In 2008 I was inspired to take the plunge and establish a new company. The basis for the business was a series of conversations with high-profile players in the food industry clearly illustrating that there was an urgent, strategic need for tangible, factual data about their environmental impacts to help drive informed operational decisions. At the time, the industry was woefully lacking in such data. A concept like “carbon footprints” was a mysterious and ethereal thing that only environmental scientists or experts really understood.
Early in my career I spent a number of years with a healthcare information company based in the suburbs of Chicago. The company sold fact-based information to support intelligent business decisions in hospitals. They created customized reports that helped guide hospitals in making resource-saving and profit-making decisions about the services they offered to their community. My job was to take Medicare data together with patient data from the hospital and cross-match it to publicly available census data and forecasts to produce reports that showed a hospital that their population was getting younger or older, richer or poorer. From there a hospital could decide to invest in a new orthopedic practice for their older patients, or a new neo-natal center for the younger families moving into their community, and so on. Their decisions were based on factual, tangible, understandable data that gave them clarity and brought with it long-term profitability.
Compiling Expertise for the Sustainability Agenda
Many years later, after working for a year as a consultant supporting food companies in their transition to fair trade, I realized that there was a huge lack of understanding between what we now call “sustainable” business and the goal of increased profitability. Sustainability (or CSR) was (and still is, for many) considered to be a cost to a business and not a revenue-generating activity. Switching to fair trade ingredients, or working with fishermen to consider long-term effects on fish populations, or taking into account the environmental impacts of palm oil, or changing clear-cutting practices, was bucketed into the “social responsible” (aka “charity”) side of the business. There was an obvious disconnect between the business operations and their “corporate responsibility.” The clearest example was a project I worked on where we individually interviewed each member of a board of directors and asked about their awareness and level of concern regarding environmental issues that could affect their business (in this case the cost and supply of cocoa). Without exception, each expressed serious concern about environmental issues for the business, not to mention the future of the planet for their children and grandchildren. The next day, they went back into the board room to make a decision about their supplier relationship, and they voted unanimously against any environmental impact reduction measures. (There’s always tomorrow, right?)