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Sunday, November 30, 2014

Changing the Food Game

Changing the Food Game: 
Market Transformation Strategies for Sustainable Agriculture
by Lucas Simons

ISBN-13: 978-1-78353-231-5

Published by: Greenleaf Publishing, 2014

By 2050, the world's population is estimated to grow to 10 billion. To feed everyone, we will have to double our food production, to produce more food in the next 40 years than in the whole of the last 6,000. Changing the Food Game shows how our unsustainable food production system cannot support this growth. In this prescient book, Lucas Simons argues that the biggest challenge for our generation can only be solved by effective market transformation to achieve sustainable agriculture and food production. Lucas Simons explains clearly how we have created a production and trading system that is inherently unsustainable. But he also demonstrates that we have reason to be hopeful from a sustainability race in the cocoa industry to examples of market transformation taking place in palm oil, timber, and sugarcane production. He also poses the question: where next? Provocative and eye-opening, Changing the Food Game uncovers the real story of how our food makes it on to our plates and presents a game-changing solution to revolutionize the industry.

Lucas Simons says: "The way we produce and trade our food has become a classic example of failing systems on a massive scale, with unprecedented implications for hundreds of millions (in reality more than a billion) of people, for many economies, and for our planet as a whole. Fixing agriculture is probably the challenge of our generation and we will not get a second chance to get it right." His story starts at El Volcán, a mid-sized coffee farm in the Guatemalan Highlands, during the time that Lucas was the manager of a foundation with an ambition to make the global coffee sector more sustainable, creating a new sustainability standard for coffee in the region for use by global brands. This was supported by Ahold Coffee Company in the Netherlands. Lucas's first hand view of the transformation that a responsible and sustainable approach to agriculture can make on people's lives was a defining experience for him. 

The book is in two parts. Part One describes the global challenge and shows the importance of our global food producing systems and the enormous impact it has on our economies, ecologies, and societies. It also explains what goes wrong in the system that drives this negative impact. Part Two introduces an approach to initiate and accelerate systemic change and uses real-life examples of agricultural commodity markets that have gone through, or are currently going through systemic change.

The Global Challenge
The scale of the food industry is all-embracing with more than one billion people who work in agriculture and more than 500 million farmers, of whom the vast majority are smallholders. Another 500 million people work in marine agriculture. Simons tells us that agriculture affects everything, from the way people make a living to the way land is used and transformed to provide food, taking up close to 40% of the world's land surface. This is endangered through desertification and soil degradation which are rapidly eroding fertile land available for agriculture. Increasing global water withdrawal, biodiversity loss, disappearance of natural habitats, chemical pollution, eutrophication are all terms that most of us have heard in connection with sustainability challenges. And let's not forget that agriculture is the third largest emitter (14%) of  total global greenhouse gas emissions, while forestry, deforestation, land clearing for agricultural purposes, and fires or decay of peat soils account for another 17%. All of these issues are taking their toll on current and future food availability and the quality of life for generations to come.

On the social side, "child labor, slavery, hunger and poverty are, in many cases, directly related to agricultural production." Problems of labor exploitation, unsafe working conditions and lack of nutrition characterize many of the conditions in the agriculture sector.

All of this, together with the rising demand for food as the world's population grows, astounding levels of food waste and biofuel demands competing for a share of cornfield output, forms the basis of a compelling case that Lucas Simons lucidly presents for radically changing the food system.

A Rotten System
Lucas Simons takes us through systems change theory, keeping it simple and describing the concepts in sstraightforward terms with supporting illustrations. Bottom line, the current system reinforces unsustainability. Artificial pricing based on government subsidies in Western economies and no subsidies in emerging economies, massaging of supply and demand with little correlation to actual need, externalization of costs, dumping of surpluses etc... all this contributes to an unequal system which perpetuates benefits to rich industries and governments and exacerbates deficiencies and challenges for poor farmers and communities. A system which is designed by those in charge for those in charge keeps us from breaking out of negative loops and creating reinforcing positive cycles that could actually transform global food availability and security for the benefit of all. From coffee trading to the hidden uses of sugar and from destruction of tropical forests to human trafficking, the agriculture sector has not yet seen its best day.

Transformation awaits
"How do you change systems that are caught in negative spirals?" asks Lucas Simons. Lucas then goes on to answer this question by defining four phases of change, underpinned by connectivity, transparency and collaboration between all players.

