Inspired supply chain strategies driving sustainability forward

It’s easy to think about sustainable business in big, broad terms.  With such a huge need for new technologies and business models that lower our collective environmental footprint while creating new economic opportunities for the world’s citizens, it’s tempting to see this as a matter of building the Next Big Thing when there are often solutions much closer at hand.

One such solution can be found in the City of Cleveland, where a consortium of local partners is helping to generate new jobs and wealth in six low-income neighborhoods through an effort known as the Evergreen Cooperatives.  Consisting of three individual cooperative businesses (all green, employee-owned, and for-profit), and led by an umbrella corporation that provides structural guidance and manages a separate revolving loan fund, the Evergreen Cooperatives are a bottom-up approach to community empowerment and economic development.  Although the businesses themselves are owned by the workers, thus retaining more wealth within the neighborhoods where they are located, the cooperatives also have the support of many large institutions including the nationally-known Cleveland Clinic, Case Western Reserve University, the City of Cleveland Department of Economic Development, and University Hospitals, a leading regional healthcare center.

Along with other supporters of the project, these partners contributed essential start-up money and technical expertise to help the cooperatives get off the ground.  But where rubber really meets road is in the way that these big local institutions have used their purchasing power to support the co-ops now that they’re up and running.  The three cooperative businesses include a laundry company, solar panel installer, and hydroponic greenhouse.  Although each company must also have many additional customers in order to remain viable, the hospitals and university are a major source of business.  As the Evergreen website states:

The intent behind establishing ECC is to create a new kind of “anchor institution” in Cleveland – an ongoing and sustainable vehicle that will partner with the City’s major anchors (such as hospitals and universities) to assist them in conducting their business activities in ways that will benefit Cleveland’s residents and neighborhoods.

While it’s important to note that something like the Evergreen Cooperatives doesn’t get started without a lot of time and dedicated support from a multitude of local partners, their initial success points to the massive untapped sustainability potential in supply chain and procurement, particularly amongst large place-based institutions in every community.  Nationally, hospitals alone carry over $750 billion in combined annual purchasing power.  Surely that number is similar for colleges and universities.  How can these big entities work with strategic community partners to direct their operational spending in a way that creates economic opportunities and positive environmental impacts?

The Buy Local movement has really taken off in recent years, and resonates strongly with a lot of people.  But so far its been mostly focused on individual decision-making.  What would happen if more local and regional anchors followed the same lead as those in Cleveland?

The supply chain tends to exist out of sight and out of mind from most people who don’t deal with it directly.  For those who care about promoting green business and social entrepreneurship on a large scale, however, it’s a golden opportunity.  None of this will happen overnight.  But that shouldn’t stop every economic development agency, community development corporation, office of public engagement, and local government from pursuing it right now.

Buying and Selling: A Visit to the Brooklyn Flea Market

A few weeks ago I was in New York City for the weekend and had an opportunity to meet up with an old friend at a place with real implications for how we think about economic development and community renewal.


The Brooklyn Flea Market in action

The Brooklyn Flea Market has been around since 2008, and now serves large crowds every weekend in three rotating locations.  In growing to its current size the market has come to feature a diverse set of artisans, craftspeople, and other small-scale entrepreneurs selling everything from vinyl records to furniture and vintage clothing.  There are a fair amount of food purveyors, as well; the food portion of the market actually became so popular that Brooklyn Flea also operates a separate, food-only market that takes place at two locations along the Williamsburg waterfront.

The image above is taken from the inside of the historic Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower, one of New York City’s few iconic skyscrapers outside of Manhattan.  From November through March, the market moves indoors to inhabit the ground floor of the historic former banking center, the upper floors of which once housed dozens of area dental offices and were converted in 2006 into luxury condo space.

