This month’s sustainable guest is Aron Bjornson, director of marketing at Salt Spring Coffee. I had the honour of meeting Aron during a Board of Change event last year about 1% for the planet. In this interview, Aron and I talked about what it takes to achieve better business practices within an organization. There are a lot of great strategies available to SMEs but not all of them will be a good fit to every organization. It is imperative to evaluate before implementing.
For Aron, working to make a difference was not a choice but a must. He wanted to find work where he could make a difference in other people’s life. Working with his staff, suppliers, farmers or other departments, Aron always strives to create a better place for everyone he interacts with. People taking decisions without questioning their impact is clearly a lack of knowledge. It amazes him to see decision makers who are not taking into account the consequences of their actions and do not try to dig deeper to understand the real impact of their decision making process. Society acts as if there was no generation after their own. We are here for a lifetime and then the next generation takes over. It is our responsibility to make sure that our actions will not be having a negative effect on our children’s lives. It is a selfish way of thinking. As businesses, we have the obligation to look into a longer-term piece and holding ourselves accountable for the actions we are taking well passed just selling a product.
When Mickey first started Salt Spring Coffee in the early 1980s they already had a sustainability vision by being organic farmers and providing roasting coffee as a selling product. They had a sense of curiosity (first step to sustainability) by asking the real questions:
- How can I get the best product?
- How can I achieve greater quality and reduce the impact?
- How can I give back to the employees and the community?
All these questions often lead to sustainability as the result will become organic & fair trade product as well as minimizing waste. Sustainability is a very loaded term which scares a lot of people. The second step of sustainability is to understand what it really is. The easiest way to do so is to understand the basics which is called the Triple Bottom Line model:
At Salt Spring Coffee they discovered that their best assets where not on paper but in the building. When the company understood that its staff was the single most influential factor of success they started by creating new ways to motivate them:
- Sharing the decision making process
- Engaging them
- Listening to them
- Having an aggressive benefit plan
o If the family is well taken care of, the employees then can focus at work and not worry about what is happening at home
- Encourage to exercise and getting out
- Introduced mental days off (no over work hours)
- Sharing back when the company does well financially through profit sharing
o If the company does well it is ultimately because of them
- Put the people and the planet first
o Profit will come
Creating a company on a sustainable business model does not only benefit the company internally but externally as well as it is a great motivating factor for employment attracting best talent.
Sustainability as a core value
The key to sustainability was always part of the founders’ vision. Being on an island by nature, you are used to having scarce resources even garbage being hold on the island. There was always a way to make things better. The real challenge that needed to be solved was to find a way to manage our business with the least impact possible.
To reach their vision, they needed to find a way to do things better not only for a greater profit but also to improve people’s life and the environment. When partnering with the 1% for the planet, the business pledge to give 1% of their annual sales to a charitable organization of their choice. Aron mentioned that they have always been giving back to the community but that was the extra step to make a significant difference.
Salt Spring Coffee have been doing great by creating great relationships with suppliers, workers and the community minimizing our environmental impact. However, it was really hard to track and was not really recognized by any third-party organization which led them to look into the B-Corporation Certification. The goal was to have a 3rd party involved helping putting into place and holding all of what we say(do) to a higher standard. What is great about B-Corporation is that they always take it to the next step by conducting researches and continuing improving. It is a great way to show our commitment to sustainability not only to consumers but also everyone they interact with. B-Corporation helps them with business case to implement in the organization. It also provides an amazing community of like minded businesses sharing ideas and tips to overcome barriers that we all face. It is very hard to have access to this type of comradery environment in the business world nowadays. Since their certification in 2012, Aron have immensely learned and took advantage of all the B-Corporation benefits. He is now in the process of getting special request for proposals (RFP) that expressly requires B-Corporation certified companies.
As per Aron, the only downside of getting certified or joining such organizations is that it is very hard to measure the real impact of the certification. It would be great to put a direct ROI on sustainability. This is something that Salt Spring Coffee has been working with B-Corporation by investing lots of energy into transparency and extra reporting as well as going through specific criteria and audits. As they have dedicated precious time, business cases are helping us with something that will drive up the sales and attract new customers. It is worth to mention; B-Corporation is largely oriented on B2B rather than B2C at this moment in time.
Salt Spring Coffee is now at a stage where it will take its corporate social responsibility report to a whole other level. The report will become interactive on the website as opposed to a downloadable document form. It will engage customers and employees learning about the company’s performance on the triple bottom line. As stakeholders will be able to hold accountable Salt Spring Coffee on their commitments, it will be a lot easier for the organization to look back at the timeline and see how much improvement they have made over the years creating a motivational driver.
Looking back, there are a lot of things that they might have done differently but they would not change anything. Aron was proud to learn from his mistakes. There are a lot of people thinking that they have to start going all in or nothing. This is so far from the truth. Making small steps one-by-one is the smartest way to go.
1- Start with the low hanging-fruits
2- Expect a lot of recalibration during the process
3- Sustainability is often dealing with a lot of gray
4- You need to make a statement:
o I am either going to be a pioneer or follow the train in 5 -10 years from now
Salt Spring Coffee now counts 50 to 60 employees depending on the season. Its clients based is primarily based of cafes, grocery stores, B2C and B2B online portal as well as substitute products.
Taking It to the Next Level
Aron sees numerous advantage for pushing corporate social responsibility (CSR) to the next level. It automatically enhanced Salt Spring Coffee’s brand. It goes back to who they are as a company as well as living and doing business up to their values. Since joining B-Corporation in 2012, they have added value to their supply chain instead of being perceived as a commodity. This creates a tighter supply chain, building trust and valuable relationships. It is much easier to be transparent going through tougher times and understanding each other’s challenges. B-Corporation also helped them on the human resources (HR) department recruiting higher quality staff because there is a real desire and passion to work for a company that is doing the right things.
