Organic Food is Not Sustainable

Like a shrinking number of North Americans, I grew up in a small farming community. Almost half of my classmates were up before dawn each day to feed livestock, gather eggs, and tend to newborn calves around the farm. Discussions of 4H club assignments were common at school, and class field trips often took the form of a tour of a classmate’s family farm. The closest that I ever got to farming was when my family planted a vegetable garden in our backyard – until we replaced it with a pool. Like my family’s short-lived vegetable garden, many of the farms in my community would have also been classified as organic. This meant that their livestock were not subjected to growth hormones or other artificial substances, they did not spray synthetic pesticides on their crops, and they abstained from growing crops that were genetically modified.

niche-farm@2xFarming labels at home went no further than describing the outputs of your operation. The terms “organic”, “grass-fed”, “pasture-raised”, or “cage-free” were never present, despite the practices all being widespread. The only branding that occurred on the farms in my community were on the hindquarters of beef cattle. The branding of our farms and food is a relatively recent phenomenon.

Another branding term commonly used synonymously with organic food is sustainability. The concept of sustainability gets blindly applied to many “green” products without an understanding of what the term actually means. Many “sustainable” products are quite the opposite and are largely the result of greenwashing products to appeal to the values shared by socially and environmentally conscious consumers.

According to Stanford University, sustainability is: “...the ability to provide for the needs of the world’s current population without damaging the ability of future generations to provide for themselves. When a process is sustainable, it can be carried out over and over without negative environmental effects or impossibly high costs to anyone involved.

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Sustainability is based on the interaction between environmental, social, and economic factors in a given system. With regards to sustainable agriculture, the focus is to keep the environmental impact low, reduce costs, increase yields, and increase access to food. Curiously, organic food achieves none of these benchmarks. So if organic food isn’t an agricultural solution based on better science, economics, or social impacts, then why is it perceived that way in our culture?

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Despite being present for centuries, organic farming and food rapidly gained popularity in the mid 2000s in response to cultural rejections of modernity. The rapid changes in technology created a sense of apprehension and even fear in the march forward towards more advanced technology. Even today, Americans fear technology more than death itself, second only to natural disasters. According to sociologist Christopher Bader:

“People tend to express the highest level of fear for things they’re dependent on but that they don’t have any control over, and that’s almost a perfect definition of technology”.

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The dotcom crash of the early 2000s signalled to many that we may be rushing too quickly into a technocracy. A countercultural push backwards towards a more authentic way of living yielded many new cultural trends, and organic food was one of the most prevalent. Organic was not simply a new product label, it was an entire lifestyle created to reject the destructive, mainstream, corporate-controlled norms of our food, clothing, and any other products a company  could tack an “organic” label on. And perhaps more importantly, it was an excellent way to create products that could command much higher prices.

The organic food movement proved very effective at achieving just that: U.S. organic food sales have grown from $20 billion to over $40 billion in a little over a decade. One of the more curious features of the organic movement is that organic products are sold as salt-of-the-earth, warm, friendly, ethical products, when in fact many organic farms are just as large as many conventional farms. Very little of the organic products for sale at the supermarket are from small mom & pop operations – you’ll need to visit the farmer’s market to enjoy those types of purchases.

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Even more interesting is the ownership of many organic brands. The organic movement is fundamentally based on the principle of mainstream rejection of the corporatization of our food. Yet the largest organic brands are owned by the same multinationals that organic consumers often criticize for their unethical practices. Many conscious consumers have been duped by the notion that their organic purchases are ethically and morally superior to those who purchase conventionally produced foods. This is a costly mistake: Consumer Reports estimates organic food averaged 47% more than non-organic. Paying almost 1.5 times as much for the same product at a chemical and nutritional level hardly seems economically sustainable to me.

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Follow the money: a map of the ownership of major organic food brands

But what about the environmental impacts? That’s where the real value of sustainability lies, right? The common myth presented about organic food is that it is produced without the application of pesticides. Indicative of what is typical in terms of public education on the subject, the David Suzuki Foundation purposely omits the fact that organic agriculture still employs the use of pesticides. However, not only do organic farms use pesticides, they also spray them more often. While organic farming guidelines prohibit the use of synthetic pesticides, natural pesticides are still allowed.

Natural pesticides are inefficient and less effective than synthetic pesticides, which is why they need to be applied more often in higher dosages to achieve the same results. One of the most common pesticides used by organic farmers is a toxin derived from the bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis, otherwise known as Bt. The name may sound familiar, as it’s the same Bt found in the name of Bt corn, a transgenic product of biotechnology giant Monsanto that employs the use of an inserted gene to grant the plant the ability to manufacture its own defense against potential pests. The latter is a healthier for the environment because it’s more accurately targeted and doesn’t come in the form of a pesticide.

In addition to the harmful biological effects caused by increased pesticide use, further environmental damage is caused through the production of and machinery used to spray pesticides and harvest crops. Organic farms still use tractors, combines, and other fossil fuel-burning machinery to plant and harvest their crops. Increased pesticide use also drives up cost in terms of a higher purchase volume and the cost of equipment operation. Organic farming also produces lower crop yields per acre than conventional farming models. These operational inefficiencies are covered by the higher price point of organic food. Higher food prices are the opposite of what true sustainability aims to achieve; specifically, the sustainability pillars of viability and equitability.

