Sustainable Business Learning Community Conversations, Jan 2015 - Feb 2015

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Sustainable Business, Feb 26, 2015 Topic: Spending and Investing

Below are a few additional comments about what we – as sustainable business leaders – might do to more fully engage our relationship with Earth, in sustainable and healthy ways.

  • Composting is an example of a practice each of us should spend time understanding and practicing; it provides a wonderful way to connect with Earth. There are a number of master composters associated with Green Garage, and because experience is so important to competency, becoming familiar with another’s experience can be a tremendous help to those new to composting.
  • The website, 350.org, has an interesting article about how folks in Portland Oregon have installed “water turbines” in a section of their city’s water supply pipes. Because the water supplied to Portland is “gravity fed” (i.e., it flows into the city from a higher elevation) there’s energy that can be harvested; in this case by installing turbines that generate electricity inside water supply pipes. This a good example of how we can adapt to a local or regional environment without doing it harm.
  • Chicagoland administrators are currently working to bring on-line the largest ever conceived rainwater retention system. The system, which will eventually be able to handle 11 billion gallons of water, takes advantage of the large open limestone quarries that surround the city. The quarries are being connected by large tunnels and will retain rain water runoff during heavy downpours, thus keeping the water from being co-mingled with sewage and simply released – untreated – into Lake Michigan. This is another example of how people are adapting to the local environment (in this particular case, the local geography) to come-up with ways to lessen negative environmental impacts.

In contrast, the Detroit region, which has seen its share of trying economic conditions, has not had the wherewithal to undertake such a project. Now, after many years of neglect and “political procrastination” – or what so many today refer to as “kicking the can down the road” (KTCDTR)– the region finds itself in a difficult situation as it relates to its water systems. Nevertheless, progress is being made. One example includes the requirement that all downspouts in the city be disconnected from draining directly into the storm water system. Of course, enforcing this requirement is another matter, yet herein lies an excellent opportunity to build awareness and persuade our neighbors to do “the right thing”.

  • The University of Michigan Environmental Interpretive Center does an excellent job of building awareness of matters related to our impact on the environment. It might be worth looking-into having someone from the center address the Green Garage community during one of our Friday Brown Bag Lunch meetings.

This week’s topic has to do with considering the differences between investing and spending. Whether it’s our money, time or love, each of us is challenged to understand whether what we do with what we have is an investment, or simply an “expense”. Investments take something, retain its value and then produce something more. Whereas an expense is consumed – or used-up – in producing the outcome. We can either put our energy – time, money, love – into things that produce more, or we can put it into things that produce only what we put in, or worse, consume the energy with little or nothing to show for it.

  • Tom purchased a book entitled, Return on Sustainability for all of $0.01. While he may not read the whole book, he’s relatively sure he’ll get something out of the book that’s worth more than what he put into it; therefore, he’s made an “investment” in this book.
  • As sustainable business leaders, we need to be attentive to what we’re doing with our energy. Considering things from a people perspective, are we spending time on relationships, or investing in relationships?

We need to give careful consideration to the relationships we build and whether they are good for our business in the long-haul, or just a short-term sort of thing. This isn’t meant to suggest we develop relationships out of some self-serving and manipulative worldview: we must strive to be authentic human beings. What it does suggest, however, is that in all of our relationships, we must learn to become sensitive to their deeper realities.

  • Our relationships go beyond the people dimension of the triple bottom line. As we’ve been discussing over the last few weeks, we have a relationship with Earth; we also maintain a relationship with money. We need to appreciate how dependent we are on Earth for our existence and we need to understand – especially in this age – the need to have a “healthy” relationship with money. If we’re too caught-up in money, we run the risk of becoming greedy; if we don’t care about it enough, we run the risk of becoming slovenly.
  • An example of how we might characterize our relationships is by considering their “stability”. We should ask ourselves: Are we connected to persons and things that might “shift” or move, or are we connected to persons and things that are stable and “grounded”?

For example, as it relates to a source of energy, geothermal is very stable: the temperature of the interior of Earth will not likely change any time soon. As a source of energy, geothermal is quite literally grounded. Whereas, fossil fuel energy sources are not at all stable; they’re exhibiting an instability many never expected. Yet, had we looked deeper, and considered our relationship to fossil fuels, their finite nature and what science has been telling us about their impact on the environment, we would have begun seeking more stable “energy relationships” long ago.

  • As much as geothermal is a very stable source of energy, our current accounting practices would lead us to believe an “investment” in its necessary infrastructure is not worth the money; this is because the payback time is not adequate. Taken from another perspective, and considering the increasing unreliability of fossil fuels, one might ask, “What’s to show for the voluminous amounts of money spent on these sorts of energy sources?”

Herein lies a good example of the difference between spending and investing. Money is being spent on fossil fuels (e.g., what’s to show for it after one’s home or office is heated etc.?); whereas money is being invested in geothermal energy. After the initial investment, the payback from geothermal may take longer to realize than what Generally Accepted Accounting Practice (GAAP) might dictate, yet the return on investment is significant thereafter, especially when it’s consider from a reduced negative environmental impact perspective.

  • One interesting way to look at investments is from a personal perspective. Has anyone ever invested in you? Has anyone ever given of his or her time – without the expectation of a payback – in helping you become a more integrated and whole person? What sort of payback ought one expect for doing something such as this? Are stronger, deeper relationships – ones that may or may not lead to a monetary gain – worth this sort of investment?
  • Some of us may devote energy to persons and things that don’t seem to lead to any sort of gain; yet we devote our energy in these places because we have faith there will be a “payback”. For example, one might volunteer his or her time to some project and not be confident the energy will bear any sort of seemingly useful fruit; yet he or she does so because that person senses an attraction to these sorts of projects. We might say that person has a “passion” for making an impact in a given area or realm.