The Williamsburg Savings Bank Tower (click for original image)

Now, in addition to the re-purposing of its upper floors, the lobby and basement levels of this landmark building have become a local attraction, providing space for entrepreneurs and small businesspeople to sell their wares, along with a cavernous environment for weekenders to explore.  Former teller booths now house pop-up shops with trendy clothing, shoes, and handmade goods.  The basement is a series of narrow hallways that feels more like a maze than a place where people are buying and selling food and assorted secondhand items.  It probably wasn’t used for much other than storage during the building’s former life, but it’s now a lively hub of neighborhood commerce.

Turning a historic old space into a community attraction and a place where entrepreneurs can find willing customers?  Better yet, a place where real people can interact and sell real things to each other?  Places like the Brooklyn Flea Market are the highest ideal of free market capitalism; a place where the proverbial butcher and baker meet and succeed on their own merits.  There’s a lesson to be learned here, and it’s one that can be applied to communities with a fraction of New York City’s population or historic assets.

To that last point especially, it would be easy to write the Brooklyn Flea Market off as a big city story; a place that can only be sustained by large markets with wealthy residents and lots of purchasing power.  But this is both dishonest and misleading.  At the end of the day it’s really about scale – in New York City, it might be the bottom floors of an ornately decorated skyscraper, but in smaller communities it could be an underutilized civic center, side street, or vacant lot.  There are certainly plenty of the latter scattered across America’s urban and rural landscape, and there’s no reason that the heyday for these places should be thought of as any time but now.  Every community has its own unique assets, and if the existence and success of something like the Brooklyn Flea Market represents anything, it’s the fact that if people are willing think creatively and act boldly, there is always the chance to take something and make it better.

What this is really about is finding innovative ways to build community wealth and opportunity for those who are willing to seek it.  Not everyone will be an artisan, nor should they be.  But not everyone should have to work in an office park or retail outlet, either.  It’s about creating a healthy mix of jobs, which comes from ensuring a healthy mix of opportunities.  Whether attracting a large outside enterprise or thinking of new strategies to build up the local business landscape, economic developers and community leaders must be creative about how they facilitate opportunities for people in their communities to accumulate wealth. Humans have used trade and exchange to better themselves and their societies since the dawn of civilization.  What can today’s communities do to help make sure more of this sort of activity takes place under their jurisdiction?

Money is often referred to as a necessary evil, but there is something beautiful about the process of buying and selling, particularly when it involves things that people genuinely enjoy making, and places where folks genuinely enjoy spending some time on a Saturday.  Economic Development has historically been thought of in very narrow terms – how to create a lot of jobs, quickly, and sometimes to the exclusion of other important community priorities, or any real thought about whether those jobs are good jobs, rewarding and gratifying jobs, or just 40+ hours per week of numbers on somebody else’s balance sheet.  Maybe it’s about something a bit more fundamental: buying and selling, human exchange, and how to build communities that provide the opportunity to buy, sell, and exchange nice things.  Maybe it’s about promoting local interactions as a way for us all to live more sustainably.  Emphasize these priorities and maybe the jobs will follow.

There’s no magic bullet, and in the end communities must employ many development strategies successfully in order to succeed.  But maybe just maybe there’s something that can be gained from an emphasis on what makes a place like the Brooklyn Flea Market successful.  At a time when many communities are crying out for new sources of prosperity and renewal, maybe this is one place to turn for guidance.

If nothing else, it’s a great place to spend a weekend afternoon.

The National Day of Service and the Challenges of Doin’ it Big

It’s been awhile since we’ve posted but I’ve had a piece simmering in my head for a few weeks and finally am getting some time to sit down and write it.  Have a look and give us your thoughts in the comments:


Like millions of my fellow Americans, I participated in the National Day of Service this year, which is held annually in conjunction with the Martin Luther King Day holiday weekend and which President Obama has tried, through each of his inaugural celebrations, to establish as a quadrennial presidential tradition as well.  Across the country on Saturday, January 19, groups of citizens large and small volunteered with a range of organizations, each different in its particular mission but contributing in its own way to the Greater Good.