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 “There are no solutions, only trade-offs.” – Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions.

Sustainability seeks to build multi-dimensional, stable systems with longevity in mind. Global food security is a serious problem, but embracing organic food is not the solution. Neither is conventional agriculture. While the latter may be more productive in terms of raw output, decreased waste, and reduced pesticide application thanks to genetically modified crops and improvements to pesticide specificity and efficacy, the massive input of fertilizer and continued  application of pesticides to many crops will continue to harm the environment.

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An algal bloom in the Gulf of Mexico.

Fertilizer run-off into the Gulf of Mexico and Lake Erie has produced hypoxic environments due to algal blooms that are detrimental to the balance of life in these ecosystems. Fertilizer pollution is still a factor on large organic farms; the input of nitrogen and phosphorus is still large, albeit from a natural source (manure) instead of from artificial fertilizer. A meta-analysis of European organic farming indicated that manure can actually impact environmental toxicity more severely than artificial fertilizer as a product of water contamination.

Contrary to popular belief, it is not honey bee populations that need help – honey bees are essentially domesticated animals, and do not require the same level of attention as wild bees do. Their populations have held steady since the 1990s. The decline of wild bee populations has been linked to a variety of factors including Varroa mites, neonicotinoid pesticides, and mono-cropping practices of most industrial-scale farms.  Legislation that outlaws neonicotinoid pesticides is still based on preliminary science and a clear link between this class of pesticide and the overall viability of bee populations has not yet been firmly established.

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Source: The US Department of Agriculture

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Currently, conventional agriculture is a more sustainable practice than organic agriculture. The aversion to certain technologies that organic agricultural is based on will always be the Achilles heel of the industry. But conventional agriculture is far from perfect. With the rapid development of the middle class in China and many societies in Africa, food security for a growing global population will become increasingly important in the coming decades. In order to increase the level of sustainability of global agriculture, a paradigm shift needs to occur within industrial agriculture.

Integrated pest management (IPM) is one such approach that holds promise for the future. The complexity of ecological systems makes IPM a notoriously difficult process, but by augmenting natural systems to self-govern themselves, we reduce the need for pesticide inputs, producing reduced environmental impacts and operational expenses. While IPM is often more expensive in terms of capital expenses due to the research needed to adequately test the proposed system, operational expenses plummet drastically once the system begins to take shape.

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A tree infected by Mountain Pine Beetles

For example, extensive biological control work has been implemented for the Mountain Pine Beetle, a menace to timber companies in the Pacific Northwest. The beetles aggregate in massive groups on Ponderosa pine trees to feed and reproduce. Natural predators are attracted to pheromones emitted by adult beetles during this phase of their life cycle. What timber companies now do is spray “bait trees” – these are trees that are dead or otherwise undesirable – with a pine beetle mating pheromone isolated in a lab. The beetles aggregate on the bait tree, and the natural predators of the beetle converge on the tree to eliminate the threat. No harmful pesticides are required, and the cost to apply pheromones is a fraction of the cost of spraying pesticides.

In addition to a reduced pesticide input, a move towards increased support for localized food systems and wrestling control of agriculture away from large factory farms is needed if sustainable food systems can develop. For example, most of the world’s corn is grown in North America, yet almost none of it is consumed by humans. The majority of North American corn goes towards feeding livestock or biofuel consumption. Rising food prices have been associated with the increased demand for livestock feed and biofuel production. North America’s dependency on meat is contributing to higher and higher food prices, and those below the poverty line are the most vulnerable.

More support for GM crops is also needed. The current misguided opposition to GM crops is hindering the progress of modern agriculture. Land is a finite resource on our planet, so in order to maximize the productivity of our land, technological advancement is needed. GM crops are also designed to reduce food waste and crop failure, which have major implications for food security on a global scale. Our agriculture industry will need to adapt to maintain a level of sustainability compatible with the demands of the future. The key is to draw on a hybridized system of agriculture that uses the best of both worlds. Organic food is a step in the wrong direction, and should be abandoned in favour of favourable practices that are based on science, not first-world ideologies.

Organic has long since become an ideology, the romantic back-to-nature obsession of an upper middle class able to afford it and oblivious, in their affluent narcissism, to the challenge of feeding a planet whose population will surge to 9 billion before the middle of the century and whose poor will get a lot more nutrients from the two regular carrots they can buy for the price of one organic carrot.” – Roger Cohen, The Organic Fable

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Tim Horton’s and Burger King are not Destroying the Rainforests: We All Are

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Recently, two major players in the fast food industry underwent a massive merger. Inconic Canadian chain Tim Horton’s and perennial burger joint silver medallist Burger King joined forces in August 2014 with plans for an increased global presence for Tim Horton’s and cheaper corporate taxes for the much larger Burger King contingent. The company will be centred in Oakville, Ont., with much of the company owned by Brazilian private equity firm 3G Capital Inc., who currently own 70% of Burger King.