  • The awareness and project phase, which raises general awareness in the sector about the problems and elicits an initial response. 
  • The first mover and competition phase, which mainly addresses the market failure by creating incentives for the market to compete on doing the right thing. 
  • The critical mass and institutionalization phase, which addresses the lack of conditions for change and involves governments 
  • The level playing field phase, which addresses the institutionalization and legalization of the new normal and new norms.

What's important here is that, invariably, change starts through the catalyzing effect of a crisis. For example, the palm oil fires in Indonesia in 1997 were a wake-up call about the devastation caused by deforestation, with the fires destroying an area the size of Switzerland with regional economic costs estimated at $9 billion and dangerous air pollution effects felt throughout southeast Asia. Ultimately this led to the foundation, with the leadership of Unilever of the RSPO—the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil - which drives a sustainable approach for companies buying palm oil. Simons also provides examples from the coffee sector, the cocoa (chocolate) sector and others, demonstrating the degree to which crisis has to be present in order to galvanize entire markets into action. Inevitably, thereafter, there is one major player, often a corporation or an NGO or a government, or a collaboration of two or three players, that makes a disruptive move towards change. Examples from the soy, tea, cut flowers, livestock, sugarcane, tropical timber sectors and more show how, once the horse has bolted, the race for more sustainable standards is on, sector by sector. This eases into the third phase, that of establishing critical mass. A leading example here is the cocoa industry, where sector wide collaboration has created a new platform, CocoaAction, "that brings the world’s leading cocoa and chocolate companies together to sustain the cocoa industry and improve the livelihoods of cocoa farmers through meaningful partnerships between governments, cocoa farmers, and the cocoa industry to boost productivity and strengthen community development in Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana – the largest cocoa producing countries in the world." (quoted from the CocoaAction website).

Lucas Simons maintains that, although progress has been made, none of the sectors he has showcased in the previous phases of change have so far been able to achieve a leveling of the playing field by "institutionalizing and codifying the new norms". However, egg production, electronic waste and light-bulbs are sectors where new ways of working prescribed by law or prohibition of products or processes backed by law are now in place. As Lucas Simons says: "Sustainability will become a mainstream qualifier." Sooner or later, this will have to work in agriculture too.

Adding perspective
The final part of this book is all about adding perspective through 12 questions (and answers) that people frequently ask about making transformation in markets and behaviors become a reality, and ten examples of "inspirational change-makers" who, in their own way, are creating transformation in different fields. These include a drive to change the way soy farmers use herbicides and pesticides (to prevent people getting sick), creating a new way of handling waste in Indonesia, a movement to halt soil erosion in Turkey and a campaign to stop drunk driving. All are fascinating and inspirational examples.

A wholly informative book
Changing the Food Game way surpassed my expectations. It is immensely readable, in a style that flows easily and is not overburdened with technobabble. It is thoroughly informative, appearing to be well-researched and supported with facts, figures and numerous case studies. While the title focuses on food, the book is really about market transformation and how this happens in a range of sectors, not just in agriculture. I found this book to be an extremely worthwhile read and it taught me much.

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of Understanding G4: the Concise guide to Next Generation Sustainability Reporting  AND  Sustainability Reporting for SMEs: Competitive Advantage Through Transparency AND CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices . Contact me via Twitter (@elainecohen)  or via my business website   (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm).  Check out our G4 Report Expert Analysis Service - for published G4 reports or pre-publication - write to Elaine at to help make your G4 reporting  even better. 

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Overfished Ocean Strategy

Overfished Ocean Strategy
Powering up innovation for a resource-deprived world
Dr. Nadya Zhexembayeva

ISBN: 978-1609949648

Published: Berrett-Koehler Publishers; 1 edition (June 2, 2014)


Overfished Ocean Strategy offers five essential principles for innovating in this new reality. Zhexembayeva shows how businesses can find new opportunities in what were once considered useless by-products, discover resource-conserving efficiencies up and down their value chain, transfer their expertise from physical products to services, and develop ways to rapidly try out and refine these new business models. She fills the book with examples of companies that are already successfully navigating the overfished ocean, from established corporations such as BMW, Microsoft, and Puma to newcomers such as Lush, FLOOW2, and Sourcemap. The linear, throwaway economy of today—in which we extract resources at one end, create products, and throw them away at the other—is rapidly coming to an end. In every industry, creative minds are learning how to make money by taking this line and turning it into a circle. Nadya Zhexembayeva shows how you can join them and avoid being left high and dry.