These passions and desires arise from places we know not; they are simply there. Provided we don’t cling too tightly to them, and are always ready to let go should circumstances necessitate we do so, our pursuit of them is important. We are connected to things we cannot see; we exist in a cosmos, the origin of which we only hope to know. So, when we put our energy into projects that don’t necessarily have a tangible payback, yet are things in which we sense having a passion, we ought to do so – in faith – knowing our energy is being invested, and not simply spent.

  • In some cases, because of our accounting rules, entities will simply pay fines, rather than expend energy to implement corrective actions. We see this quite often in cases where the magnitude of the fine is insignificant – on a yearly budgetary basis – versus what the one-time expenditure would be to fix the problem. Of course, this is another example of the KTCDTR mentality, one that is increasingly prevalent in our age.
  • We discussed Susan’s hop growing business, which is very connected to Earth’s nurturing processes. It’s also connected to people (e.g., the brewers who use the product of her business). Susan needs to invest in her relationships with Earth and the brewers who make-up her customers.

From the standpoint of producing a quality yield, Susan must invest energy at the right time during the spring season. Properly pruning the vines to ensure they grow in a direction that will bear an optimum amount of hops; taking care of the soil and these sorts of things must be done at the right time. Having a relationship with Earth, one that affords Susan a certain “sensitivity”, is important to knowing when the time has come to make these sorts of investments. Done correctly, they will bear much fruit at harvest time. From a people perspective, Susan has time during the winter months, when the growing season has stopped, to invest energy in building relationships with the brewers who buy and use her hops. Winter is a great time to build these relationships and develop their stability. Planet and people relationships are integral to developing a profitable and sustainable business.

  • What we see in Susan’s experience is this notion of “seasonality”, wherein our relationships and the energy we put into them are intimately tied to the season in which they exist (i.e., at what point in its season of existence is a particular relationship?). The Just Baked story is an example of a case wherein its business leaders seem to have missed this concept.

Just Baked saw phenomenal growth of more than 420% in just three years; yet, in January of this year, the management team announced it would shutter all but four of the seventeen stores it at one time ran. Just Baked has had to tell many of its nearly seventy employees to find work elsewhere. While there are likely a number of reasons for these unfortunate circumstances, one may seems to be the failure of the business leaders to sense the season in which their business existed. Assuming popularity is “the new normal” can lead business leaders to make decisions that are wholly unjustified (e.g., about the rate of expansion etc.). It takes time to see patterns, just as it takes time to understand the nuances of the growing season in a particular local climate. What sort of longevity does a “gourmet cupcake” market have? What sorts of relationships did Just Bake have with their customers? Were they stable, or easily lost to some other craze or outlet? These sorts of questions are worth considering.

  • Susan discussed the way in which hop farming has changed and evolved throughout the last two centuries. At one time, all of the hop farming was done in the northeast by many small scale farmers. After time, these farms, by and large, ceased operation and the business eventually moved to the northwest, where large, industrial scale farming is now the norm.

Generally speaking, hop farms in Michigan are usually constituted by roughly 800 plants per acre and sizes of between one and ten acres. There are some, however, who are entertaining the idea of starting large industrial scale hops farms in Michigan. Whether these folks understand the sort of energy necessary to properly maintain a productive hop farm, remains to be seen. Without having a sensitivity to Earth and what it takes to be a successful hop farmer – borne out of nurtured relationships with people and planet – it’s hard to imagine how one could be successful, but who knows!

  • Quite often, we get caught-up in “silo thinking”: we fail to open-up to others about our ideas, thereby letting the collective consciousness of those around us refine and improve our way of thinking. To overcome this, we need to seek out those with various perspectives and viewpoints; we need to work through our ideas in ways that will expose them to natural cycles and “seasons”. It also means we need to consider how things will behave over much longer periods of time and under circumstances dictated by periodicity – whatever the parameters of the cycle may be (e.g., is it the natural growing season, the popularity of a product, resource limits etc.).
  • When we consider scale, we often confront the “unmanageability” of complexity (i.e., manmade systems sometimes reach a point of becoming so large their complexity is unmanageable). The Beer Distribution Game is a tool, developed by a group of professors at the MIT Sloan School of Management during the 1960’s, which is designed to teach students about the complexities of supply chains. The game illustrates how difficult it is to manage complexity under ideal, game like circumstances, let alone in the real world.
  • We are again reminded of how human beings struggle to control and manage the world around us by creating monocultures and large scale solutions; yet in the end, become confounded by our efforts. Smaller, manageable scale businesses models, grounded in local economies, offer more resilient and robust solutions. Nurturing these sustainable businesses takes investing in relationships, understanding seasonality and striving for payback that creates triple bottom line value. These are the sorts of things by which we measure a “return on sustainability”.



Sustainable Business, Feb 19, 2015 Topic: Sustainable Businesses' Relationship to the Earth; Steps We Can Take

Relationship to Earth.png

This week’s discussion focused on business relationships to the earth and the sorts of practicable things we might do to positively affect these relationships. The discussion began with introductions; some related something about what’s currently going-on with their respective business ventures.