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Right from the start, Canadians cried afoul of the merger, which saw their beloved Timmie’s scooped up by a large American company, even though this was the second time Tim’s had been purchased, since Wendy’s bought Tim Horton’s back in 2006. Americans through dismissals of traitorous behaviour BK’s way, who jumped ship to head to Canada and lower corporate taxes. These cries of dismay eventually subsided, and now a new wave of news articles have began to surface that are condemning the merger. These articles are not centred around patriotism or finance, but environmentalism.

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Palm oil is one of the fastest growing cash crops on the planet. Ever since the FDA mandated that trans fats be reported and reduced in many processed food products, many companies sought cheaper lipid alternatives that were largely absent of trans fats, and palm oil topped that list in terms of untapped potential. Native to Africa but predominantly grown in Indonesia and Malaysia, palm oil production has showed no signs of slowing down despite numerous protests from various environmental organizations.

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To produce palm oil, thousands of hectares of tropical rainforest needs to be cleared. Many critically endangered species live here, including orang-utans and the Sumatran elephant. All sorts of issues have been encountered with developing a sustainable supply chain of palm oil. Even a “sustainable palm oil” designation from the non profit Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) has been suspect at best. Despite all this, palm oil production is estimated to destroy 98% of the rain forests in Indonesia and Malaysia. Palm oil sales have increased by 485% in the past decade.

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While it’s clear that palm oil is disastrous for the planet, one company is not to blame for the destruction. Boycotting Tim Horton’s because their donuts kill elephants is a straw-man argument at best. Palm oil has an incredibly diverse array of uses, and to pin the blame solely on one company is simply illogical. The story of palm oil runs deep, and there are multiple levels of corruption responsible for the sad state of Indonesian and Malaysian rainforest.

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The World Wildlife Fund, famous for its campaigns to save great pandas and tigers in India, are among the worst offenders in the palm oil story. The WWF was the environmental founder of the RSPO, and the “sustainable” designation given to palm oil supposedly produced under their set criteria has been criticized by numerous environmental groups as a form of greenwashing. The palm oil produced under this designation has a shady track record of not living up to the standards set by the WWF, but little to no enforcement of these regulations currently exists. 

The palm oil story is indeed a sad one, and a much more sustainable supply chain is needed to ensure stability with future palm oil production. Unfortunately, an incredible amount of products that we use every day include palm oil on their ingredient list. It remains to be seen what sorts of regulations will be enforced with regards to palm oil production as well as the protection and conservation of endangered species affected. One thing remains clear: it is unwise to single out a company for the destruction of Indonesian and Malaysian rain forests when we are just as guilty based on our consumer choices. It would be easy to simply recommend to you to not buy products with palm oil in them, but that would mean giving up things like Nutella, which for 99% of us is simply not going to happen.

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One of the long term goals of the Burger King-Tim Horton’s merger is to create the “fastest growing fast food company on the planet”, which at first might spell disaster for rain forests affected by palm oil production, but I consider it an opportunity for this new super firm to take on added responsibility to be an industry leader in sustainable palm oil. As more and more donuts and Whoppers are sold, so will the demand for palm oil production. Since land in Indonesia and Malaysia is quite limited, a sustainable supply chain will be on the drawing board in the very near future for BK-TH. Perhaps this is an opportunity for the company to develop an innovative solution to the palm oil problem and even consider alternative oil sources that are easier to grow and less harmful for the environment.

In the meantime, stop blaming one large company for the destruction of the rainforest. The amount of products that affect this diverse and fragile ecosystem is incredibly diverse, so perhaps you should be critical of your own lifestyle choices and re-evaluate them first before you throwing the book at the heavyweight corporations. They do have a responsibility as industry leaders to act in an ethical manner, but at the end of the day, we buy the stuff they sell, so the control is ultimately in our hands.

 

 

From Bean to Pod: How K-Cup Piracy is Changing the Coffee Industry

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The coffee industry has been under intense scrutiny in the past few decades because of their widespread impact on the environment at all stages of the supply chain. Deforestation, both for coffee plantations and the manufacture of coffee cups, in addition to the waste generated by numerous coffee chains and cafes around the world, have attracted the majority of this criticism. The coffee industry responded through well-known programs like Fair Trade, Shade Grown, and the C.A.F.E. program, which is used by Starbucks Corp. and other major coffee purchasers. Most coffee companies are now committed to a triple bottom line approach as per consumer tastes, but unfortunately, a new trend of coffee consumption is threatening the environmentally and socially conscious image that the drip coffee industry has worked hard to cultivate.

Pod coffee machines, popularized by manufacturers like Keurig, who patented the K-Cup single use coffee pod in 2006, have now overtaken drip coffee machines in terms of sales, reducing the market share of drip coffee machines to a record low 52% in 2013. Keurig Green Mountain Inc., the company that owns Keurig and manufactures the k-cups used in the machine, reported a profit of $483.23 million last year, which was a substantial gain from its modest 2008 profit of $54.4 million. Industry analysts predict a sales growth for the 2014 fiscal year in excess of 200%, and the pod coffee industry has shown no signs of slowing down.

