Sustainability: Moving From Exception To Rule


Back in 2001 we were “reluctant entrepreneurs” trying to organize Just Coffee as people who had absolutely no business training at all. What’s more, not only did we not have any training, we thumbed our noses at anything that smelled of standard business practices. This even as we tried to find support for our plan. The approach did not always work well.

When I walked into the UW Small Business center for help on our business plan, I expected that our ideas might not be totally familiar or smiled upon by the retired businessmen who volunteered to help startups in need. I sat down in a chair across from Bill– my volunteer business expert– and waited for some feedback. I had sent the plan to him a few days before so that he could get an idea of what we wanted to do. Bill put the plan on the table and pushed himself back in his chair. He slid his glasses down his nose and peered at me over the frames.

“You said you guys want to start a “for profit” business, right?” he asked me a little dubiously.

“Yes, that’s right.” I replied already starting to feel like a misbehaving second grader in the principal’s office.

“Right. Well, there is a major problem with this. You want to be a “for profit”, but you have a plan that– at it’s core– will limit your profits.”

“Well, we think that we can pay more for our coffee, make a little less money, and really show how trade can work for all involved.”

There was silence. He looked at me with a mix of pity and fatigue. After a moment he spoke up.

“Here is the thing. There are 6 or 7 other coffee roasters in town that already know what they are doing. You are coming into a full market where there is no space for you. You mention this term “fair trade” over and over in your plan, but you have to realize that most people don’t really care about it. Did you know that 80% of food and beverage startups fail in the first three years?”

Then he paused and hit me with this gem that I will never ever forget:

“Listen son, you cannot make a living selling coffee to a few dozen hippies on the east side of Madison.”

With that our session was over. He pushed our plan back across the table and reached for my hand. After a firm businessman handshake I started for the door trying to make sense of what had just happened. As I reached the doorway Bill clapped me on the back and said:

“Come back and see us when you have another idea. Or better yet, maybe write this up as a “non-profit”.

I thanked him and left.

We did not want to be a non-profit. We wanted to show that it was possible to be a “for profit” business with an unconventional idea of how to run a business. We persevered stubbornly and started up “by the bootstraps”. Although we have stumbled some along the way– and found out that within business exists an unstoppable force called “basic math”– we have become successful by any standard business metric. And we have done it with our mission and core values intact and leading our way.

Ten years later we have proven Bill completely wrong. Old school thinkers like him may be beginning to see that the idea of a sustainable, community-based, and cooperative business can work. As the idea of sustainability and fair(er) trade have seeped into the mainstream, bigger businesses are seeing that there is actually a competitive advantage to treating people and the environment with respect. Not only is it the right thing to do, but better practices can help set a company apart from its competitors. There is always the spectre of “greenwashing”– trying make one’s business practices look better than they are. But this becomes more difficult as technology and social networks give people forums for discussing and potentially exposing false claims and shady marketing. We have a long way to go, but looking back ten years it is easy to see that progress has been made. Today more people are asking for transparent and better business practices from the companies that they support with their dollars.

In the past week I have met with someone from Edgewood College about “social innovation” in business and spoken about community-supporting businesses at the UW. It is exciting to see that there is starting to be support within Universities and other institutions to teach these ideas as part of a standard business curriculum. If we can make these ideas the rule and not the exception we can make real strides toward building a real economic democracy and a better world.

Last year I was asked to speak to a class at the UW Business School. It was a blast to be in front of students and seeing them get excited about how to incorporate fairer trade and sustainability in their own business ideas. I scanned the auditorium for Bill as I told the story of my meeting with him a decade before, but he was nowhere to be seen. I’m not sure where he is now, but I’d love to hear his thoughts about all of this today. And I cannot lie– it was sweet to be standing up there in the same building where we were shot down, turning his assertions on their head.