  • Darryl talked about the “One Voice” project in which he’s involved. The project acknowledges black play writes and their contributions. The organization is putting-on a fund raiser production entitled, “Home”, which deals with what home means to people and what role food plays in the home.
  • Mark is getting more into permaculture and how his business might leverage these techniques to bring value to his customers. With the harsh winters being what they are, permaculture offers ways to mitigate the likelihood of certain plants dying due to the extremely low temperatures.
  • Susan is working on an historic preservation project that’s being funded by the CS Mott Foundation. CS Mott, we learned, was an automotive titan who started the foundation that bears his name in 1926. The project on which Susan is working involves a home makeover.
  • Tom is “getting balance” by focusing his efforts on gaining the certificate of occupancy for the El Moore – the “on-going exploration of sustainable urban living”. This means taking things out of his schedule to free-up time.
  • Andy is selling a house, which all admitted is a “big deal” – especially if one has already tried three times to sell the same house.

The following notes relate the discussion we had about our relationship with Earth and some practicable ways sustainable business leaders might develop this relationship:

  • People indigenous to the Amazon River valley have adapted to the way in which the river floods during certain times of the year. They do so without attempting to re-direct water flow with engineering solutions. In fact, they simply do not erect any sort of permanent structures in flood plain region: They move out when the time comes.
  • A somewhat different approach to the Amazonians is that of the US Corps of Engineers, who erected all sorts of levies and other such engineering solutions around the Mississippi River flood plains of the greater St. Louis Missouri region. These solutions – while marvels of mankind’s ingenuity – eventually failed, causing all sorts of problems. Solutions wherein we “adapt” to nature (e.g., by not building expensive, permanent structures in flood plains of large rivers etc.) rather than trying to control it, are likely to be far more reliable in the long-term.
  • The city of Petra is an ancient example of this sort of thing. The city, which rose out the desert, was likely established in the 300’s BC. It prospered because of an elaborate system of cisterns and aqueducts. During heavy rains, these systems stored the water for later use and sale.

The city began its decline in 363 AD, largely because an earthquake severely damaged the system of cisterns and aqueducts. The point isn’t to hold this up as an example of why engineered solutions should not be pursued: It’s to develop the capacity to recognize engineered solutions as having limitations. In particular solutions “out of synch” with nature (e.g., water in a dessert) are not the sorts of things in which we ought to place our faith. Flood plains will eventually fill with water and water diversion tactics won’t last forever.

  • Another example of how our behavior is having a negative environmental impact is the phenomenon of subsidence caused by resource extraction (e.g., water, oil, gas etc.). Houston, which has seen its share of oil and gas extraction over the years, is 30 feet lower than it was many years ago. As a result of this subsidence, problems with flooding and water run-off have increased in and around the Houston region.
  • There’s been a significant increase in earthquakes in Oklahoma and they’re being attributed to sub-strata disturbances caused by fracking. It’s disconcerting to note the extent to which costs associated with fracking (e.g., property destruction because of earthquakes, human health problem suffered by residents living near fracking operations, excessive methane emissions etc.) are simply overlooked.
  • Detroit has its share of manmade solutions that go-up against nature’s systems. Many of Detroit’s creeks and small rivers have been simply filled-in or re-routed by storm sewers. During last year’s “Big Rain”, had these small creeks and rivers been available to help drain the area, much of the street flooding seen around the city may not have occurred.
  • The question we must ask ourselves is, “What are we doing to make a difference?” One example is Mayor Shirley Gibson of Miami, who had the foresight to champion a sewer system designed to handle future needs. The question also must be asked of us as persons.
  • Anything we can do around our homes to reduce water run-off will in-turn lessen the impacts placed on storm sewers. Increasing the permeability of the land around one’s house is key to reducing water run-off. The El Moore is a good example of this sort of thinking. The El Moore incorporates a cistern to hold water for irrigation needs and it utilizes horizontal French drains to drain the water into the ground, versus the storm sewers.
  • Increasing our awareness of local manmade systems and how they work is foundational to developing an understanding of what we ought to do. Many don’t realize the Detroit region’s sanitary sewer system will actually “co-mingle” with the storm system during heavy rains. When the system reaches capacity, raw sewage is co-mingled with rain water and simply dumped into the Great Lakes surrounding the region. During the Big Rain, more than 3 billion gallons of combined sewer – sewage and rain water – and 44 million gallons of raw sewage were dumped into the regions Great Lakes.
  • As sustainable business leaders, we ought to think about helping others become more aware of these issues. Mark distributes pamphlets to inform his customers about local ordinances and what they mean; this helps his customers better understand the idiosyncrasies of their particular neighborhoods. We can also tell stories about what’s been done to correct or mitigate these sorts of problems.

The Green Alley is a good example of this practice. Whenever visitors come to Green Garage and take the tour, they’ll hear about what was done to fix the standing water problems in the alley south of Green Garage. Writing a John Gallagher style article for local papers – one describing the missing creeks and rivers around Detroit and the problems this has caused – is another example of what we can do to increase awareness.

  • An example of good city planning is what was done in an around the Upper Rouge River that runs through Farmington and Farmington Hills. Instead of building permanent structures in the flood plains, a series of parks was constructed. Most of the time, the parks provide residents with a space to recreate; when rains are heavy, and flooding occurs, the resulting property damage – if any – is insignificant. This example stands in contrast to what was done in other areas around the Rouge (e.g., filling in creeks and small rivers in Detroit). We need to realize, “You can’t control the Rouge River; it’s gonna’ go where it wants!”
  • After some discussion, the group took a “field trip” to have a look at the roller door in the Green Garage Annex. When designing Green Garage, the focus – in terms of developing energy efficiency – was not so much on the Annex, as it was on the main building. While consideration was given to the roller door, it wasn’t – at the time –clear how the Annex space was to be used: Would it be a warehouse, as it was originally designed, or something else?