Consumer demand for fast, fresh coffee that creates minimal waste and requires minimal effort has been responsible for the surging popularity of this new sector of the coffee industry. Consumers cite one of primary reasons for their purchase of a coffee pod machine as the need for only a single cup of coffee, negating the need to brew a whole pot of coffee using a drip coffee machine, which is more wasteful and time-consuming. The primary issue with coffee pods is that only 5% of the single-use cups are recyclable, contributing a great deal of waste in the household waste stream, a problem that was largely avoided with a drip coffee machine. Contrast this to waste from drip coffee, which is compostable.

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The overnight success of coffee pod machines has occurred in both North America and Europe. In 2010, only 4% of American households reported owning a single-use coffee machine; in 2013 that number rose to 13%, and with 83% of Americans reporting that they consume coffee, this number will continue to rise. In fact, K-cups now account for over a quarter of all U.S. ground coffee sales, an increase from the 2010 levels of just 5%. Sales of coffee pod machines have grown from 1.8 million in 2008 to 11.6 million in 2013; a six-fold increase. In European markets, the trend is similar: 2008 sales of coffee pod machines of 6 million are now up to 10 million in 2013, and have actually eclipsed sales of drip coffee machines, which were slightly less at 9.3 million units.

The key issue at play is the backwards-thinking approach taken by k-cup manufacturers: the effort made by the coffee industry to improve their environmental and social image has been essentially nullified by the popularity of the unsustainable k-cup machines. As is often the case in meritocratic societies, a new desirable technology will sell slowly, but sales will quickly accelerate as affordability and market permeability increases. Many k-cup machines have often been attached as giveaway prizes by numerous big box stores, adding to their widespread distribution. In meritocratic societies like North America, citizens want to remain, or at least appear to be, successful; no one wants to be known as a “loser”. This is often established through the purchase of material goods and products, and coffee pod machines are not exempt from this cultural phenomenon.

Coffee pod machines have been appearing not only in homes, but in businesses as well. Employees are no longer tasked with brewing a whole new pot of coffee if they simply want a fresh cup; instead, all they require is their own coffee pod and an ample supply of water in the machine. This increased convenience and efficiency, not to mention the potential for a wider variety of hot beverages, has resulted in many businesses abandoning the traditional drip coffee machine in favour of a coffee pod machine. While the logic behind the purchase and implementation of a coffee pod machine is sound, the increased popularity of these machines has also forced companies who were previously committed to a triple bottom line approach to join in the hype in the hopes of gaining market share.ad95872d-0f4f-4430-8c4e-71b628af88fd

Coffee giant Starbucks, in partnership with Keurig Green Mountain Inc. (KGMI), launched a line of k-cups in 2011, followed by Starbucks’ own coffee pod machine in December 2012. Starbucks is an industry leader in sustainability. They currently procure 98% of its coffee from ethical sources and have implemented recycling programs in 24% of their American stores. Despite this commitment to sustainability and green marketing, Starbucks was forced to compete with KGMI due to the success of coffee pod machines. Many other coffee companies who were previously committed to a triple bottom line approach have also been forced into the coffee pod game, including Nestle, who has sold an estimated 27 billion coffee pods worldwide through their Nespresso line.

the-pirate-organization_cover_harvard-business-review-pressJean-Philippe Vergne is an assistant professor at the Ivey Business School at Western University. He co-authored a book with Rodolphe Durand entitled: “The Pirate Organization: Lessons from the Fringes of Capitalism”. Dr. Vergne describes how the future of many industries has historically been shaped by “pirates”. One of the most famous examples is how Napster forever changed the way music was shared and distributed. Apple has Napster to thank for its iTunes platform, the single most used way to distribute music in history.

Due to the hectic schedules but particular tastes of many coffee-drinking adults, the coffee pod industry has taken a significant share of the market away from drip-coffee products. Based on Vergne and Durand’s argument, the coffee pod industry signals the future of home and office brewed coffee. Unfortunately, while this represents a step forward in terms of convenience and potentially cost, the wide spread adoption of k-cup coffee machines also represents a step backward in terms of environmental stewardship that many coffee companies were working so hard to improve in the past few decades.

Essentially, we are seeing a piracy of the coffee industry by k-cup technology. Like previous examples of industry piracy, the k-cup is a natural evolution of a product pertaining to the new demands of the consumer, even if it might not be in the best interest of the industry as a whole. Recall the Napster example: accessing music for free online was incredibly convenient to the consumer, but the thousands of closing record stores and millions of musicians affected may have a different opinion on the matter. The same goes for the drip coffee companies affected by influx of the k-cup. Presently, there is great pressure to conform or be left behind; the modern businessperson doesn’t have time to brew a fresh pot, but a simple click of a button gets them a great cup of coffee in seconds.

When KGMI’s k-cup patent expired in September 2013, this opened the market up for competitors to produce their own iteration of the coffee pod. As a result, a myriad of imitators flooded the market, producing the jump in 2013 coffee pod sales. With an unregulated commodity gaining so much traction, it is a challenge for the coffee industry to ensure appropriate corporate responsibility with regards product waste.

