I’ve been invited to speak to some students who are participating in the UNC Sustainability Seminar Program.
That’s an honor. When I read the list of other speakers on the playbill, I can’t help but wonder how I received an invitation. And my guess is that it is because Sustainable North Carolina gave me an award awhile back for the socially and environmentally sound practices that we had put in place at some of my former businesses.
That was awhile ago. When I worked for EMJ. And when I was the CEO of Blast Internet Services in Pittsboro. Now that I have left both EMJ and Blast, and have a swanky executive suite in the cold, drafty control room of an abandoned chemical plant, where my desk is a piece of plywood on a metal frame I found in the corner, it’s going to be hard not to dwell on my current biodiesel obsession.
They have helped me out, however, by posing a question in the syllabus:
How can a small business thrive economically while also pursuing social and environmental goals?
This is the talk I plan to give:
Cynthia was kind enough to pose a question in your syllabus, and I’ve been pondering it for awhile now. My first crack at it was that you can’t thrive economically while pursuing other goals. The bitter, jaded, ex-CEO in me wanted to simply get up here and say “If you want to thrive economically, take your place at the mother’s tit of extraction and suck as hard as you can.”
But I deleted that whole talk. It’s hard not to get discouraged when tackling sustainability in these parts.
Then I reversed the order of the question, and it started making sense.
We pursued social and environmental goals and our small businesses thrived economically.
Many people put “Thrive economically” first, and other goals, second, and this is at the heart of the problem. Once you make a bunch of money, you can give some of the spoils to charities that support your societal and environmental goals. That’s the way our current world is structured.
“Leave me alone so that I can make a lot of money so that I can help change the world for the better.”
Which is, of course, nonsense. I’ve seen people sneer at the premium price of biodiesel, for instance, because they would rather “save the money on fuel by buying at the pump, and take the money they save to give to earth centered charities.”
When we calculate the delta between what they keep in their pocket versus what they give, we quickly realize its hogwash.
And business typically follows the same path. “Let me dump my side streams in the creek, give me some ëtax relief,’ let me park my emissions in the atmosphere, don’t make me pay for medical insurance, and look at me, I give to the United Way!”
But I was not invited here today to talk about what I call the “Whiny Voice of Business.” The business community is populated by and large by a bunch of right-winged homophobic non-environmental unsustainable pukes.
Rather, I was invited here today to answer a question.
When you invert the question, it works out nicely. I used commerce as a vehicle for societal and environmental change, and we happened to thrive economically as a result.
Let’s take health care. When I hired my first employee in this country, I was now a “group” of two, and so I went out and bought a “group plan.” This group has swollen and contracted over the years, but as the result we have assembled an intensely loyal workforce, some of whom have been with us for as long as we have been open in this country.
Instead of whining about the high cost of health careóthe typical position of the unsustainable business lobbyówe got busy and provided it. It’s a principle. Put the principle first. All humans need healthcare. Those who share your principles will stay with you until the end of time.
As a small business, we never managed to develop much clout with our vendors. No “bully pulpit” so to speak. But there were times when we found ourselves with influence.
Blast Software, for instance, used to ship in giant plastic “clamshells” which took a lot of petroleum. Some of the product line was ensconced in bleached paper. We managed to redesign all the packaging into a single corrugated, highly recyclable box.
And where we have manifested such clout, over the years, we have used it for more environmental package design.
The same is true of some of our purchasing decisions. We moved to plain paper fax early on, away from the petroleum-coated stuff we used to use for communication, and we have snapped up every paperless office technique we can along the way.
We were recycling our office paper before there was curbside pickup in Raleigh. And we became a collection point for used cardboard boxes.
Recycling is a habitóas you probably know. When I moved to North Carolina fifteen years ago, my town of Guelph Ontario was ticketing people for doing an improper job of curbside sorting. Have a tin can in your aluminum? That would get you a curbside citation.
And fifteen years ago they were collecting kitchen waste at the curb in Guelph. We had wet garbage, and dry garbage to consider.
At Central Carolina Community College, where I teach, there is no recycling. In a clear violation of state law, the students throw their aluminum cans in the trash. Since the price of scrap aluminum is up right now, the janitor fishes them out and sells them off. I’ll bet he gets a subset of the cans that pass through the place.
We are working on getting our sustainability program put together, and there is talk of the construction of a grand new building to house things like sustainable agriculture, and green building, and biofuels etc. But there is no recycling habit present.
How do you thrive economically by recycling? In the beginning it saved us tipping fees. Then it cost us money. Again, it’s not the economics of the thing. It’s the principle. We had one talented employee come for an interview many years ago. She was a new graduate, and had a bunch of job offers on the table. She chose us because of our active recycling program. She shared our principles. And she is still with us.