I have had the privilege to hear Dr. Nadya Zhexembayeva deliver keynote addresses twice in the past couple of years, and both times, I have listened to her articulation of the headlines of the Overfished Ocean Strategy with absolute focus, totally absorbed in the message and in the delivery. Now, Overfished Ocean Strategy has hit the shelves and I find drawn to its simply stated narrative and coherent arguments. Don't let that simplicity deceive you. The book is the result  of deep-dive research and a good deal of leadership thought and intelligent analysis. By the end of the book, you not only know what the Overfished Ocean Strategy is all about, you know how to get there. You also want to. And, you want others to, as well.
The book starts with an overview of our new competitive reality. One in which we are trashing more than we have places to put the trash we generate. The linear economy has outlived its usefulness and is now hurling us along the path to oblivion. Declining resource reserves, the volatility of fossil fuel prices, water scarcity, climate change and weather extremes, with high insurance premiums hot on their heels, and overconsumption of stuff that becomes obsolete all too quickly are the defining warning signs of a crisis in the making. It's a throwaway economy. But all is not lost. Yet. The wealth of ideas, some already successfully implemented, on how to create bottom up sustainable design is what will save us. It's not only about "disruptive innovation for a resource-deprived economy". It's about a new economy, designed from the ground up to recreate the way we innovate and generate value. Instead of rewarding those that handle trash, we should target to eliminate trash at source. This means rethinking our world and stopping overfishing the oceans.
There are five central ideas that take us through the journey to an appropriately fished ocean.
First: From line to circle: a circular economy in which the waste of one process becomes the raw material for another. Michael Braungart and Bill McDonough's Cradle to Cradle took this concept to scale, and although it makes perfect sense, it's still not even approaching common practice by a big margin.
Second: From vertical to horizontal: expanding horizons and approaching business strategies by engaging with the entire supply network at all levels, not just upstream and downstream to suppliers and customers. Through fundamentally remapping supply chain relationships and engaging in partnership spirit with key players, the top-down bottom-up approach to doing business becomes as obsolete as the items in the linear economy that we dispose of so rapidly. And with a direct link to what we might otherwise know as sustainable business practice, Nadya recommends stakeholder mapping as an essential tool in the Overfished Ocean Strategy toolkit: "It is surprising how few managers I meet that are able to think in terms of stakeholder needs and risks - even within their organization, let along outside of it."  
Third: Growth to Growth: When we think growth, we think more money, more production, more output, more sales. Theoretically, all this should lead to more profit. But in a linear economy, it also leads to more of the stuff we have to find places to trash. Overfished Ocean Strategy tells us we should be looking for a new kind of growth, one that is based on the value we generate not the items we manufacture. By shifting the paradigm of what constitutes value - services rather than physical products, meaning rather than mass production - companies can reframe their offering and meet society's needs in a different way. "Building relevance into everything a company makes is not an easy task" writes Nadya. "What matters is meaning. The good news is that meaning comes in different forms, and in unlimited supply".
Fourth: From Plan to Model: "Planning is overrated" (I am glad to hear this! I can't remember anything good ever coming from a business plan... :)) This fourth principle of the Overfished Ocean Strategy urges us to constantly adapt to the new reality. By the time we finish our plans, reality has changed. It's better to work on the basis of a constantly evolving model rather than a rigid prescriptive plan. Such a shift might, for example, urge you to get out there in the market with a less than complete product (according to plan) and take the plunge with something that can evolve as the market evaluates how to use and benefit from it. Don't plan. Plan to model.
Fifth: Department to Mind-Set: Here we go on a journey back to the ancient Sumerian civilization that developed the concept of division of labor in the roles citizens played in Sumerian cities. Current corporate life is pretty much the same.  But, according to Nadya, "resource intelligence is not an easy-to-follow principle. Line-to-circle thinking cannot depend on narrow functional brilliance.The Overfished Ocean Strategy does not fit into a small box or department". And then she adds: "The majority of companies I met got it wrong." Even "the sustainability department" gets knocked on the head here. (I agree with this to a point, thought I personally believe that there is and always should be a place for a sustainability specialist in every company, that acts and an integrator, an overseer of sustainable principles and practices, and a coordinator of sustainability communications, without replacing the individual accountability that all leaders, managers and employees must integrate these into their daily roles).
Overfished Ocean Strategy follows a simple consistent message that most of us won't be challenged to understand and even agree with. Each chapter is peppered with examples of practice from large corporations and small companies we've never heard of, and supplemented with guidance for how to make the shift. Relevant and sometimes humorous quotes from a range of thought-leaders add interest. The toolkit section at the end of each chapter provides valuable suggestions about where to look for additional help or inspiration. The book does not propose a quick fix. But it does provide several diverse examples of the Overfished Ocean Strategy being played out today in companies across the world. We can learn from all of them.
Nadya's earlier book, Embedded Sustainability, co-written with Chris Laszlo, was spectacular, and well worth the investment of time to read. This one is easier on the brain, faster and more entertaining, and plays to both our intellect and to our emotions. It's a book with charm that totally packs a punch. In both cases, it's a perfect reflection of Nadya Zhexembayeva. You have my strongest recommendation to read it and absorb its message. It won't take you too long, but it will leave a lasting change in your thinking.  