Conscious-Capitalism

Companies that employ the strategy of “conscious capitalism” (first coined by Whole Foods founder and CEO John Mackey) have traditionally performed better in the 21st century than firms who do not operate by these metrics, which are often based in the triple bottom line approach. By abandoning their core values with the implementation of coffee pods, many companies could create a mixed message for consumers, who may question the values of the company, and this could ultimately alienate many consumers. Honesty and transparency with consumers is one of the key metrics in companies that are heavily embedded in the triple bottom line model, such as Starbucks, so the continued marketing of coffee pod machines may eventually backfire if the market share becomes too large.

Additionally, due to the single-cup nature of coffee pod machines, consumers may begin to abandon their favourite coffee shop in favour of a lower cost option at home or at the office from a coffee pod machine due to consumer behaviour measuring the cost of coffee at a “per cup” level rather than the traditional “by the pound” level. This divided attention may hurt the in-store business of many coffee chains that have invested in k-cup products. The approach to the coffee pod model must be altered if it is to remain sustainable; both from an environmental and business stand point.

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A necessary solution for the k-cup epidemic is to regulate the materials with which coffee pods are manufactured from. Currently, many companies, including KGMI, have detailed sustainability goals listed on their company websites, but these goals and initiatives have been labeled as “green washing” by many critics. An industry-wide regulation on using only recyclable materials would allow for maximum value creation for consumers. While only 5% of coffee pods are currently recyclable, it is entirely plausible to suggest that all pods can be manufactured out of recyclable materials in the near future.

Those opposed to coffee pod machines primarily do so because of the wasteful nature of k-cups. Cost may seem like a deterrent, but 51% of adults aged 18-34 whose annual salary is less than $75,000 get their coffee from a coffee pod machine, compared a slight increase of 64% of adults aged 18-34 whose annual salary exceeds $75,000. Consumer behaviour dictates that the coffee pod machine will continue to gain market share as costs decrease and consumers continue to adapt their morning routine to brewing only a single cup instead of a whole pot of coffee. KGMI predicts that by 2014, almost 25 million American households will have a coffee pod machine.

If recyclable coffee pods are implemented as an industry standard, consumers could be assured that any waste generation from a used coffee pod is only temporary. Until that day comes, this current piracy of the coffee industry will cause many giant companies to rethink their commitment to the environment and sustainable coffee production. It remains to be seen what will emerge out of the piracy of the coffee industry, but if history has taught us anything, it is a necessary step in the evolution of our world.

 

Conscious Capitalism: The New Way to Conduct Business

Blake Mycoskie, TOMS shoes founder

Blake Mycoskie, TOMS shoes founder

When Blake Mycoskie visited Argentina in 2006, he took notice of the fact that a lack of footwear was a prevalent issue for many citizens. This issue is prevalent in almost all developing countries around the world, so in response, Mycoskie launched his company TOMS shoes, a footwear company that donates a pair of shoes to a child in poverty for every pair of shoes the company sells. The TOMS ethos of “conscious capitalism” may not have been the first of its kind, but TOMS is a shining example of how consumer tastes are changing, and how tapping into the conscience and good will of consumers has had overly positive effects for firms around the globe, but particularly in North America and Europe.

Conscious capitalism focuses around the idea that companies can build a successful business model on the principles of environmentally or socially conscious business practices, high employee satisfaction, and a high level of consumer support. The combination of these 3 factors has led to the success of many firms since the practice of conscious capitalism became well known. In fact, the average annual share price increase for companies who comprise Fortune Magazine’s list of 100 best companies to work for was higher (14.16) than the average annual share price of companies listed on the S&P 500 (5.97) and the Russell 3000 (6.34) indices.

Conscious firms perform better

Conscious firms perform better

Critics of conscious capitalism argue that while “conscious” North American and European firms exist, this type of business strategy cannot be applied to companies in developing countries. They argue that consumers are not as concerned with how a corporation operates, nor do they have the level of concern for the environment or social welfare that consumers in developed countries do. As the world becomes more connected and companies in developing countries are held to the same high standards as those in developed countries, this gap in practices and ethics will be erased.

Most companies that practice conscious capitalism are based in North America and Europe, where almost all countries on these continents are considered developed. The higher amount of wealth and overall quality of life in these countries raises concerns amongst many consumers for health of developing nations, the environment, and even the less fortunate in their own community, because charitable and philanthropic activity increases with a higher income and quality of life.

 

By growing their business through good stewardship for the three aforementioned factors, business managers experience global benefits; 200 years ago, 95% of the world’s population was below the poverty line, and today that number has shrunk to 60%.  By the year 2050, it is predicted that number will shrink to 25%. Conscious capitalism could be described as the first step towards building global equality.

Developed nations have a role to build sustainable companies and cities to promote the next stage of global development. The developing world has the majority of the world’s population, and that proportion will continue increase into the 21st century. As the wealth and consumption of cities in developing countries increases with the population, sustainable and socially responsible businesses will need to be global leaders. As citizens of the developed world, we need to lead by example and develop improved processes by advancing technology and practicing conscious capitalism. As global leaders, our example will be followed by up and coming firms in developing countries, and this will promote a more sustainable future and secure the health of our planet.

