Sustainable Business: Wake Up and Smell the Coffee

I just clicked ‘checkout’ for a few pounds of Dean’s Beans. Haven’t tried them before, but wanted to after hearing Dean Cycon, CEO of Dean’s Beans and author of Javatrekker: Dispatches From the World of Fair Trade Coffeespeak tonight at Indiana University.

“I don’t believe social justice is a formula, I believe it is a process.”

Passionate and positive, he shared his ideas on how socially responsible business practice and respect for quality of life can help change the world.

Sustainable business is all the rage, but efforts at many companies seem to get holed up in the marketing department or as purely charitable exercises. I asked Dean if he thought large organizations could change over to the sustainable thinking his company emulates:

“For a pre-existing large scale organization it’s hard because people are already in there looking for profit. […] However, when a corporation starts out and says these are our values: ‘We’re a triple bottom line corporation. Yes, we’re going to try and maximize profit but not at the expense of the third world sourcing ecology, or the health of the communities we buy from. We’re not going to do profit on the backs of people to the point it damages their air, water, or food, or their communities. Were going to balance that. Were going to give up a little of this to get that.’

So if you start like that there is a sufficient investment community out right now who’s willing to say, ‘I’ll vote my dollars there.’ “

Interesting take. Old business models are often replaced by new thinking.  Some organizations transform, but more often they decline and are replaced. A core difference between old and new thinking is the idea of profit maximization and value maximization for shareholders. The difficulty has been and continues to be a question of measurement and recognition. The ability to recognize the value of social responsibility for shareholders is key to the idea’s growth.

Efforts to elevate sustainability and Corporate Responsibility are being highlighted publicly by companies in annual reports (See Inditex’s annual report here pg 57), special reports (Apple recently released this supplier responsibility report) and in the media. Right now much of this work is justified to protect corporate reputations (avoiding negative customer reaction), as well as to improve operations (social problems impact supply chains).  This transparency helps, but the efforts show differences from Dean’s.

Dean says his company takes a three tier approach to meet the corporate responsibilities they have set for themselves. Environmental, Economic, and Social.  I had not realized the extent of pesticide use in the coffee industry, second only to cotton, and including multiple chemicals that have been banned for use in the United States. Dean’s Beans helps the co-ops they buy from go through the process of becoming Organically Certified (as he says, ‘organic by design.’) This is more than just ending pesticide use (something he calls ‘organic by neglect’).

Dean’s Beans also internally funds what Dean calls People Centered Development. I found the approach interesting: they work with the community itself, they listen and observe, and then help facilitate something the community is going to run. The variety of projects highlights the community specific approach. For example a revolving well fund in Ethiopia called Miriam’s Well, a tree planting project (over 100 thousand trees planted) in Peru, and a prosthetic program in Nicaragua.  The goal was to start projects that would self fund over time and last.  This approach appears to rely heavily on a very personal relationship between company and community and a belief that the programs must outlast the start-up efforts of Dean’s Beans.

When asked what makes a community development program sustainable:

“Buy in, community buy in.  The community must feel that it owns the program, that it’s not being forced on them and its not going to be taken away from them. But rather its their program, they own and operate it then and will invest their energy in it even in rough times.”

So, a great evening even if I was drinking the wrong brand of joe. In the next few days I hope to be enjoying a cup of Uprising!

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