Sunday, April 22, 2007

Mind meld: Social entrepreneur meets business entrepreneur

It is rarely the intention of an entrepreneur to shake up the social fabric of the society in which he or she works. But, many do anyway. We have only to think of two virtual unknowns starting from scratch in the computer industry, Steven Jobs and Bill Gates, who helped to make the personal computer a ubiquitous tool throughout the world. Add to that the internet, and the power of the individual to obtain, manipulate and transmit information has increased exponentially.

While the advent of the personal computer and the introduction of the internet revolutionized every aspect of life, it did not change the basic trajectory of human civilization, namely, toward ever greater consumption of resources without regard to ecological limits.

Today, many entrepreneurs are thinking about how they can cash in on so-called "green" trends in consumption and lifestyles. Much of this entrepreneurial activity is focused on maintaining our current lifestyles while consuming fewer resources and producing less waste--or at least pretending to do so. But, some entrepreneurs are focused on changing how we live in ways both big and small. One such entrepreneur is Mat (sic) DeGraaf who with his partner runs Door-to-Door Organics. The concept behind Door-To-Door Organics sounds similar to that of CSAs or Community Supported Agriculture. The differences, however, are making it a fast-growing enterprise in the three states--Colorado, Michigan and Pennsylvania--where it currently operates.

Door-To-Door works with a wide variety of local organic farmers and essentially matches what they have to offer through the season with what customers want. Customers must choose a "basket" of goods from several available sizes. But, communicating by internet or phone, they can substitute within that basket by adding more of their favorite items and subtracting what they don't want. The basket is then delivered to the customer's door. Customers also are not obliged to make long-term commitments and can cancel anytime. As a result new customers are more willing to try out the service to see if it works for them.

To be sure Door-To-Door is not a perfect solution for distributing locally grown organic food. But since only a few delivery vehicles are used, the company probably consumes less petroleum than other distribution methods in which each customer picks up his or her food at a dropoff point, a farmers' market or a food co-op .

Is the service a competitor for CSAs? DeGraaf says yes and no. Certainly, the company does provide a service similar to that of CSAs. On the other hand, many CSAs sell their excess produce through Door-To-Door.

Door-To-Door has also been selling at farmers' markets, both as a way to bring produce to market and as a way to attract customers to its service. But at a few markets where organic farmers complained that their sales slumped as a result, the company withdrew. It's simply not part of the mission of the company to undermine organic farmers, DeGraaf explains. In fact, the company is including produce from some farms that are in transition--clearly marked, of course--as a way to insure expanded availability of future local organic supplies. (The transition to organic farming typically takes three years during which the farmer incurs the costs associated with organic methods without being able to charge the premium price usually garnered by organic produce.)

In the off season, the company uses local wholesalers to keep the organic produce coming. Again, it's not a perfect solution; but it keeps the relationships with customers intact while continuing to provide an outlet for organic wholesalers and farmers.

The growth of the organic "industry," as it is now called, has reached 20 percent per year, 10 times the growth in the overall food industry. But much of that growth is premised on the same petroleum-drenched, transportation-intensive infrastructure that the conventional food system depends on.

By contrast, the business model adopted by Door-To-Door has the potential to increase greatly the number of people who source their organic food locally and thereby reduce the energy inputs into their food. But perhaps most important of all, the Door-To-Door business model is both profitable under current conditions and seemingly adaptable to the lower energy, resource-challenged society we are moving toward. And, that combination is the holy grail for businesses that truly want to be part of the transition to a sustainable world.

In the past those who have combined business and social entrepreneurship have often experienced long waits before their ideas caught on or even failed waiting. But the sudden success of Door-To-Door Organics signals that a tipping point may be at hand, both in the caliber of entrepreneurial thinking about sustainability and in the success of companies that have sustainability at the core of their missions.

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