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In his famous 1776 book The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith describes the trinity of land, labour, and capital being placed into his metaphorical business machine, which then produces profits. Once significant profits and wealth have been achieved, concern for the less fortunate and philanthropy also increase, which follows the pattern described by Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The same societal paradigm shift can be applied to the rise of conscious capitalism in the last quarter century. A higher percentage of North Americans and Europeans are wealthy, and interestingly, the number of charities and philanthropic donations have also increased.

In the early 20th century, the emerging field of social work and the charitable organizations that employed many of these individuals was making significant gains. When the Industrial Revolution forever shaped the economic landscape of Europe and North America, so too did the increased awareness for social well-being shape our wealth allocation. As more people made fortunes during the First World War and into the Roaring Twenties, so did the level of philanthropic activity. The Great Depression further increased the awareness for the need for charity, and governmental policies enacted during the 1930’s reflected that. Another World War and further economic development due to a rapidly expanding population in the post-war population boom kept the average household income of North Americans and Europeans in an upward trajectory.

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Today, 80% of the world’s most charitable countries in terms of percentage of income are in the developed world, with Australia, Canada, and Ireland consistently topping the list. Developing countries that have a high “giving index” devote most of their resources to volunteering their time in lieu of disposable income. With increased personal wealth comes the increased concern for human welfare – both locally and globally – and the means for which to contribute to these causes. Such is the mindset of the developed world consumer that has helped conscious capitalism focused firms succeed at a greater level than their competitors. The wealthiest citizens are usually the most generous philanthropists. There is great economic value in philanthropy, and socially conscious firms have taken note of that.

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During the environmental awareness boom of the 1960’s, numerous charities and organizations were established to reflect the cultural shift, and many of these organizations remain prominent to this day, such as World Wildlife Fund, which generated over $718 million in revenue in 2010. Fifty years later in our present day, many of these organizations have been criticized for failing to offer tangible results for their donors or by falsifying scientific data because of their constant push for monetary donations.

Many donors have become suspicious of the actions of large charitable organizations due to recent scandals of many major charities. For example, an inquiry into the actions of the Canadian Cancer Society in 2011 revealed that only 22% of fundraised capital was going to research. The remainder went to employee salaries, marketing, and fundraising events. The growth of the charitable sector in the last century has been staggering, but unfortunately, many organizations have been drifting off their original path.

The Canadian Cancer Society came under fire for devoting only 22% of their revenue in 2011 to cancer research.

The Canadian Cancer Society came under fire for devoting only 22% of their revenue in 2011 to cancer research.

This change in charitable attitude has paved the way for companies like TOMS to experience success due to their more tangible approach. Instead of asking for donations or making them on the consumer’s behalf, they offer a distinct product that makes an immediate impact. While these companies may charge more for their products, the difference is transparency; consumers know where their money is going because the business model is built around a single action.

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A Canadian company that has followed this model is Ten Tree Apparel, which pledges to plant ten trees for each product they sell. Similar to TOMS, Ten Tree operates under the “cause capitalism” model, which unites the brand’s products to a positive cause. Although still a young company, Ten Tree has experienced exponential growth since the brand’s debut in 2011 due to their innovative approach to the retail industry. Trees from each sale are planted all across the world, and the consumer can in fact choose where their trees are planted. Consumer involvement increases attachment and loyalty to the brand, and is one of the key components of cause capitalism.

The Ten Tree management team: (from l-r) Kalen Emsley, David Luba, and Derrick Emsley

The Ten Tree management team: (from l-r) Kalen Emsley, David Luba, and Derrick Emsley

Derrick Emsley, CEO of Ten Tree, states:

“At the end of the day, retail is a constant battle for customers’ dollars. If your product has a better chance of bringing the customer into the store or a better chance of catching that consumer’s eye, your product is going to sell better. Cause capitalism has taken hold in retail because it does this. Whether large or small, every apparel brand is realizing this and will either make a switch or find themselves obsolete soon.”

To date, Ten Tree has planted over 1.8 million trees, and the company is forecasting a total of two million trees planted by the end of the summer.  Many apparel conglomerates are slowly transitioning to a more conscious capitalist approach to business either by acquiring these smaller “cause brands” or by developing new products or marketing strategies to give consumers something new in the stagnant retail industry. At this stage in the game, the more conscious firms will win.

John Mackey

John Mackey, founder & CEO of Whole Foods

John Mackey is one entrepeneur who has been a major player in the conscious capitalism movement; he even co-authored an entire book about the subject. He’s also the CEO of the U.S. grocery chain Whole Foods Market. Founded in 1978, Whole Foods Market focuses on selling natural foods in a supermarket setting. Despite offering many higher priced alternatives than traditional supermarkets, Whole Foods has experienced rapid growth, especially in the last decade. For example, in 2006 Whole Foods had sales of $5.6 billion; in 2010 that number increased to over $9 billion. The number of stores in 2006 was 186; that number increased to 299 in 2010, and has since increased to 364 as of 2013. The company’s focus on products that are beneficial to society and the environment, high level of employee satisfaction, and corporate transparency has no doubt led to this excellent performance.