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, winning (CRRA'12) Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of Understanding G4: the Concise guide to Next Generation Sustainability Reporting  AND  Sustainability Reporting for SMEs: Competitive Advantage Through Transparency AND CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices . Contact me via   or via my business website   (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Ice Cream Social

Ice Cream Social: The Struggle for the Soul of Ben & Jerry’s
By Brad Edmondson

Epilogue by Jeff Furman, Chairman of the Board of Directors of Ben & Jerry’s

ISBN 978-1-60994-813-9

Published by Berrett Koehler, January 2014


The Struggle for the Soul of Ben & Jerry’s is the first book to tell the complete story of a beloved company’s inspiring rise, tragic mistakes, devastating fall, determined recovery, and ongoing renewal. For over three decades, Ben & Jerry’s has tried to achieve “linked prosperity,” or the idea that the owners of the company should share their success with all of their stakeholders — employees, suppliers, distributors, customers, cows, everybody. Living up to this ideal is fun when you’re doing it right, and it creates amazingly loyal customers, but it isn't easy.


As a self-confessed ice-cream addict, it was more than obvious that I would want to read and review this book. Also, as a former Unilever employee, I have an additional connection to the Ben & Jerry's story. Add that to the CSR and social business theme, and you couldn't find a book that I could connect with on any more levels. More than this, the book reads like a who's who of the history of the CSR movement in the U.S. with all the big names – Paul Hawken, Anita Roddick, Simon Zadek and more – who played a role in the rise, struggles, challenges, development of, and survival of, the legendary Ben & Jerry's ice cream business. The story of Ben & Jerry's is recounted by journalist Brad Edmondson, whose many hours researching and interviewing past and present Ben & Jerry's protagonists is evident in the depth of the narrative. Actually, this book provides a background that I suspect many don't know, and insights which put a new perspective on the amazing journey to a leading ice cream brand and the concept of linked prosperity. 

Linked Prosperity 
I hadn’t come across this term before, although it resonates which my impression of how the Ben & Jerry's operation was run. Linked prosperity is the "simple but radical idea that when the company benefits, everything it touches should also benefit, including employees, suppliers, customers communities and the environment." Today, that concept is well-known, but back in the 80s, it was far less common. A couple of the first expressions of linked prosperity that many perhaps do not know include the creation of the Ben & Jerry's Foundation as a way of channelling 7.5% of pretax profits (nearly four times the national average) to social causes and the introduction of a salary ratio of five to one between the highest and the lowest salaries. The prosperity of Ben and Jerry's was also directly linked to its local community through a share offering restricted only to Vermont residents, so that in 1984, after the first offering, "nearly 1% of the households in the state owned shares of Ben & Jerry's". One of the first cause marketing campaigns undertaken by Ben & Jerry's was the sale of Peace Pops, under the One Percent for Peace banner, a new organization supported by Paul Hawken and other visionaries to rechannel 1% of the U.S. defense budget to cultural and economic exchanges between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. 