If we plug the economics of recycling into a spreadsheet, we will send every ounce of our business’s output to the landfill. Because in North Carolina we subsidize land filling. We have agreed as a society to make it cheaper than recycling. As a society we have agreed to dispose of our waste quickly and easilyósimply wrap it in a petroleum bag and violaóout it goes.
By the way, as an energy sideline, the energy return on recycling an aluminum can is about 90%. What does that mean? It means that the energy required to dig the bauxite out of the earth, smelt it into a useable aluminum product is reduced by 90% when we make the same product out of a spent aluminum can.
Imagine that. You realize that we could conserve our way to sustainability? All we have to do is see a 90% drop in required energy on every transaction, like the aluminum can, and suddenly our energy crisis is behind usóand sustainability here we come.
Better idea: don’t buy things like soft drinks that come in single serving sized containers.
Read Amory and Hunter Lovinsóthey’ve got the conservation piece mastered.
But I’m off topic. Back to the inverted question for a minute: I once went to a speech given by Larry, of Larry’s Beans. He’s a coffee merchant in the village of Raleigh. At Larry’s beans they are into fair trade, shade grown, organic, sustainable coffee. They are so fixated with sustainability at this point that as Larry says, “The coffee business just gets in the way.”
They might not have started out this way, but they find themselves putting sustainability first, and the fact that they are thriving economically is incidental.
By the way. I buy my coffee from them. Why? Because my principles match their principlesóso they get a customer out of the deal.
Have I ever gained a customer because of our societal or environmental principles? Definitely. I started accepting our local currency, The Plenty.
The concept of a local currency is that if we keep monetary circulation in our community we will all be enriched. How many of your disposable dollars are spent locally? I was quick to adopt the Plenty at all of my business ventures, and by wrapping myself in the “local flag,” I incidentally picked up new customers. Those who shared my principles.
When I built a new building in Pittsboro, it turned out to be an accidental masterpiece.
I simply put my notions of sustainability at the fore. So the place is day lit. And it has ground-source geothermal heating and cooling. And argon filled windows. And recycled floors. The energy features of the building attracted the interest of the State Energy Office because it is apparently unique in the state.
It’s energy features are a reflection of our understanding of energy at the time it was built. We didn’t realize we were creating a space that was so pleasant to be in that every business in the area wanted to move in. I never intended to have tenants. But we accidentally ended up with tenants. And surprise rents that allowed us to thrive economically.
We found ourselves in commercial real estate by accident, but that is not to say that we should be unintentional about sustainability. Bill McDonough, an architect from Virginia has some wonderful ideas about intentional green building techniques that pay for themselves over and over. Go read Cradle to Cradle as a start point.
And by the way, he feels sustainability is too small a goal. Right now we are filling our atmosphere with pollutants, poisoning our watersheds, destroying our genetic diversity and committing genocide, and ecocide, not to mention killing one another over oil. Why would we want to “sustain” this? McDonough wants us to start focusing on “Fecundity,” a growth in our ideas on how we can act as stewards for this planet and ourselves.
I think he’s on to something.
By the way, I think it is appropriate to look at our own approaches to sustainability or fecundity as personal journeys. I had not met Bill McDonough when I built my last facility.
I’m about to embark on a new business undertaking, a million gallon biodiesel plant in Pittsboro, and to that end we are recycling an abandoned industrial park that includes, among other things, an abandoned chemical plant. It’s a strange little cold war throw back in the woods of Chatham County. Someone convinced government to provide big sewer, big water, and big electricity to a forgotten piece on the edge of town.
On this one, along with the solar wall, and solar-thermal, and the day lighting that we are planning, we are going to add a fresh air component. Everyone with a seat at the place gets daylight and controls their own fresh air supply.
Every building produces energy or oxygen.
In fact, on this project, we are going to create a model of what industry and commerce might look like in the future. It appears as if we are about to sell one of the buildings off, and it looks like the covenants attached will mean the building is converted over to the use of biodiesel as a heat source, and that the new owner will use off-grid LED lighting.
We currently offer frequent tours of our “backyard refinery,” where we demonstrate fuel making, solar heating, composting, oilseed crop production, and green building practices.
We do all of this without a profit motive, and powered by our principles we have become a leading voice in grassroots biodiesel on the eastern seaboard. It would be hard to say that we are “economically thriving,” but that is because making lots of money is way down on the list of things we have to do.
