When bad things happen to good, sustainability-minded companies

While we don’t often hear about it, it’s not totally unexpected that a business pursuing sustainability gets hit with an “old economy” pollution problem and has to deal with it. For example, it may inherit an unpleasant surprise from a previous owner, or through the actions of long-departed management. I’ve seen nothing about this kind of thing in the sustainable business field, so it looks like some guidelines for getting through it — and in a sustainability-oriented way — are due.

What brought this to the fore was an article in the November 22 “You’re the Boss” column in the New York Times business section. It featured a small business with a problem which is also struggling for a solution. Readers are asked to submit ideas to help the company. This column doesn’t usually write about sustainability, so I was motivated to try to help, and in a way that would also apply to other sustainability-pursuing companies going through something similar.

In this particular column, "A Family Farm's Crisis: Its Rice Contains Arsenic," Eilene Zimmerman discussed a sustainability-pursuing rice-grower, Lundberg Family Farms, and recent findings from Consumer Reports that arsenic, a carcinogen, was found in “rice and many rice products.”

While others in the rice industry were hit with this too, Lundberg has a particular set of challenges if it’s to live up to its values. The company is confused about what to tell its anxious customers, and what to do about the arsenic contamination. It appears from Zimmerman’s column that this company has already passed through an initially reactive, defensive, “Hey, it isn’t just us” approach, and is prepared to take a more proactive, science-informed strategy, consistent with its values — if it could figure out what that strategy should be. 

I entered a few suggestions in the “Comments” section, but was limited by space there. Here's my full take on it: 10 suggestions for any sustainability-pursuing company that finds itself in a difficult spot like this. I've used the experience of Lundberg Family Farms as a way to develop these suggestions. Certainly, not all of the specifics about the Lundberg case apply to others, but most of the following guidelines should.

Blackboard image by Pixelbliss via Shutterstock

Next page: 10 tips for handling difficult situations