Like every system though, nothing is perfect. Aron finds challenging to always be above the competition and looking at the business rationality of becoming more sustainable. Sometime sustainability can move you towards where it doesn’t give you more business value. You have to pick the right things for your industry / organization. It is not relevant to measure everything just for the sake of measuring. Do not fall in the trap of measure what you do not need to. Make sure it is relevant to your business and/or your stakeholders (measure to offset something else). At the end of the day if you really want to differentiate yourself from the competition, you need to do more than just providing organic or sustainable products or giving to charities (philanthropy). You also need to live up to your values and implement them within your business practices and culture.
Sustainability versus Social Media
It can be difficult to put a precise ROI on sustainability just like social media depending on your approach. It is somewhat easy to measure on a short-term gain by attacking the low-hanging fruits. When you get into the long-term game, there is need to know that level of commitment that doing the right thing is going to pay off. But there is also place for recalibration as well. When starting a project, it might not be what you expected at the beginning. Don’t be afraid to recalibrate. If we collect this, can it be of any use for us? An interesting example at Salt Spring Coffee was with bio-plastic. We decided not to go on with the idea for the only reason that you cannot put it into a composting bin. It was a great way for them to get closer to their 0 waste goal but unfortunately it was not viable for their business model. As mentioned previously, sustainability is a lot about getting curious. If you want to get into something you need to get involved and realize that the answers might not be as pretty as they look on paper. Society in general needs to see either black or white but in sustainability and social enterprises, there is a lot of gray zones.
Resistance to Sustainability
According to Aron, the main resistance to sustainability is clearly tough financial times especially for start-ups. They are focusing on making it at the end of the month and surviving beyond year one. The survival instinct prevails. Even during economic down turns, companies get stressed and focus completely on the bottom line and unfortunately they did not find a way to include sustainability within the equation as of yet.
A great tip that Aron shared with me was to dissect your business into more manageable pieces to make a great sustainable plan into action. Seeing a step-by-step process to reach a point where it does not seem scary nor overwhelming for a small business to take action and see the short and long term benefit of corporate social responsibility. By doing such activity, it removes the crushing feeling we get when overthinking a project.
As we cannot mention it enough, get curious. The single most widespread barrier to SME sustainability is the lack of knowledge. If people were better informed, they would not have the negative thinking about costs, time consuming, and wondering if it is worth it. There are a lot of small organizations in most cities across the country that you can join to get more information. If your time is limited, there is an abundance of information about sustainability on the web. Start there and if you need more in depth explanation, seek for knowledgeable resources.
In a Harvard Business School report, businesses using a social and sustainable business models were outperforming their competition by as much as 15% mainly because they are used to incorporating and valuing more than just profit which makes them more robust to deal with economic downturns.
The Future of Sustainability
Aron sees some fatigue around GRI and offsetting. He pointed out seeing it coming back down more to simple chunks and not simply doing credits on the stock market and moving it to larger organizations and global practices but moving it back down into a localized public interaction. It is a hope that CSR steps away from being someone else’s problem, to everyone’s problem while taking full accountability especially with climate change being now obvious.
Start-Ups vs Corporations
We already see start-ups getting a large portion of the market share from corporation. The real challenge with sustainability is always scale but at a certain point, as somebody is getting too big, the sustainability pieces start to get compromised. There is always a cycle. The challenge will be for the small sustainable oriented businesses to keep their corporate culture as they grow and not loose sight of their initial focus. This is one of the biggest challenge with sustainability; How do you flourish and keep the core values going throw growth and/or acquisition? To mention a local example, it would be great to see HootSuite remain people focused and sustainable as they get bigger. (Since the interview, HootSuite has now become a B-Corporation certified company)
Hiring on Skills or Values
At Salt Spring Coffee, both skills and values are very important during the hiring process. It is very hard to weight each separately as it also depends on the position to be filled. However, Aron has learned the hard way by putting to much emphasis on skills and not enough on values. It resulted in hiring someone with the sets of skills but does not understand the company’s values. Salt Spring Coffee is very complex and the values are engraved on how they do things. They quickly came across employees who were more armful to the company by not having the same values. More and more Aron started to screen both, making sure they get the right set of skills but also meet the values. It is very hard to be strict on how much weight you allocate to each since everyone comes from a different background but their general rule tends to be 35% value and 65% skills. They are presently shifting towards allocating more weight to values as it becomes more important. Skills can be learned; values are really hard to change.
Small Business Starting from Scratch
Making sure that it is something you are doing not only for profit but also for the long-term benefit. It is really about getting the culture within the business and the people as well. Here are the first recommended steps when starting from the scratch:
1- Get your team on board and in sync
2- Implement it into the job description
3- Continue on improvement
4- Measuring key fundamental input and output
5- Commitment on reporting
For Salt Spring Coffee they started with organic agriculture. However, for others it could be on the social aspect as well. Too many people make the mistake of thinking that sustainability is only around the environment and forget about the governance and social side of it.
What if you had to start over?
Aron firmly mentioned that if they had to start over he would not change anything. Learning from your mistakes is a natural process to go through especially in the operation department. It is also a key driver for the company. Without sustainability, it feels like we are selling ourselves short and not contributing to the solution. It is not fulfilling. Everybody can make money. The question is: Can you make a positive impact along the way? Coming from a business school, Aron said to his friend that his job always had to align with his values. His friend respond “I want to make enough money at my job so that I can give back to charities and other value added organizations”. Aron finds it interesting. He hears what his friend was trying to say but it simply did not resonate to him. Fundamentally, this is where people become part of the problem and don’t realized that they are simply financially supporting organizations who are trying to solve problems created by them originally.