Starting and maintaining a local, independent business that’s economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable is challenging because it goes against the stuff you learn in business school, such as “Grow or die,” “Don’t cooperate with your competitors,” and “Keep your costs down and maximize profits,” regardless of the impact on your workers, your community, and the environment.
Despite the challenges, many sustainable businesses are succeeding precisely because they’re ignoring conventional wisdom and cooperating. Throughout the day at the Sustainable Business Network of Massachusetts’ Sustainability Leadership Summit on May 10 at UMass Boston, speakers, panelists, and participants shared strategies, experiences, and ideas about how to survive and thrive as a responsible business.
Entrepreneur and activist Judy Wicks, founder of Philadelphia’s legendary White Dog Café and author of a new memoir/business book called Good Morning, Beautiful Business, shared her philosophy and experiences in an inspiring keynote address. After White Dog Café grew from a coffee and muffin business into a 200-seat restaurant, Wickes decided to grow deeper into her community rather than franchise to other cities. Over the years, she’s sourced ingredients from local farms and breweries, built relationships with sister city restaurants in Cuba and Vietnam, started a mentoring program with local schools, and become the first business in Pennsylvania to buy 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources. In addition, White Dog Café pays its employees a “living wage” and benefits.
Wicks acknowledged that she wasn’t able to make these commitments from day one. She’s gradually implemented these sustainable business practices over time, aiming to add one more thing a year, as the business could handle it.
In addition to contributing to her community at the local level, Wicks has also been active in supporting social and economic justice at both the international—with the Zapatistas—and the national level. Wicks is a cofounder of the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), a network of socially responsible entrepreneurs, business networks, and local economy funders.
In addition to BALLE, summit participants also heard about the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC), which works to advance public policies that foster a vibrant, just and sustainable economy through advocacy and public education. As ASBC co-founder and CEO, David Levine, pointed out, the US Chamber of Commerce spent over $136 million on lobbying in 2012 alone. When ASBC, a coalition of 70 socially responsible business networks, as well as some individual business and social enterprise members, shows up to meet with decision-makers or the media, people say, “We’ve never heard from you.” It’s about time our point of view got represented in the halls of power!
Massachusett-based cooperative businesses, including Equal Exchange, Harvest Co-op Markets, Valley Green Feast (a worker-owned local foods delivery service based in Northampton), and the Pioneer Valley Milk Marketing Cooperative (Our Family Farms) shared a panel. They agreed that supporting other coops (including each other) and sustainable businesses is both a key principle of how they do business and one way they’re able to hold their own in the face of much larger, corporate-owned, national (or multinational) businesses.
In over a dozen open space sessions, small groups convened to agree on specific actions that they’d take to advance sustainable business in Massachusetts over the coming year. The group I was in focused on how we can continue to expand the diversity of participants in the sustainable business networks. In addition to recruiting diverse business leaders to serve as keynote speakers at next year’s summit, we agreed to reach out to other local business networks, develop inclusive and welcoming messages and language, and look for best practices from other sustainable business networks.
Running a business can feel lonely and isolating at times. The can-do spirit of my small group, as well as the summit overall, left me feeling inspired and energized. Through cooperation, we can continue to build businesses that defy conventional wisdom to create a more sustainable world.