Since opening Green Garage, the Annex has evolved into a space that, among other things, houses a business – Red Panda – that performs precise and small scale work (e.g., assembling circuit boards etc.). This necessitates having a system that will provide a room temperature atmosphere year round. This is a bit difficult in a space with such a large roller door and a system designed primarily for a warehouse. Rather than take a knee-jerk reaction and simply increase energy input (e.g., space heaters), Tom and the GG team “took a deep breath” and considered the problem from a “conservation” perspective. This contrasts with what we so often see, which is to “force” things (e.g., forcing more heat energy into an inefficient envelope). This shift in paradigm is important. Conservation is “natural”. In all of creation, we see a highly “conservative system”; there is no waste in the natural world – literally none. All of the energy from the sun that impinges Earth’s living systems is converted to something that can be used – in some way or another – by these systems. Our engineered solutions ought to emerge using nature as their model. Rather than spend energy overcoming nature, we ought to conserve energy and seek solutions that are as close to “net zero” as possible. Using the idea of conservation as the backdrop, the GG team made an IR temperature profile of the roller door and identified the areas around it wherein the greatest heat loss was occurring. A relatively simple design, consisting of tongue and groove insulated panels, was installed over the face of the door. Additional panels were placed on the floor and particular attention was paid to the areas around the tracks. The end result is a significant increase in heat conservation. Standing in-front of the roller door, on a day when the outside temperature was in the upper teens, was not at all uncomfortable. The temperature within roughly ten feet of the door was in the sixties.

  • Being aware of what’s going-on around us and how things evolve is foundational to understanding what we need to do as sustainable business leaders. As our worldview evolves, and we become more aware of things from a sustainability perspective, the way we practice business and the things important to us changes as well. The increased volume of UPS shipments to and from GG is an example of this evolving awareness. Rather than have the wood floors in the main building covered with salt from Roderick’s hand truck, the deliveries are now routed through the door to the Annex. Being aware of the effect salt has on the wood floors, is a small but important example of being aware of things.
  • Another example of what we can do, as residents and sustainable business leaders, is to undertake activities that bring us in closer contact with nature, and thereby deepening our understanding of what nature requires of us. Composting is a good example of something we all ought to be doing. Composting necessitates coming to understand a set of natural systems and working with them to accomplish an end (i.e., turning waste into useful materials). By taking the time to learn how to compost, our awareness of natural systems increases, thus broadening our worldview and sensitivity to what it means to live and practice business sustainably.

Sustainable Business, Feb 12, 2015 Topic: Exploring a Sustainable Business's Relationship to the Earth

We begin by exploring our awareness or our businesses' relationship to the earth:

  • We need to think about how our businesses relate to the earth; this isn’t just about the negative side of things, such as how much trash the business produces, or what sorts of pollution it creates. Although these sorts of things are important –and must be considered – the focus here is a bit deeper.
  • Our environment, and therefore the environment our businesses occupy, is comprised of –in a fundamental sense – earth, water, atmosphere and sun. We often have the inclination to view businesses as being separate from these things; yet this is not the case.
  • Consider what happens during a Michigan winter: there’s not much landscaping taking place, nor does much painting go-on outside. This is because it’s cold; most plants aren’t doing much growing and paint doesn’t dry well when it’s cold. So, if you run a landscaping or painting business in Michigan, you’ll need to adapt to the changes in weather during the winter, and either do something else, or figure-out how to work effectively (e.g., use heat in creative ways etc.).
  • It’ important, therefore, to be cognizant of the interconnectedness our businesses have with their respective environments; we need to think a bit more deeply about how our businesses might adapt to the environments in which they operate.
  • Cost can be a driver of environmental awareness. Many businesses focus on lowering energy costs, which in turn may result in lower carbon dioxide emissions and therefore a lessening of negative environmental impacts.
  • One’s worldview affects how he or she sees a business’s interaction with the environment. The way we see the “big picture”, in many cases, is foundational to whether we’re aware of how our business interacts with, or is affected by its environment.
  • As a business, Living Well Communities is highly connected with the environment. For example, the way in which sunlight enters a particular room, the time of day it enters and the extent to which the room is illuminated, can have a significant effect on a person’s outlook and overall health. It’s very important to be aware of these sorts of factors when designing or choosing a place to live or work.

Other examples of how the environment affects the places we occupy include the terrain around the building and the way in which the building is oriented with respect to prevailing winds. The gradient around the building dictates the extent to which water does or does not drain from the property; the orientation of the building, and the placement of windows, affect the extent to which cross-ventilation can be achieved.

  • The population in a particular climate region will adapt to the seasons; they become accustomed to the way the weather changes and how these impacts affect business practice. Someone from another climate region may not understand these peculiarities; as a result, that person may have unrealistic expectations of what the business can do during a particular season. For example, someone from California, who has invested – or would like to invest – in real estate development in Michigan, may not appreciate the way in which extreme cold can cause pipes to burst or curtail certain types of property development (e.g., painting outside etc.).
  • Earth has certain “rules” by which human beings must abide; we don’t have any choice in the matter! Quite often, however, persons get “caught-up” in the perception of their being able to subdue Earth. This sort of worldview is disconnected from reality: people have emerged from Earth’s “systems”. We didn’t design them. Ours is to figure-out how to live in balance and harmony with them, not subdue, or completely alter them in ways we don’t understand.
  • Persons must learn to be “respectful” of the weather and nature; we must recognize there’s something bigger than us and learn to adapt to the environment in healthy and harmonious ways.
  • We are located in “where we are”. A person’s view of things is affected by the locale in which he or she finds him or herself. It’s difficult to disconnect from the effect location has on our perceptions; this makes it difficult to run a business from a distant and unconnected environment (e.g., this factor has a significant effect on globally run businesses).