Mackey asserts that in the 21st century, corporations will need to change their operations to adhere to a more conscious agenda. Corporations are perceived as large, evil entities that only care about maximizing profits, and this reputation has alienated many consumers. Corporations have extraordinary influence worldwide, so if the public’s perception of these corporations is negative, that harms their influential power.

Firms that practice conscious capitalism focus on consumer satisfaction through consumer empowerment and involvement; they are clear about their corporate objectives and often allow consumers to share in that vision through their purchases. Because of this focus on consumer involvement, conscious firms have more influence and a greater potential for growth in the future.

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Our consumer tastes reflect our social and cultural attitude, so it is not surprising that conscious capitalism and “cause” brands have risen to prominence. In his book “The Authenticity Hoax”, Andrew Potter argues that humans have always been in a state of social proofing and status seeking. In the developing world, this has been reflected in what is deemed “cool”. Today, the quest for authenticity is driving force behind our status obsessed culture. One needs to look no further than our current tastes in music (folk has become wildly popular), fashion (brands heavily advertise “authentic” and “genuine” products), and food (the rise of the locavore diet, organic food, and urban-farming).

Conscious capitalism unites all these angles and draws heavily on the consumer’s favourite type of product: an authentic one. Conscious capitalism takes the consumer’s desire for the authentic, the honest, the genuine, and applies it to the entire company. Our knowledge and awareness about the planet is going to keep increasing, and the quest for the cool and authentic will strengthen as we gravitate away from the mass-produced products and the deceitful corporation of days past. Conscious capitalism is here to stay, and firms who refuse to adapt will be left behind.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Modern Tribe: Why Hunting has Declined and Why We Need it Back

Before you read, watch this:

Growing up in the country, I was fortunate enough to have acres of cedar forest in my backyard to explore, a pond in my front yard, and numerous wild animals that frequented our property. This helped to foster not only an affection for nature, but also a great deal of respect for it. I understood basic biological processes from a young age because I was constantly exposed to them and didn’t have to rely on pictures in a book or websites to show me what a frog looked like or what deer ate.

As I grew older and moved into university to pursue a degree in biology, it became clear that many of my urban classmates did not have the same exposure to the wild that I did, and often shuddered at the prospect of field work or going outside for a lesson or a lab. I got visibly excited at even the idea of going out of doors to conduct scientific observation. Thanks to my childhood, I was offered a greater exposure to nature and how complex and fascinating it is. The more you are exposed to something, the greater your understanding of it, and the higher your level of respect for it will be.

hunter-gatherers

The past

The present.  Image Courtesy of Rockhouse Motion. http://www.rockhousemotion.com

The present.
Image Courtesy of Rockhouse Motion. 

The Primitive Tribe

Throughout history, humans had to be very familiar with nature in order to survive. We first evolved as hunter-gatherer societies, with our survival hedged on our understanding of the behaviour and ecology of our prey, both flora and fauna. The time-honored tradition of hunting has been more than a way to provide food for your family; many societies and tribes initiated young males into manhood based on the result of a ritualistic hunt. The best hunters were local celebrities, revered for their strength, knowledge, bravery, and ability to provide for the tribe and their family. With all of the apparent savagery of hunting for food or sport, there is also a deeply rooted mutual respect for the hunted.

Nothing can increase your respect for an animal more than when you are pursuing it as prey. You learn about its behaviour, study its movement, groan in frustration when it eludes you, but that one magical moment when the animal is successfully harvested produces a moment of great admiration for your quarry.

Image Courtesy of Rockhouse Motion. http://www.rockhousemotion.com

Image Courtesy of Rockhouse Motion.

The Decline

Today, hunting is viewed by the majority of the population as a savage, cruel, and archaic mode of gathering food. Why waste all that time and money to carry around a lethal weapon to kill an adorable animal? As mentioned before, the less you know about something, the less you respect it. Our population has gravitated from relying on great hunters to provide their food, and we now rely on great businesspeople to construct supermarkets to do the same.

Heading to the supermarket is a very sheltered experience. An incredible amount of harvesting, transport, and modification goes on behind the scenes of food production that many of us are not aware of. Even organic food, which I have previously argued is no better than traditional food, is not free from these processes. Organic chickens are still housed in massive chicken farms with cramped conditions; the only difference is the food and perhaps a lack of antibiotics. Regardless of something being labeled organic or not, meat at the supermarket is more likely to be produced in a crowded, stress-filled environment that is a nightmare for the animals’ well-being.

Brinker

Image Courtesy of Rockhouse Motion.

Contrast this with deer hunting. A wild white-tailed deer has lived a happy life, free to roam and eat whenever it pleases, and there are no strange beings injecting it with hormones or antibiotics. It has lived well into its prime, produced a family, and cared for its young. Like all animals, it has a lifespan, and regardless of whether it will be harvested for consumption or not, the animal will eventually die. What is so ethically wrong about harvesting a deer near the end of its life that it has so happily lived?

Image Courtesy of Rockhouse Motion. http://www.rockhousemotion.com

Image Courtesy of Rockhouse Motion.

What also needs to be taken into account is the population biology of many of the animals currently being hunted. There is currently a population explosion of white-tailed deer in many parts of North America, largely because their natural predators, such as wolves or coyotes, have been driven away due to humanity’s fear of these animals. We are not scared of deer, so we have allowed them to stay in and around our urban areas, and white-tails are flourishing as a result.