After finding that a smaller event we had tried to sign up for was filled to capacity, my girlfriend and I ended up at the DC Armory, where thousands of volunteers helped to pack care kits for US military troops.  It was a huge event, sponsored most prominently by Target, and it even included a visit from Vice President Biden and his family.  There were DJs, musical acts by school bands and other groups who had traveled from locations across the country to be there, and a stage to accommodate all of this entertainment for the morning’s eager volunteers.


The scene inside the Armory

So many people showed up, in fact, that there was a 30 minute wait to even get inside the building, followed by some additional waiting indoors as all of the volunteers were funneled through metal detectors and given wristbands.  Once inside, volunteers stood in rows organized by letters and numbers, waiting another 15-20 to be ushered to the front of the crowd, where each volunteer picked up a plastic pouch and held it open while event coordinators stationed behind a series of carefully marked boxes smiled and deposited various personal care items – soap, toothpaste, etc. – inside.

It was, in many ways, assembly line volunteerism.  As one of the country’s largest retailers introduced its factory-style efficiency to the community service experience, volunteers waited in line to do their part, and if they felt as if they had more time when they were finished, waited in line and did it again.  When we left after about 2 1/2 hours, my girlfriend and I had been through the line twice and helped pack about 8 kits each.  In total, 100,000 kits were packed on the day.

The following is not to diminish what was accomplished on that Saturday, but merely to ask some questions.  Among them:

How many people does it honestly take to assemble 100,000 military kits?  Was there something more useful that the thousands waiting in line at the Armory to hold a pouch open could have done instead to better their communities?  Is waiting in line really volunteering?  Am I just being curmudgeonly? 

The answers to these questions will, of course, depend on who’s answering them, but here’s an honest reading of the situation that I think gives credit where it’s due: Target and other major sponsors put on an event that was intended to be big, it was successful in its mission, the event organizers did a great job running everything as smoothly as possible, and US troops got 100,000 care kits that they didn’t have previously.  A-plus all around.

Still, this leads us to a more complicated and fundamental question – was such a large, industrial-scale event the best way to get people out and volunteering on a brisk Saturday?  What else could all of those people packed into the DC Armory have done if they were dispersed instead of consolidated?

We live in a big country, and much of the national discourse revolves around our big institutions.  Big business dominates the economy, big banks hold most of our assets, big government is seen as hero or villain depending on who you talk to, all while big foundations increasingly present themselves as the saviors of those who fall through the cracks.  We live in big cities.  Most of us shop at big stores.  And when it comes to the political and economic decisions that affect the country and the communities within it, most subscribe to the logic of big.  A big federal program here, a big business recruitment success there, big new generating capacity and transmission infrastructure to account for our future energy needs, big companies that can operate at large economies of scale and offer big savings to the consumer.  A big service event on a cold day in January to help keep us all humble.

But what if this wasn’t the way forward?  What if the blatant inefficiency of all those people spending 80 percent of their volunteer time waiting in line was actually the ugly truth lurking behind most of the big assumptions we passively accept?  What if this was more or less a proxy for what we get when we trust that big, corporate-scale solutions are what’s needed to solve problems best dealt with in a smaller capacity?  A job-starved community spends countless time and resources to recruit a big outside company that promises to create hundreds of new jobs, offering a lucrative package of tax incentives to help seal the deal, while vesting all of its economic hopes with one business in one industry that will reinvest its profits elsewhere.  An environmental activist chooses to invest their time dreaming up big, utility scale energy projects in faraway parts of the country, seeking transformative solutions and seeing few alternatives.  The average consumer takes their business to a big box retailer, convinced that no one else can offer the same level of convenience and savings.  Are these the actions that will re-invigorate our communities and help us rebuild for the 21st century?