This is a recent phenomenon and has emerged in the last century, with our discovery and ability to use mass-communication and intercontinental travel. Without taking the time to become immersed in the particular region of the world wherein the business is located, and becoming thoroughly rooted there, business leaders run the risk of not understanding how their business may be affected the environment in which it’s located.

  • A good example of how the environment affects business is the materials used in construction. Homes in the US, for example, are built – by and large – from wood. This is because of what’s available in the local environment. In the US, there’s an abundance of lumber; it’s easy and inexpensive to extract and use. In England, homes are generally built from stone for the same reason: stone is easy to extract and use.
  • An odd phenomenon of this age is the tendency for retirees – especially those from Michigan – to move to regions wherein the destructive forces of global climatic change are greatest (e.g., Florida). As a matter of commerce, certain insurance companies recognize this as a problem and are beginning to refuse to write policies on properties in these regions. This will lead to the general public having to bear this cost burden; it will also have a negative environmental impact.

Increasingly, as people build in high risk environments, and are either under-insured or not insured at all, there will be little or no money available for clean-up after a weather related disaster. This means open sewers and other related toxic flows caused by the destroyed building could remain as such indefinitely, because there’ll be no way – other than through public funding – to clean-up the mess.

  • Most of us are affected by the perception that disaster is not something we’ll have to endure; we tend to go through life thinking whatever the disaster may be will never happen. In some ways, this shows a lack of respect for what the environment is capable of offering-up.
  • A somewhat related phenomenon is the way in which we manipulate or overuse the environment, despite the perils these sorts of things present. For example, industrialized farming is literally destroying Earth’s capacity to provide food, yet it’s very difficult for us to perceive this problem. We are failing to respect the Earth’s systems and the way in which they’re designed.
  • Our systems are also failing to adapt to changes in the environment; this is especially true when it comes to building codes. Since building Green Garage, a number of “100 year events” – the benchmark around which building codes are written – have come and gone. This means, had Green Garage been built to current standards (codes), the building would likely have succumbed to a number of weather related disasters (e.g., floods, etc.).
  • A contrasting example to Green Garage is what happened to a recently built Wayne State University dormitory during last winter’s extreme cold temperature event: pipes burst and portions of the building were flooded. As a result, many students were – literally – put out on the street and left with no place to stay.

There are a number of other poignant examples of how people in the Detroit region – especially those of lesser means – are being affected by environmental change. The flooding that took place last year destroyed a number of furnaces; folks who have trouble affording new furnaces, or are left short because of inadequate insurance coverage, are suffering under the burdens of these added costs. In some cases, they are literally being left in the cold.

  • As a contrast to this sort of thinking (i.e., a lack of respect for the environment) is the culture of the Dutch. Because they live in an environment that’s constantly being threatened by the sea, the Dutch worldview tends to be far more respectful of what the environment is capable of doing – generally. Even small amounts of sea level rise can be disastrous to the Dutch. They have no choice but to be very respectful of the environment; the way in which they build reflects this respect.
  • Some think decisions about how buildings are constructed, and therefore the codes that govern these things, are driven strictly by cost; this isn’t necessarily the case. If we consider only cost, then many, many homes in the US would not be built – at least not as they’ve been built. It’s not the amount of money, it’s how the money is spent.

US home buyers will generally choose things that enhance aesthetics, over enhancements that would improve the likelihood of the home surviving an extreme weather event. For example, most home buyers would sink more money into expensive light sconces, before sending it on enhancements that would go beyond codes to protect plumbing from freezing.

  • Of course, many of us are deluded into thinking, “someone else will bear the burden of these costs”; however, this isn’t the case. The federal government – meaning every US citizen – will ultimately take-on the cost burden for this general lack of foresight.
  • These sorts of things point to how much we really don’t know about our environment and how it can affect our businesses. For example, consider where you’re sitting right now: In what direction is magnetic south and how far is this from polar south? Many of us don’t realize there’s a difference!
  • As Americans, were also colored by our culture. We tend to believe we can conquer anything: American ingenuity will overcome any obstacle. Other cultures are much more in-touch with their environment and the power it can have over their lives. Ours is a young culture; it’s been significantly affected by the emergent technology of the industrial age. We tend to put so much faith in the ability to overcome things with technology; we fail to see the interconnectedness of life and the way in which Earth’s systems provide for our existence.
  • There’s no way around understanding these things – the interconnectedness of life and the “rules” by which Earth operates. We must learn to have respect for the environment and to get in-touch with the power it can have – especially as it relates to the decisions we make about running our businesses.
  • A great book about this sort of stuff is Erik Larson’s, Isaac’s Storm. It centers on the hurricane that hit Galveston, Texas in 1900; it’s about our tendency to be arrogant in our beliefs. “Ultimately…it is the story of what can happen when human arrogance meets nature's last great uncontrollable force.” (From the hardcover).


Sustainable Business, Feb 5, 2015 Topic: Jess Daniels on Transitioning Leadership

Comments from last week’s conversation about “bringing things to an end”:

