Some businesses are dependent on perpetuating the social cause they claim to eliminate. What should you do?
I’ve always wanted my work to have purpose; to feel as though the problems I dedicate myself to are important. In 2016 I founded a sustainable veg box scheme. We focused on reducing what we felt were two core problems of our system of food supply: food waste & food inequality.
...by the second year I had made a decision that I wanted to sell.
We purchased produce that did not fit the aesthetic requirements of supermarkets and delivered it to customers’ doorsteps. As part of our mission we also purchased 10% more produce than we needed to donate to charities and food banks across the cities we worked in. Donating to charities that cooked with the produce also meant that we could donate any produce that had been damaged or was on its last legs and so kept food waste within our business at zero.
It was a great little business. Revenue and profit doubled each year I owned it, we hired ex-homeless staff, and paid everyone the living wage. I had always wanted to run my own business and I was under no illusions as to how rare it is to start a business and have it survive past the first 6 months let alone 4 years.
But by the second year I had made a decision that I wanted to sell. There were a myriad of reasons both personal and professional for wanting out; the hours were long and margins were tight, we had high fixed costs, and a product that literally started to die after you bought it, I was restricted as to where I could live, and I didn’t want to take on debt in order to grow the business further. What’s more I wasn’t convinced we were solving the problem we set out to solve. If anything I worried we were playing a small part in perpetuating it.
The food standards myth
Although your Auntie on facebook will tell you that the aesthetic standards of food were created and enforced by the EU, the issue of ‘wonky produce’ is actually about supermarket purchasing power. Supermarkets use the aesthetic standards as a tool to devalue the work of the farms they’re buying from and eventually pay a lower price.
A large portion of this surplus produce will go to be made into soups and jams. Any that cannot find a home will go to waste. Either churned back into the ground if it wasn’t picked out of the field, sent to landfill or anaerobic digestion.
By purchasing this produce we were reducing food waste but never actually tackling the root cause of the problem, we were just treating the symptoms. We didn’t reduce the standards of supermarket purchasing; in fact we were reliant on those standards for our own product.
This isn’t unique...
During my time running my business we donated over 30 tonnes of produce to charities and food banks. Whilst dropping off produce we would often discuss the customer lifecycle, the importance of food banks as a necessary quick fix for people in need. The foodbank staff always wanted to avoid customer dependability, to work with people to get them into a position where they didn’t need a food bank. But the more austerity continued it’s debilitating effects on inequality in our society, the more they talked about food bank users being nurses and care workers or people in full time work who just couldn’t make ends meet, the more food banks became a constant in their customers’ lives. We would often talk about whether food banks should exist at all. Were they just papering over the cracks in government failures, catching those that had fallen through a broken system?
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There are now charities with revenue and turnover in the millions operating in the sub-economy of food surplus. Rescuing discarded food from manufacturers and selling it to charities at hugely discounted prices. These organisations employ people in their thousands, with warehouse spaces and fleets of commercial vehicles.
Solve problems, check you're solving problems, repeat.
Businesses and charities like this exist in every industry. Started with good intentions and a problem to solve, then revenue increases and the CEOs bump up their salaries. After a while the problem they’re solving isn’t as important as the business surviving. Hattusia and my veg company are a world apart in their day to day but they are both still in the business of solving problems they haven’t created. Tech ethics must learn from the sustainability movement that has come before it. It cannot fall into the traps of ethics washing, of creating an economy that can only survive if the problem persists. The most consistent piece of advice I hear business leaders give out when speaking to people who want to start their own business is “find a problem that needs solving and solve it”.
It’s important to make sure you’re solving the problem you set out to.
For my company I felt this would have meant changing the product quite drastically, finding a small farm that was focused on regenerative organic agriculture, publicising the waste that comes through monocropping and large scale farms whilst offering an alternative. Ultimately I didn’t know if this pivot would destroy the business, prices would have to increase and I wasn’t sure if customers would stay. I felt the businesses donations to charity and hiring practices did too much good to warrant taking the risk of drastically changing the product, so I let the business continue and focused my efforts to doing good elsewhere. Selling your business isn’t going to be an option available to everyone. But here are some nice tips to keep you on track to solving the problem you set out:
1. Set a customer lifetime value.
Businesses that provide an ongoing service are encouraged to keep customers using it. For products that offer a solution to a problem that aim to reduce customer churn can act contrary to the platform goals. Embedding a customer lifetime value into your business plan allows you the freedom to work towards an end goal with your customers and no further.
2. Avoid conflicting finance
When taking on any sort of finance for your business make sure it is aligned with your company mission and understands your redlines.
Make sure you are consistently checking back in with your core business mission to solve the problem you set out to solve. It may occasionally just take small pivots to get you back on track.