Despite the absence of cash, it would be hard to describe Piedmont Biofuels as “not thriving.” Our courses at Central Carolina Community College are overflowing. Biodiesel and straight vegetable oil enthusiasts travel from far and wide to attend. We currently have two interns living onsite at the project, and occasional housing for others. We are staging a conference on grassroots biodiesel at the end of this month, and the pre-registrations are flowing in from Berkeley, and New York, and parts unkown.
Our million-gallon plant will be the same way. Societal and environmental principles first, and economic success will be incidental.
It means that our workplaces end up as venues where we educate suppliers and customers and employees along the way. And not everyone who interacts with us buys in.
Let’s take water, for instance.
I once went to hear a Green Beret speak about survival tactics. He claimed that most people go around dehydrated most of the time, and that their dehydration costs them ten percent of their mental energy.
Think about that for a moment. The only thing that will hydrate you is water. Not shade grown organic dolphin safe lattes. Not Dr. Pepper. Not Pabst Blue Ribbon. Just water.
I got to thinking about his concept, and ordered water coolers for each of my operations. It doesn’t matter if you are a welder, or a software engineer, or a traveling salesperson in a remote officeóif you work with us, you have unlimited free pure drinking water.
Doing this cost some money. The month I ordered water coolers for locations across Canada and the United States it appeared that I made less money.
Which was nonsense. Can you imagine getting 10% of the mental energy of a hundred people? Do you know how much money that could make for a corporation? 10%of everyone’s grey matter? Unbelievable.
None of the stakeholders complained. They had a stake in us because they shared our principles.
But I will say that not everyone shared my enthusiasm for drinking more water. I had one young guy bring in 36 ounces of Pepsi every day, and drink it right next to the water cooler. He didn’t value the water, yet he made a terrific contribution to our efforts.
And I think he only lost three days when he was out with kidney stones. Apparently kidney stones hurt like hell. If you want to avoid them, drink lots of water.
Not everyone buys in. Those who view our endeavors as whacked out are able to move on. Those who appreciate them stay, and together we row on.
I’m working on my own ecologic footprint at this point. I’m trying to drive less, and I’m pleased to report that I managed to carpool here today, in a vehicle running on homemade biodiesel.
I’m trying to eat less meat. Did you know that meat is a rotten converter of energy?
The sun’s rays go into the grass. The cow consumes the grass and fattens up. A small percentage of the energy in the grass goes into the edible parts of the cow. Some goes into moving the cow around. Some goes into parts we don’t eat. A whole bunch goes into the atmosphere as methane. Cows are crummy converters of energy, and are a poor choice of food if we are interested in sustainability.
Big agricultural interests understand this. Which is why they don’t feed cows grass. And they don’t let them walk around. They have refined the breeds to be the perfect height and length to fit into their stalls, and they feed them corn, which is not generally found in their diet, and so it makes them sick.
Sickness is not good when raising an animal, so they cure the sickness with antibiotics.
By the time they medicate the cows to remedy the fact that they are being raised on unnatural foodstuffs, the energy balance hasn’t improved much. All they really do by raising the cows on corn is create the marbling the way they want it, and some say it makes them taste better. Cows that never leave the stall are more tender after all.
And like I said, I’m trying to eat less meat.
I’m taking more of my house off grid, and I have just started a bioheat (firewood) project that appears to be getting traction. We’ve brought two new residences online with wood as their primary heat source. Wood is renewable. And it offers terrific feedback to the userói.e. it forms a direct link between energy use and staying warm. Making your own fuel out of waste vegetable oil does the same thing. It makes you appreciate the miles you are putting on.
Let’s not forget the conservation piece. In it alone lies fecundity. Or sustainability. Or the essence of what we are seeking.
Here is an absurd example of energy conservation for you:
We had a cold snap while I was working on this talk. In our draughty old farmhouse with frozen pipes, it was exceedingly hard to get warm. My wife decided to telecommute to a board meeting, instead of driving across the county. For that she gets a conservation point. It was decided that if she called on a specific cell phone, she could go on speaker and they would not have to pay for the minutes of the call. I have the cell provider that she needed, but I can only get signal outsideóand outside was awfully cold.
Her solution was to submerge herself in the hot tub in the garden, and do her board meeting from there. I haven’t calculated the BTUs for that undertaking, but my guess is that the earth came out a winner. Telecommuting from the hot tub is a little like recycling an aluminum can. She reduced the energy on her transaction by a significant amount, and at the end of the day, that is the first step toward sustainability.
How does a small business thrive while tending to social and environmental goals?
My answer is simple: tend to first principles, focus on the social and environmental goals you want to achieve, and the thriving will follow naturally.