  • Things really don’t end. Anything that ends leaves something behind; so to say something has ended doesn’t necessarily mean there’s nothing left. In nature, all death leads to new life – in some way or another.
  • How do we resolve “how much is enough”? Sometimes – and this seems to be true when we’re creating things – it’s difficult to say when something is finished. At the start of a project, we have an idea of what the perfect version of the product ought to be. Some of us tend to cling to this idea. At some point, the work is probably “good enough”; however, those who cling to the perfect version of the product may lose sight of good enough: They don’t know when to quit.
  • There are unique aspects of transitioning leadership: When does one’s role as a leader come to an end? Does it really end, or is there “something left behind”?
  • What sorts of messages are we giving to those who are following us – the folks who are younger and less experienced? Inside every leader is a follower and inside every follower is a leader. We need to recognize this as we work with others, especially those less experienced. The way in which we lead must take into account that we are also followers.
  • There is a new way of living and working emergent in Detroit. The crucible of post-industrialism is all around us. As those who aspire to be sustainable business leaders, we need to pay attention to the unique ways in which our community – and the leaders within it – are shaping the future of Detroit.
  • The industrial age taught us “big is better”; post industrialism is teaching us “big is risky”. Nature teaches us the same thing: monocultures are susceptible to all sorts of problems (e.g., disease, bugs infestations etc.). Diversity is far more “resilient”; the same is true in business. Diverse, local economies are far more healthy, and therefore resilient, than a “too big to fail” global economy.
  • The African term Ubuntu, which is often used in a philosophical sense to convey “…the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity” is appropriate to a discussion about leadership. An African Xhosa proverb "I am what I am because of who we all are” relates this notion as well. If we are to be effective leaders, and if the businesses we lead are to be successful in providing for “the common good”, we must recognize the dignity of every person. We need to realize, without followers – those who are also leaders – we’ll not have much of a business.


This week’s conversation, Jess Daniels' Story on Transitioning Leadership:

Jess Daniels, the founder and current leader of FoodLab, related her experience of leadership transition.

  • FloodLab was founded “unintentionally” following a number of conversations with food entrepreneurs about food.
  • FoodLab is now a 501 c 3 with a $300K budget and four staff members; it’s the result of Jess’s following her instincts and her heart. The folks who are part of FoodLab know that we are all part of a bigger system; they recognize the importance of understanding things in terms of systems.
  • Jess is comfortable with the leadership transition that’s now taking place at FoodLab. There’s much to be done – to be sure – but there’s a sense of peace in seeing FoodLab as a “Step Along the Way”. Jess sees her experience with FoodLab has being something that resonates with Archbishop Oscar Romero’s prayer, “A Step Along the Way”, which ends with the line, “We are prophets of a future not our own.” We cannot do everything, and as business leaders, it’s very important to keep this in mind.
  • When FoodLab was just getting started, Jess was going full force 100% of the time; this went-on for three years and throughout it all, the constant pace wasn’t tiring: it was an invigorating experience. Then, suddenly in July of 2013, burnout set-in and she actually dreaded going to the launch of Kitchen Connect, which was a milestone event for the organization.
  • Jess is a person with very “porous boundaries”, and taking on the emotional energy of those around her is something that comes naturally. She wound-up putting her PhD work on hold and pouring what she had into FoodLab. Ultimately, this singular focus was no longer something that was invigorating; it stopped being an energizing experience.
  • There were a number of conversations with the folks in her circle who are passionate about FoodLab: Who might step-up to help lead FoodLab? Some stepped forward, but Jess remained the one who was the most invested in the organization; she was the “glue” that held it together.
  • In January of 2014, however, Jess drafted a transition plan, which included a “co-director” model. The plan is really a two-page narrative that highlights how FoodLab is and could be managed. The plan was eventually introduced to key partners.
  • There have been some changes along the way. One very significant change is that the person who was to have become the co-director has admitted she’s not ready to take-on being the sole director.
  • The current leadership model could be described as a “staff collective”, wherein the staff lead by a consensus building model. FoodLab has always been a networked organization, so this sort of arrangement seems to fit naturally.
  • Some of the staff members don’t understand the administrative elements of the organization, which means they have some room for development and growth in their understanding.
  • Not being able to identify a titular head of the organization presents some problems for FoodLab – at least in terms of how others view FoodLab’s governance.

Western society tends to have expectations about how an organization is to be led: there must be a single person who carries the title of leader. These notions are being challenged in this day. For example, titles are something the Green Garage eschews. Hierarchal leadership models may become a thing of the past. There are emergent governance models, such as employee stock ownership plans, that are challenging traditional expectations and are moving toward a much more democratic form of business leadership.

  • Now that the staff is becoming acclimated to this new leadership model, Jess is seeing them become more comfortable with decision making. Jess is less of a backstop for decisions than she has been in the past.
  • Others have experienced a questioning of their own: Can I do what I am setting-out to do? Can I put-in the effort it’s going to take? The masculine approach tends to be one of “forcing” things to happen, versus the more feminine approach, wherein one is to be cognizant of where things are flowing and nurture the organization along where these paths seem to be leading. Quite often, we have the impression it’s good because it’s hard, which can be very problematic.
  • The idea is not to cling to the “vehicle” on which our business rests, so much as it is to hold on to the “thread of truth” our business is pursuing. As business leaders, we must follow a thread of truth, rather than trying to force our vision onto reality.

As we set-off to create sustainable businesses, we need to be aware of the truth that frames whatever it is we’re doing. As we learn more and gain experience, the clarity with which we see our business ought to improve. As it does, we may need to abandon certain elements we thought would work, in favor of things that are better suited to staying the course. If we cling too tightly to any material thing, we then run the risk of losing the thread of truth and going down the wrong path.