A Canada Goose

A Canada Goose

Canada geese and snow geese are also flourishing due to ample food sources being provided to them in the form of cash crops like feed corn. These waterfowl have migration stopovers in corn fields on their way to summer breeding grounds, and very few die from starvation as a result. The issue with this overabundance of geese is that these are ecological pests. Geese overgraze vegetation and ruin habitat for other species.

A Snow Goose

A Snow Goose

Snow geese have been particularly harmful in the north where they breed, outcompeting other species for nest habitat while diminished fragile food reserves in the process. This also decimates the vegetation of the fragile northern tundra.

Habitat destruction caused by snow goose overgrazing

Habitat destruction caused by snow goose overgrazing

Hunting is one of the only ways to effectively control these booming populations of game animals, otherwise the carrying capacity of their ecosystems will reach a breaking point and the population will suffer as a result of starvation, crowding, and stress. We can’t stop farming or growing our cities, so hunting is the most viable human solution to this human caused problem.

Aside from urbanization and conversion of human societies from hunter-gatherer to agrarian-based systems, why has hunting declined? Hunting is still largely prevalent in many primitive tribes scattered throughout the world, but it is also prevalent in some areas where Wal-Marts dot the landscape, so urbanization cannot be the only factor at play here. There are two factors at play here: the increase in organized and professional sports, and an overall decline in violent tendencies among humans.

soccer-tribe

The Modern Tribe

In 1987, Anthropologist Desmond Morris published a book called “The Soccer Tribe”. The book describes why sports are such a universally attractive thing. Sport fuels our primitive desire for competition and violence, and our great hunters of the past have transformed into the great athletes of our present and future. They are strong, brave, and they provide for their family by winning games and championships. We cheer for one team because that team is reflective of our tribe, and we forge our identity in the tribe by supporting it. War paint and banners of the past have become face paint and jerseys of the present. We clash with members of other tribes, and sometimes violence breaks out amongst us.

Riots and other forms of animosity and harassment occur between fans of various teams, but these are nothing compared to the all-out wars that occurred between tribes of the past, and even some in the present day. Organized sport has satiated our desire for competition and violence such that we don’t require the thrill of the hunt as much anymore. For most people, watching sports is enough to satisfy their tribal duty, and hunting has declined as a result.

Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker is a psychologist at Harvard University, and his work, “Better Angels of our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined” describes how throughout history, humanity has been getting progressively less violent, despite how our opinion may be swayed by the media. As a result of commerce, cosmopolitanism, the rise of the nation-state, rationality, and feminization, our violent tendencies have largely been repressed. Conflicts that were once solved with the sword or firearm are now taken care of with the pen. Violent forms of punishment have mostly been abolished. Murder and violent crime rates have decreased 30 fold since Medieval times.

With this decline in violence, hunting is no longer seen as an attractive way to provide food or satisfy one’s sporting needs, and the overall decline in the prevalence of hunting reflects this. Convenience is also a factor, but if violence is not, then why aren’t our supermarkets littered with carcasses to butcher? Consider the possibility of having free-range animals available in urban areas to harvest, much like plucking a lobster from its holding tank at the supermarket. These are both ludicrous suggestions by today’s standards, so clearly our declining taste for violence is a factor.

The problem here is that while hunting may appear violent and cruel on the surface, as I have previously discussed, in terms of biology and animal ethics, it is far more humane than purchasing food at the supermarket. This presumption about hunting has caused a disconnect between humans and nature; we no longer rely on a working knowledge and respect for our natural environment to survive, so our desire to immerse ourselves in nature has waned with time.

Image courtesy of Rockhouse motion. http://www.rockhousemotion.com

Image courtesy of Rockhouse Motion.

The Future Tribe

Despite fleeting cultural attitudes about hunting, there is hope for the future. A recent trend in our media  has brought hunting and the outdoors. Reality TV shows such as “Duck Dynasty”, “Swamp People”, and “Mountain Men” have brought the benefit of living an authentic lifestyle in harmony with nature to the national stage. Films such as “Into the Wild” have sung nature’s song as something sacred, almost romantic at its core. If you watched the trailer for “Game of Inches” at the start of this article, you would see how deer hunting transcends the core act of providing food and provides the hunter with an experience like no other.

Image Courtesy of Rockhouse Motion. http://www.rockhousemotion.com

Image Courtesy of Rockhouse Motion.

Recently, consumers have been rejecting mass market companies in favour of local sources to provide more of their food and other products.  This has also affected the real estate sector, as more new prospective homeowners are now purchasing condos instead of opting for suburbia, as urban sprawl has reached the breaking point. More sustainable housing is seen as more attractive because Millennials are more conscious of the rapidly changing environment and climate.

Perhaps this cultural shift will culminate with more North Americans heading back to fields and forests to seek out food. Hunting is about as authentic as one can get, and our generation’s quest for authenticity is constantly seeking the next best habit. After this cascade of events, perhaps the majority of us will reconnect with nature, learn from it, grow to respect it, and return to our roots in the thrill of the hunt.