Big will always play an important role.  Some big businesses will remain large employers.  Some tasks are best done by large-scale entities.  Regardless of whose politics win the day, the federal government will remain big, because in a country of over 300 million, there really are few other alternatives.  And on Saturday, January 19, 2013, many of the thousands who showed up at the DC Armory needed somewhere to go if they wanted to help out; several of DC’s great service organizations had such a supply of volunteers that they simply had to say no to anyone else who asked.

But what if we could imagine the results of thinking smaller – and saw these not as feeble attempts to chip away at a problem that is beyond our solving, but as small pieces to a larger, more meaningful solution?  Thousands of rooftop solar installments.  Local support not for big businesses trying to locate but for small ones trying to compete locally – the source of a much larger economic multiplier when they are successful.  Policies to help leverage the economic impact of home-based businesses and self-employed professionals.  Education initiatives tailored to the needs of kids in specific schools rather than those determined by public bureaucrats and big private benefactors.  What if millions of these actions, undertaken by communities across the country, could collectively have a greater impact on our country than waiting for our big institutions to act?  What if acting locally were the only way to bring about positive change within many of the places most desperate for it?

As a country, we’ve been through the boom and bust cycle of big.  It sounds like it was a great ride while it lasted.  Either way, its aftermath has a name befitting of the scale at which our nation has chosen to operate: The Great Recession.  And as our big companies downsized and our big government saw its tax receipts drop while its obligations and deficits rose, it may have become even harder, for a brief moment, to see a way out of this mess that wasn’t as big as the way in.  But with big crises come new thinking, and with big longstanding challenges come the necessities of drawing up new solutions.  Mix in the internet, the most decentralizing force the world has ever known, along with an emerging recognition that many local problems will never be solved without local solutions, and there is a recipe for an entirely new model of development and prosperity that puts our existing political and economic institutions to far better use.

What if on a chilly Saturday morning, I could spend 2.5 hours truly maximizing my impact, rather than just waiting around hearing thank-yous that I may or may not have earned?  I contributed something on this year’s National Day of Service, but I think that everyone who was there in the Armory knows that we all could have done more.  When it comes to the decisions we make about our communities, we should be just as discerning.

The value of things unseen

On a family vacation as a child, I once accompanied my parents on a tour of a house they were considering buying on a timeshare basis. I followed the adults around the entire time and didn’t say a word. Afterward, my father complimented me on my good behavior and gave me a piece of advice that has stuck with me:

“Sometimes kids should be seen and not heard.”

Today I imagine all of the exhausted parents out there nodding their heads, one of them maybe mouthing a sarcastic “amen” if they could have heard my dad at that moment. I seemingly did my parents a lot of good that day by finding a way to calmly and quietly go about my kid business. Sometimes, the most important thing is what’s unsaid.

But what does kid business have to teach us about green business?

Screenshot taken from

Screenshot taken from

GOOD Magazine has the answer. In this case, it’s actually about what is unseen. Continue reading

Solar powered lanterns show the potential of green business in action

It’s a useful tale of green business married to social enterprise. For those who would take it a step further, it’s a fantastic example of the integrated bottom line (or triple bottom line) at work.

Read the original article at the International Herald Tribune

The problem: there are over 7 billion people around the world and counting, 1.3 billion of whom live without any electricity at all. Add that to the 1.4 billion who live without reliable electricity supplies and you’ve got a whopping 2.7 billion (that’s billion with a b) that can’t count on modern artificial lighting when it gets dark outside. That’s more than 1 in every 3 people worldwide, the vast majority living in developing countries.

Given the sheer magnitude of this challenge, most of the solutions currently available require a lot of money and a lot of conventional energy: by the World Bank’s estimate, it would cost anywhere between 30 and 40 billion each year between now and 2030 to bring reliable power to those currently lacking it.  That figure doesn’t take into account the hundreds of thousands of miles of transmission infrastructure needed, or the fact that grid electricity is still dominated by fossil fuels.  On a more troubling level, it falsely characterizes the solution to the problem as one of charity, worthy though it may be, rather than one of opportunity.