  • It’s a myth to believe people who lead have vision. The best leaders are pursuing a truth: how they get there will change as things progress. It’s not vision, as much as it is knowing some truth. Understanding this, and appreciating what others can do to help the leader pursue the thread of truth – the interconnectedness of life – is foundational to truly effective leadership. Making muffins can help one understand this concept.
  • Jess knows everyone has the capacity for greatness; it’s in doing whatever she can to remove the junk that stands in the way of people achieving greatness that really drives her.
  • When moving a business forward, the best thing a leader can do is get there without damaging people along the way.
  • Right now, Jess is acting primarily as a coach; she’s not jumping in to “save the day” if it looks like a deadline is going to be missed. Ensuring things get done is being taken on by the leadership team, not Jess.
  • Jess’s goal is to get out by the end of May and it’s the “leadership systems” that are allowing her to do so. Jess described the management processes and systems she’s helped to develop and implement at FoodLab. These leadership systems – the regular ways in which plans are updated, time is tracked and projects are managed – is Jess’s legacy of leadership. So, as Jess’s role as the leader of FoodLab comes to an end in May, her leadership carries-on in the systems and processes she helped to implement.
  • The systems and process we use create a certain rhythm peculiar to the business; this is not unlike the rhythms we see in nature, such as the change in seasons or when day turns to night. The numbers we use to measure key processes create a language team members can understand and trust. Within these rhythms and through the languages we speak, our businesses come alive and can be literally “felt” by our team members.

These things – regular meetings, updates, and metrics – seem to some to be restrictive or too structured. Yet these seemingly restrictive things beget a deeper understanding of the business, and therein lies the confidence to be free: free to take time off to do other things. Of course, regular updates and metrics are “under the water”; they’re not sexy or things customers see, but they’re vital to the meeting the purpose of the business – to follow its thread of truth.

  • Consensus leadership models are an integral aspect of the Quaker faith tradition. There are all sorts of dynamics associated with achieving success with this model. In fact, collective leadership may not mean consensus.

One of the questions that needs to be asked of a leader who’s not quite on board with a decision is this: Are you heading north? If the person is still heading north, than all will be well. On the other hand, if that person, upon an examination of consciousness, finds he or she no longer desires to “head north”, then it may be time to get off the bus.

  • It must be recognized that conflict is OK; without it, monoculture results, and there’s very little resilience in monoculture. This is analogous to an autocratic organization made-up of sycophants: the moment the leader’s vision is no longer congruent with reality, the whole place comes apart.
  • When it comes to making decisions, the focus must be on the process by which decisions are made, and not on the particular decision. No one person, or group of persons, is correct all the time. So, when an incorrect decision is made, or if things are not working-out, it’s more important to focus on how the decision was made. If the process by which the decision was made was in some way flawed, whatever breakdown in the decision making process needs to be fixed and the poor decision needs to be undone. Being concerned with how things are done – and working to improve these things – is the key to successful leadership and the way in which leaders are brought-up.
  • Systems leadership is the key term to remember. What sorts of systems make-up the business? Are they functioning well and do they nurture and enable leadership? These are the things that provide for on-going and effective leadership – regardless of who’s doing the leading.



Sustainable Business, Jan 29, 2015 Topic: Transitioning Leadership Responsibilities

Comments from last week’s conversation on Setting Limits; How Much is Enough?:

  • What message should we give to young people today: do the traditional grind, or work only at a level that takes into account their work, health, and spirit, with a clear understanding of how much is enough for them as an individual.
  • Work with more balance in your life
  • Detroit can be a laboratory for a new urban lifestyle giving people the freedom to choose a different work/life mix
  • Young people today look at older people and wonder if they want that same life
  • There is only one life to a customer. What does success look like to you?
  • How can one create a successful sustainable business incorporating a new work/life mentality in a system that demands expansion and growth? How does that new way of thinking (enough is enough) fit into the old model? This is not a negative, just an unknown. Working under a new model doesn’t mean you have failed, you’re just not included in the standard models.

Resilience is the New Growth

  • Today, being big is very risky (ATT); being small and resilient is much safer and more sustainable.
  • We know that monoculture is bad ecologically, economically, and sociologically - we need to build diversity in order to become more resilient as a business.


Today’s Topic: Transition of Leadership:

  • Question: Is there any leadership will not need to be transitiioned? The answer is no, because we are always in fluid and ever-changing situations in which leadership will need to change.
  • Secret to transitioning: Learning and Listening
  • Leadership should overlap during a transition period so that change can happen easily and naturally.
  • Do we develop followers as well as leaders? All future leaders are at one point followers; followers of people, trends, ideas… If you think of yourself as only a leader, then you are not open to learning and receiving new ideas.
  • We all want to be individuals, and be part of the crowd at the same time.

“I am because we are, we are because I am”

Leadership and responsibility:

  • Is relegating responsibility the same as passing leadership on to other people?
  • There is a difference between passing on leadership and abdication of responsibility.

Kevin’s teaching position at CCS: Kevin wants to erase leadership/follower model and just have teaching and learning - everyone teaches and everyone learns. Everything is placed in the hands of the students - they are responsible for their own work and what they do. He arranged the work tables in a circle with his own table included as just one of the rest - all at the same level. He has the students explain their work to other students, allowing them to be part of the teaching process.



Sustainable Business, Jan 22, 2015 Topic: How Much is Enough? Finding Limits in a Sustainable Business

This page is in the process of being edited


Comments from last week’s conversation: How do we successfully bring things to a conclusion in a sustainable way?

