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Running a Small Business Through the Lens of Sustainability

May 3, 2017

 

I haven’t written anything on A New Lens in about three weeks, and there are two reasons for that.

  1. I’m going to be a dad in October, which has me in parental prep-mode as Erin and I gear up for the best and most exciting thing to hit the internet since Kim Kardashian broke it.
  2. I started a new job as COO of Broth Baby, a small bone broth company based out of Oakland, CA.

Most friends who I’ve told about this looked at me with screwed up faces, their thoughts generally ranging from “who would put you in charge of a company?” (fair question) to “wait, what’s bone broth?” (read up).

The opportunity to participate and drive a company like Broth Baby feels special. Really special. And I can’t go a sentence further without expressing the gratitude I feel towards my new co-owners, Cassandra and Adam, for bringing me on board and placing their trust in me. I’ve been writing about sustainability on A New Lens for 4 short months. Broth Baby is a chance to put those beliefs and practices into action – and also to validate them from a completely different perspective as a small business. 

If you’re local to the Bay Area, order some and give us a try. You won’t be disappointed.

I wrote about sustainability back in January and what I thought its core definition should be. I’ve been reflecting on that definition a lot lately and will write more about how I’m applying it in a business setting in the weeks to come. For now, I’ve pasted the key points below in case you care to revisit them:

Body

Sustaining the body means physical wellness. This means the obvious, like preventing or mitigating sickness and disease, but it also means engaging our own physical participation. For example, the agricultural revolution only happened 10,000 years ago, modern humans (aka Homo sapiens) go back about 200,000 years, and species of early humans go back anywhere from 3-7 million years, depending on who you ask. So, for most of our history, we were hunter-gatherers. The physical construction of our bodies supports that endeavor, even though we now use our upright posture for other purposes. Nonetheless, millions of years of ecological specialization can’t just be ‘turned off’ because we invented agriculture, which means that when we stopped hunting and gathering, we exported our movement to someone else, somewhere else.

We continue to do that to increasing extents today: someone else to make our food, sew our clothing, construct our homes, maintain our streets, assemble our iPhones, and so on. There’s no sense in pretending we’re about to go backwards and do all that ourselves, but it’s helpful to acknowledge how we got here. With that in mind, re-introducing some choices that demand functional movement can have a sustaining, nourishing effect on our bodies.

Mind

Sustaining the mind is imperative because choices need to be rewarding and enriching: that means you feel better because of the action, the process, and the outcome. That’s what makes you want to rinse and repeat. Choices are not sustainable if you make them because you feel guilty. Stress, anxiety, indecision, and confusion should not enter the equation.

We sustain behaviors that make us feel good. Enjoyment causes me to go my neighborhood farmer’s market every week. A feeling of enrichment motivates me to dig deeper into understanding human ecology. The list goes on, but you get the idea.

Environment

Sustaining the environment does not always mean preserving it – keeping things the way they are. Natural systems are always in motion, shifting quietly in the background most of the time, though sometimes rapidly and dramatically at others. We want to preserve and protect the mechanisms by which ecosystems ebb and flow. Part of that definitely means not removing too much of any one species, but it also means paying more attention to the larger process by which our food, goods, etc. are harvested, processed, transported, and sold.

Choices that support the viability of natural environments are therefore less about having “no impact” and more about stepping gently where we choose to go. It means understanding relationships, rather than purely counting plants and animals. Those relationships, of course, depends greatly upon what you’re talking about. There are gentler and more severe ways of fishing, for example. There are other activities that have no ‘gentle’ setting: think fracking, strip mining, and so on, which are so impactful that we can’t meaningfully limit their negative impacts, and therefore should probably stop doing them.

Community

When we compromise too steeply on price, we tend to get what we pay for: not only a lower quality good, but also a compromise on the integrity of the process that produced it.

This is perhaps the most deserving part of the conversation, if only because it’s the most frequently neglected component of sustainability. Community is only sustained by relationships. We currently have very few of those compared to the past. A relationship is at least partially defined by a sense of responsibility; of us to them and them to us. When we complain about a Wall Street corporation screwing over the common man, it’s because we feel they operate without responsibility to us. But we also operate without much responsibility towards the businesses with whom we interact – how many times do we want the cheapest price, deal, discount, as well as expectation of free stuff?

This means paying a fair price: one that sustains their ability to make a decent living and to make their own good, sustainable choices. We’re not just paying for the product – we’re paying for the opportunity to ask them about the things we care about, evaluate their answers, and also to provide iterative, serial feedback over time so they can cater to the interests, concerns, and priorities of the community. Inherently, this definition favors small and medium size businesses. If the size of a company outgrows its ability to stay in touch with its community at a regional scale, or to have to compromise the interests of one community to sustain the interests of another community, that company ceases to be sustainable in this regard.

Community is also important because no single solution or approach is sustainable on a planet of 7 billion people. I am much more interested in the power we wield to shape our local societies and our local ecology. In essence, to create our own reality.

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