are “in-the-pipeline” stage towards becoming owners:

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