Two Stanford business school students flipped the model on its head, creating a solar-powered lantern that undersells both coal and kerosene, the cheapest respective on and off-grid power alternatives.  It’s a win-win-win situation: d.light, the company that the two students created, makes money selling its lanterns.  Albeit a fraction of those still in the dark, as many as 10 million more people around the world now have access to reliable nighttime light.  And since the lamps can recharge with the sun’s energy during the day, they’re durable, require no upkeep or extra supplies, and burn no fossil fuels.

But more important than the specific impact is the story there is to be told here.  One of the many challenges of our time is how to help people around the world achieve a rising living standard without further overheating an already overheated planet.  The 1 in 3 statistic about electricity only drives the point home: if a third of the world’s people lack something as basic to the developed world as reliable electric power, and the earth under a baseline scenario is already warming to a dangerous level (which it is), how can the world support the material needs of another nearly 3 billion people without putting our living environment under even greater stress?

The answer is that we can’t, unless we reinvent ourselves.  Which is exactly what d.light is doing, albeit on a small scale, with its solar powered lamps.  The promise of green business, then, is simple: how do we turn the world’s challenges into an opportunity to create and sustain new sources of livelihood?  And how can we find new ways of providing for basic modern needs (like light) where conventional cornerstones (like the current global power grid) fail us?

One of the things I really like about d.light is how it shows solar’s “portability.”  Unlike most sources of conventional energy, solar can be produced and consumed in the same place, which is what makes the company’s lanterns so practical.  Last week C’cracy founder Libby Murphy and I were having a conversation about how this essential fact about solar power could make it advantageous to set up a more local power grid system, since theoretically any network of home-based solar installations can serve as its own “grid.”  What d.light has done is take this down to an even more micro level, using the primary source of all life on earth to power lights that require no outside inputs at all.

What will be the next d.light, then?  How will the company build on its solid start?  And how can the most elemental process of business planning (problem, solution, way to make a profit) be applied to other challenges in the world?

If I had all the answers I’d be a much wealthier man.  In this case, however, the questions may be just as important.

“Environmentalists Doing Business”

Reblogged from the Urban Times – link available here

Interested in what it looks and sounds like when people who care about the earth put their money where their mouth is? In 1996, British entrepreneur Dale Vince founded a company built to provide clean electricity to its customers. Still operating on a not-for-dividend model 16 years later, today Vince’s company, Ecotricity, invests its customers’ energy bills into the construction of additional sources of clean energy.

You can read all about Ecotricity and its business model on their company website: What I thought was really great about the interview with Mr. Vince, though, was the way he described his work as a businessperson:

Essentially we are environmentalists doing business as opposed to business people doing the environment. Sustainability always comes first – it’s in our DNA. Ecotricity’s missions is to change the way energy is made and used in the UK to reduce the carbon emissions that cause climate change. Electricity from fossil fuels is responsible for 30% of Britain’s carbon emissions – it’s our biggest single source of emissions as a nation – and therefore the biggest single thing we can change.

In a world where, despite considerable progress, too many corporate “greening” initiatives rely more on style than substance, the idea of “environmentalists doing business” is refreshing. Putting aside the fact that environmentalism itself is doomed unless it puts forward a compelling vision of its own for how people can live and prosper in the modern world, lost in the justifiable outrage within the environmental movement toward large industrial polluters (think BP with the oil spill) is the fact that business doesn’t have to be about raping and pillaging. Business, at its most basic level, is about something very simple: providing a product or service that people will pay for. This is a noble calling, and reflects the most fundamental human undertaking in a capitalist society.

What’s really exciting, then, about the notion of environmentalists doing business is that if you want to get something done that’s good for the planet, all you have to do is provide something that people want, and figure out how to do it in an efficient manner. Easier said than done, sure, but each person who succeeds makes a small contribution toward turning the conventional paradigm on its head simply by showing that it is possible, and even advantageous, to turn a profit treating the planet’s health as an asset rather than a cost.