  • How do we define a healthy end? We sometimes interpret the end of something as a failure or death. How do we deal with anger, anxiety surrounding endings?
  • If your values aren't in sync with those of the other person/business, then it can produce an unhealthy working environment. Bringing a business relationship that is not working well to an end can and should be done in a healthy way. "Nice does not mean stupid."
  • Understand what the scope of your work is and what it isn’t - be clear about what a client is paying for.
  • Reality of transitions: El Moore Project, we are finishing construction and starting operations. How does this transition go in a healthy way? From leadership standpoint, how do you get people to make transitions? How do you create a transition environment? There is so much to sort out and all those little details can really add up.
  • Just like a theater director hands off to a stage manager as they move toward opening night (dress rehearsals, etc), business leaders need to know how to transition smoothly.
  • Not addressing the difficulties of things ending is shirking your leadership responsibilities.
  • Some transitions mean that you are losing a community - a group of relationships, and that can be hard.
  • Kevin: as a designer going from a design phase to an implementation phase is hard for him. One idea for this year is to get over his hesitations - just move forward.
  • Jeff’s Mission at DHive was planning for the future transition to the other people who were going to take the various programs of DHive forward. This was a goal he and they were always working on so it wasn’t looked on as a change but as progress. It’s psychological - a mindset that they worked on from the beginning. the DHive brand has peeled away and they were left with two new and healthy organizations - like cracking an egg - DHive was just the shell. Clear finish of DHive and clear launch of the two new organizations. Change was positive - everyone knew what their role would be - everyone knew that they would be moving forward and doing more - all were happy with the end of DHive and transition into new orgs. Change was always the plan from the beginning. If you want people to follow you, you have to tell them where you’re going.
  • Planned change, unplanned but not surprising change, and the big surprise (change you didn’t expect and have to now adapt to)
  • All endings, all transitions are what we make of them. Can be made into progress, or can be a big mess. How do we take care of the people, community and planet around these changes.
  • First must accept that change is happening.


Today’s Topic: How Much Is Enough? Working With Limits in a Sustainable Business

  • This is a question that we cannot avoid. How much practice is enough? Design? Money?
  • This is a topic that keeps coming up over and over again with the small businesses we are developing.
  • Have to gain some emotional intelligence about how much is enough in your business - what limits are sustainable for you in your business?
  • Andy: When you invest in the market, you have to know when you have enough money. What do you do once you have enough? When you have enough, then you have choices - you can move away from the risk. You have to have minimally enough, but when do you stop growing?
  • If you can’t identify how much is enough, that can lead to trouble and affect you and your organization negatively.
  • Must have an awareness of ourselves.
  • Identifying “enough” gets personal. You don’t want to regret your choices and know that you didn’t live the life you really wanted. Must do what is healthy for you.
  • Kevin’s questions: What are the signs that he needs to look for that let him know that he has reached his limit and that it’s time to move on? Limits can be an ambiguous concept.
  • Def of success: Getting to or exceeding your clients’ expectations.
  • Advice for Kevin: the more work he does, the better he will be at guessing where his limits are. Also, his clients ought to pay for his play time. It’s all about developing the kind of relationships that allow you to do this.
  • How many clients is enough for David B: First of all, it can take some time to learn how much is enough for you (took him 3 years after his retirement). His limit is 20 - 25, and thru experience, he has found that this is how many clients he can handle and only work 3 days a week.. Because he has other interests and responsibilities at home. So he has picked the things he likes to do - quality of life.
  • Goethe: constantly seeking happiness - just look and it will be there. (look this up) Lisa to her start-ups: what will make you really happy? work with people in your community? work with communities in Africa? What does being a success mean to you - why do you want to do this business, what makes you happy? Keep checking in with that. You don’t want to get off track - careful of pivots. Be flexible to pivot to new opportunities, but not to the extent that it takes you away from your goals and what it is that makes you happy.
  • Talking about money is important - you have to have control of the financials in your business.
  • Even if you’re in a non-profit, money is still very important or you can’t do what you want to do.
  • Tom: awareness of your limits. Much more accepting of my own personal limits now in his life. He has lived beyond those limits and realized that it’s not a life he wants to live. Part of this process is making mistakes and learning from those mistakes, moving back from too much to enough. Look at your weekly schedule and ask yourself, “Do I want to live that this week?”

Sustainable Business, Jan 8, 2015 Topic: Hopes and Plans for the New Year

As is our tradition with the Sustainable Business Conversation's first meeting in January, we ask participants to share with us their hopes and plans in the New Year for their sustainable business and/or for themselves personally. Here's what we learned:


Darryl (SideBar Black Art Theatre) has two goals:

  1. To work with Project One Voice in getting components together for projects in Detroit.
  2. Learn how to play the guitar!


Andy: Recently returned to Detroit after a number of years living in various cities around the country; with a background in city planning, he would like to identify a way that he could contribute to the revitalization of the city of Detroit.


Rich: Having recently moved to Detroit from Boulder, CO, he is thinking about how to create a new economy with a focus on people. Currently volunteering with the Michigan Urban Farming Initiative, he has a variety of business interests:

  • He would like to continue his involvement in urban farming and be a manager of a farm, if possible.
  • Would like to work on building bikes and cargo bikes; encourage people to bike in the city and use cargo bikes to do deliveries.
  • Interested in starting a youth apprenticeship program, eventually creating jobs.


Kimberly: Understands that her work is more of a "soup", a combination of everyone's contributions and gifts. Wants to be more open to what others have to bring to the table, recognize the validity of differing points of view and people's different backgrounds and areas of knowledge.

Mark: Wants to start putting what he is learning about permaculture into practice. Through his work, he has learned a lot about how nature takes care of itself and how our artificial, chemical products disrupt natural processes. He wants to be able to put what he has learned onto his website and share that knowledge with his clients.

Kyle: Wants to begin implementing some of the ideas he's been kicking around for the past couple of years.

  • First, cargo bike business - continue working on developing design and philosophy around this business.
  • Work on advocacy group centered around transportation methods other than cars.
  • Wants to move forward with development of a social/economic action group to reduce car dependency and develop bike-ability and walkability of city neighborhoods. Also interested in getting neighborhoods connected through access to transit.
  • Learn more about development and how this happens in the city and in its neighborhoods.

John: He resolves to eat some Ben & Jerry’s ice cream to celebrate every cold day of our Michigan winter. Good idea, John!

Harriet: Wants to finish setting up her Etsy store to sell the products she makes.