The Three Part Mission and the Challenges of Pioneering CSR 
In 1988, Ben & Jerry's unveiled its social, economic and product centric three-part mission, a precursor to the triple bottom line we all are familiar with today. Later, the company started to include non-financial disclosures in annual reports and gradually progressed to fully audited social accounts. In the book, Brad Edmondson describes the risks that this pioneering approach brought for Ben & Jerry's, alongside the detail of the challenges of performing full social audits and paving the way, by establishing new methodologies, so that larger companies such as Disney and Nike could move into this space as well. This significant role that Ben & Jerry's played in moving CSR forward is probably not widely known and it makes for absolutely fascinating reading. The path to sustainable sourcing was also not as smooth as the new range of sorbets that Ben & Jerry's brought out to compete with Hagen Dasz in 1996. Fair trade vanilla farmers in Costa Rica became a less reliable source and alternatives had to be found. The apple-pie social enterprise source La Soul sued Ben & Jerry's when apple-pie flavored frozen yogurt didn't sell. Other challenges that plagued Ben & Jerry's included finding the right leadership, especially when the company was under financial pressure in the 90s, and this was so much harder given the founders' determination to give equal weighting to each part of the Ben & Jerry's three-part mission. Ironically, Perry Odak, the externally-hired CEO in the late 1990s, whose belief was "let's make the economics work first" and who started to try to quantify the incremental costs of the social mission for the first time, was the one who managed to save the Ben & Jerry's balance sheet. But he was also the one who is attributed with moving the company towards its historic sale to Unilever. 

Selling Out? 
And this is probably the part of the book that almost every wants to read first (though it's much better if you take in the first eight chapters before you do). What really went on behind the scenes that led to the iconic socially-led progressive premium ice cream small-guy Ben &Jerry's to be gobbled up by the global powerhouse Unilever is the big attraction of this book. We all recognize that today, Ben & Jerry's largely survived the Unilever gobble-up, and emerged with its values, creativity, social identity, great flavors and even a little of its irreverence as a brand intact. How Ben & Jerry's managed to do this in the face of Big Business is the most compelling part of this book, even before you read it. Chapter Nine is where the stakes are upped. The account doesn't disappoint. Albeit containing less drama, door-slamming and storming-out of meetings than we might have anticipated, the sale negotiation process was not without its ups and downs and the roles of the different characters involved on both sides is illuminating, and shows, ultimately, they even Big Business is about people with values and their determination to make things happen. 

Happy End 
Ben & Jerry's secured terms for this acquisition deal which helped preserve much of its character and a good degree of its independence, even though, down the road, the company would have to take Unilever to hand for breaching the agreed provisions. Eventually, after Paul Polman took the helm at Unilever, and brought with him a great focus on strategic CSR and a new openness, the path to a cautious rebalancing of the three-part mission became navigable. In urging Unilever to take on greater sustainability goals, Polman cited Ben & Jerry's as one of the model companies in the Unilever family in terms of championing social environmental causes and others confirmed they sought to learn from Ben & Jerry's in areas of sustainable sourcing and fair trade. Ben & Jerry's had come full circle, and the founding partners could continue to feel proud of the institution they had developed, despite the devastating feeling of having sold their company. 

A Book Worth Reading 
There is much more to this book than I expected, and if anything, one of the greatest insights is that it is really no picnic trying to be a socially responsible company and thrive. The five to one salary ratio disappeared when it became untenable, the costs of sustainable sourcing almost bankrupted the business, and the relationships between board and management became strained beyond measure. The ability of Ben & Jerry's to survive and grow through all of this is as much due to the perseverance of principle in general, allowing some flexibility of principles in practice, as it is to a smart group of people who appeared in the right place at the right time to make the right decisions, powered by a vision of linked prosperity, the spirit to see it through and a shared sense of the inevitability great-tasting ice cream with a backbone. 

There's only one secret that Brad Edmondson didn't reveal about Ben & Jerry's – and that's how to get membership of the Free Ice Cream for Life Club. Now THAT's something I'd like to know.

elaine cohen, CSR consultant, winning (CRRA'12) Sustainability Reporter, HR Professional, Ice Cream Addict. Author of Understanding G4: the Concise guide to Next Generation Sustainability Reporting  AND  Sustainability Reporting for SMEs: Competitive Advantage Through Transparency AND CSR for HR: A necessary partnership for advancing responsible business practices . Contact me at   or via my business website   (Beyond Business Ltd, an inspired CSR consulting and Sustainability Reporting firm)
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