My own green journey has been a long time in coming. I’ve never considered myself an environmental activist, nor have I ever actually hugged a tree. Yet somehow, the twists and turns of life have led me to develop a deep commitment to sustainability and in turn to green business. Let me tell you how:
The Early Years
Growing up in the 80s, I never gave a second thought to the amount of disposable goods that I was using. Who did, back in those days? Okay, there were some forward-thinking people, thankfully, who were starting to look at the issue and call attention to it. But the vast majority of us lived blissfully oblivious to the negative impacts, both social and environmental, of our consumerist habits.
In the 90s, when I went to college, green issues moved onto my radar, but they were primarily limited to occasionally recycling. In fact, it wasn’t until my first year after college that I began to realize that there were alternatives to the mainstream lifestyle of consumerism that I was leading.
For this life-altering realization, I owe much credit to Utne Magazine. One article that I can recall was a story about a couple of people who were organizing a local merchant’s group to encourage consumers to buy local. Now, I know that buying local is hardly an earth-shattering idea; however, at the time, I had spent my entire life accepting that making purchases at large chain stores was the only option. Up until that point, it had never even occurred to me that there might be alternatives and that they might be better in terms of their social and environmental impacts.
A Glimpse of Green
Fast forward to 2004, when I found myself back in the Bay Area after finally getting tired of living through actual changes in seasons. During the day I worked as Health & Safety Director at the American Red Cross. During evenings however, I found myself reading and learning more about sustainability. Although I had never been particularly passionate about environmental issues, I have always felt strongly about issues of social justice and inequity. Because of this, my passion for sustainability and green business was stimulated when I realized that this wasn’t just about environmental issues but about social issues as well. While as a consumer, I may not have been motivated to buy a particular shirt just because it was made from organic cotton, I would be greatly motivated to buy one and pay a premium if I knew that it had not been made in a sweatshop by exploited workers.
By this time, I was a member of Co-op America (before it became Green America), an organization whose mission is to harness economic power to create a socially just and environmentally sustainable society. I received their notice about an upcoming Green Festival, and off I went to check it out. I was amazed at what I found – there was a whole green world out there! Up until this point I had not been particularly surrounded by like-minded people; not that anyone was against sustainability, but among my family and friends, no one was particularly green either. For the first time, I came into contact with people who were actually working towards developing a green economy and I caught a glimpse of the potential for transformation if we could actually make the shift.
After four years with the Red Cross, I was also getting restless for a change. While I loved the nonprofit world, I was also becoming susceptible to the burnout that comes with trying to effect change with limited resources. However, one of my big realizations while working at the Red Cross was that I actually liked business; indeed, being a program director was like running a small business: I had to hire staff, manage inventory, prepare budgets, handle sales accounts, and more – all while ensuring that the programs continued running and preparing to head for the Gulf Coast on short notice during hurricane season (I ended up serving on two disaster relief assignments after the 2004 Florida hurricanes and Hurricane Katrina in 2005). At the same time, I also realized that in order to help advance the green economy, I would need to brush up on my own business skills. My liberal arts background had served me well – in fact, it’s now being recognized that liberal arts training can help in business – but my attention turned to going to business school to get an MBA.
Fortunately for me, some visionaries had had the foresight years ago to start an MBA program for people with strong social and environmental values. The Green MBA program was the first of its kind – an MBA in Sustainable Enterprise. It included the core business school courses – operations, finance, accounting, economics, marketing – but with sustainability considerations integrated throughout. In practice, this meant that in economics, for example, we learned not just about neoclassical economics but about ecological economics as well – an economics that recognizes that the economy is dependent upon finite natural resources. In marketing, in addition to learning the traditional “four P’s“, we discussed greenwashing – making a product appear to be environmentally friendly, when actually it is not. In accounting, we looked at the limitations of the traditional accounting system for addressing corporate social responsibility reporting and discussed ethical issues related to accurately reporting the financial performance of a company in a post-Enron business environment.
Between the Green MBA and a job as a Sustainability Manager in Berkeley, my days and nights were immersed in the world of green business – and I loved it, soaking up all that I could. I spent my days working on sustainability certifications for Greenerprinter, my nights working on Green MBA projects, and my weekends in class talking with my classmates and instructors about the triple bottom line. I attended green networking events and conferences, kept up with the latest news about sustainable business, and let my own mind alternately wander from imagining the possibilities to doing the hard-core critical thinking about sustainability.
A Better World and Beyond
Now I find myself in a role that I never would have imagined back in the day – as a green entrepreneur and sustainable business consultant. Because of my deep passion for social justice, I know that I have to work towards the alleviation of human suffering on some level. At the same time, having worked in the nonprofit sector, I know that they simply do not have the resources that business has to effect fundamental social change.
By developing businesses that are both socially just and environmentally sustainable – while also, of course, being financially viable – we can shift towards jobs in which workers are paid a decent wage, are not exposed to harmful toxins, and are taken into account by companies making decisions that will affect them. We can ensure that local communities are not harmed in order to maximize corporate profits. At the same time, we are placing unbelievable strain on the planet’s natural resources, witnessing mass extinction of species, and are already seeing the effects of climate change – all because of our erroneous, fundamental economic assumption of infinite natural resources. We can rectify this situation by recognizing the limits of natural resources, developing products that work within those limits, and re-aligning supply chains and distribution channels to minimize the environmental impact of those products.
When I delivered my final business plan presentation for the Green MBA, I stated that I was both an idealist and a realist. I am an idealist because I do believe that a better world is possible. However, I’m also a realist because I know that for that better world to come about, business must play a role in making that happen. I find that green business harnesses my own passion for social justice and environmental sustainability while also being brutally practical about how to effect change. I can think of nothing else right now that I would be prepared to commit to both personally and professionally than the transformative power of green business.
Carolina Miranda is the founder of Cultivating Capital, a business consulting firm specializing in helping women business owners develop sustainable businesses. She holds an MBA in Sustainable Enterprise that combines fundamental business skills with a deep understanding of sustainable business practices. She has a background in both non-profit and for-profit businesses and has first-hand experience working as a Sustainability Manager, implementing sustainability certifications, and conducting green business audits.
This article originally appeared at Cultivating Capital under the headline “How I Became Committed to Green Business”. You can view it here.
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