Legislation and politics are important, no doubt. But if you’re an American like myself, you also live in a country where one of our two major political parties simply thumbs its nose at basic scientific evidence. So with all due respect to those who work hard each day within various governments to make the world a better place, what seems like a more effective strategy? Dale Vince didn’t wait for the world to sign an international treaty cutting carbon. He started a company that would do it and help him earn a living in the process.

By all means, those of us who care about the environment should continue pushing for a climate bill, and anything else that may make a difference. But we may be waiting a long time before our governments can get together on their own to do the right thing. The planet, however, can’t wait, and neither can an economy crying out for the creative infusion of new companies and ideas. So in the current political and economic landscape, what can those of us who want to make a positive difference do immediately to create new sources of opportunity and prosperity, while charting a more sustainable way forward?

Go out and become entrepreneurs. Our country needs us.

Hunter Lovins, Exhibit A

Those of you who know C’cracy founder and editor-in-chief Libby Murphy likely know that in addition to being an all-around stud she is currently in the midst of pursuing a business degree through Bard College’s MBA in Sustainability program.  Last Wednesday, Libby gave me a heads up that one of her professors happened to be in DC giving a talk.  I later found out that this particular professor also happened to be the woman who co-wrote what is more or less the Bible of Green Business.

There are people on both sides of the philosophical lexicon who would view that very term as somewhat of an oxymoron.  Let’s table that for now.  Because as I sat and listened to Hunter Lovins rattle off example after example of how companies that embrace sustainability are becoming leaner, more efficient, and ultimately more profitable, a budding belief of mine that most of our country’s energy and environmental debates completely miss the point of what we really should be talking about turned into something resembling a total conviction.

Some people really, legitimately care about protecting the environment.  I count myself as one of them.  For people who are not so inclined, I think this sums it up nicely.

Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum, however, what rings loudest when one listens to Ms. Lovins is the necessity of embracing an outlook that we’re all in this together.  Business, government, environmentalists… it’s not about who’s at fault, and those of us who frame climate change as a matter of merely staving off environmental catastrophe miss the mark as well.  Because it’s also not about what we can prevent, it’s about what we can create, and if that something is going to be anything good it’s going to take all of us working together to create it.

That’s why the more savvy among our country’s business leaders view doing right by the planet not as an inconvenience but as an opportunity.  It’s no accident that when Goldman Sachs identified a series of corporate sustainability, social, and good governance indicators, companies meeting those criteria outperformed their baseline counterparts by 25 percent.  To paraphrase Ms. Lovins, we can continue viewing our environmental challenges as a cost to be externalized… but we’re running out of places to externalize them.

Ultimately sustainability is about maximizing the efficiency of everything we use.  Local resources, national resources, global resources.  Everything.  In a country famous for harnessing the power of free market capitalism, dependent as it is on celebrating economic efficiency, it’s really quite remarkable when you consider the hostility of some toward radically increasing the efficiency of our non-financial resources.  But efficiency will always yield economic benefits to those savvy enough to embrace it.  There was a time when the mechanizers of agriculture and the proponents of burning petroleum instead of whale oil where called crazy.  Ask John D. Rockefeller how that turned out.

No one said that any of this is going to be easy, but when we think in terms of maximizing the efficiency of our resources, and institutionalize these sorts of mindsets, this is what leads to the sort of innovating that drives the whole process inexorably forward.  The avalanche of evidence in favor of the for-profit entities that have already harnessed sustainability to their advantage should be reason enough to make even greater leaps.

For more facts on sustainability, check out this chat Libby posted this afternoon between Hunter and the folks representing GE’s ecomagination initiative:

It’s a useful primer on the sorts of changes upon which businesses are already beginning to capitalize, and elaborates a bit on what Ms. Lovins discussed at the event I attended.

I hope you enjoy her insights as much as I did.