From the Capitol to a garden market, planting a 'climate change agent'
The following Q&A is an edited excerpt from the Bard MBA’s Jan. 6 Sustainable Business Fridays podcast. Sustainable Business Fridays brings together students in Bard’s MBA in Sustainability program with leaders in business, sustainability and social entrepreneurship.
U.S. climate policy will go local after the presidential inauguration Jan. 20. In the absence of the prospect of national action, local businesses have a significant opportunity to enhance the local economy and combat climate change through their operations. Glen’s Garden Market, based in Washington, D.C., has been doing just this. From sourcing products within the Chesapeake Bay watershed to powering its stores with clean energy to providing living wages, Glen’s has been quietly pushing the environmental and social sustainability envelope while also incubating other small businesses as suppliers.
Emily Robichaux, a student in Bard College’s MBA in Sustainability program, sat down with Danielle Vogel, who worked in law and government before creating Glen’s Garden Market, to discuss the role of mission-oriented small business in sustainable food systems and local economies.
Danielle Vogel: Grocery is a tradition that stretches back 100 years on both sides of my family. That said, it was never my interest. I always intended to go to law school and work for my congressman in Washington. And that’s exactly what I did. I spent 10 years working on the Hill.
Most recently, I was involved in writing the last major Senate climate change bill, the American Power Act. We worked on it with Sen. (Joe) Lieberman, Sen. (Lindsey) Graham and then-Sen. (John) Kerry. When that bill failed and it became clear that there was no path forward for legislative progress, I had to find a way to continue making climate change progress.
I founded a business intentionally to make incremental climate change progress, or, as we call it in the store, "progress one bite at a time." Every single decision we make for the business keeps the environment in mind, from our sourcing methodology — we only sell foods from the states of the Chesapeake Bay watershed — to things that seem really insignificant to most people.
We don’t have any paper or plastic bags at Glen’s; we only use reusables. Of course, all of our equipment is the most energy efficient available on the market and we retrofit most of it to make it even more energy efficient. We built our bar tops out of post-consumer recycled paper; we built our walls out of reclaimed cattle fencing. We built our industrial walk-in freezers inside our refrigerators so that we don’t lose as much energy when we open the door.
Even though the experience is a really fun, hip neighborhood grocery store, in every contour it is very much a climate change agent.
Robichaux: What is your vision for small businesses as community building centers?
Vogel: We perceive all of the folks who surround our stores as part of the Glen’s family, so we throw parties for them once a season. The biggest party of the year is our birthday party. We opened Glen’s Garden Market on Earth Day 2013, so every Earth Day we throw ourselves an "Earth Day Birthday" party. And each year it has been centered around businesses that we’ve launched.
One year it was called "We Grow Small Businesses Along with Our Own" — we had launched 25 businesses at that point. And the next year it was called "Women of the Watershed." We invited 25 women entrepreneurs who had launched businesses at Glen’s. This year it’s going to be called "Made in D.C.,” as we’ll have 50 local producers by April.
We’ve created a symbiotic relationship with small businesses that share our values. We bring them into the stores, we spend money and effort on marketing and we get the whole community to come out. The idea is that we want to connect them with the people who make their food.
In a regular store, there’s a developed science to product placement: They put products where they want the consumers of those products to look. In our store, we give prime shelf space to products with a compelling value proposition. We actively take a hit on the margin to almost create a false cost competitiveness so that people don’t choose more ubiquitous brands over the more values-driven brand because of price alone.
The result is that we’re able to help scale these businesses quickly. They’re able to hire extra staff because of the volume that we’re doing. We also provide mentorship when they want it on everything from package design to flavor profile to pricing. It’s probably pretty rare for somebody trying to sell a product to a grocer to have the grocer say, "Your pricing methodology isn’t right, and I want you to be able to get into Whole Foods, so let me teach you how to do this properly."
We have these unique, mutually beneficial relationships with all of these little guys. Which simultaneously makes our stores a microcosm for what’s happening in the food scene regionally.
Robichaux: Has gender been a factor as you built up your business?
Vogel: I’m one of those women who doesn’t allow it to be a factor. Honestly, it’s extremely helpful to me that I have a law degree. It allows me a sense of confidence in every negotiation, of which here are thousands every year as a small business owner. I haven’t let it derail me in any aspect of this experience.
Robichaux: What do you see as the role of sustainable businesses in shaping local, state and federal policies? What is its potential impact and what are some roadblocks?
Vogel: The biggest roadblock to doing things properly is that it’s usually more expensive. So, conversely, the way to incentivize sustainable decisions is by making them either cost competitive or less expensive. It’s that simple.
In the world of small business, we negotiate a nearly impossible math problem every single day. When we have an opportunity to control our costs and instead choose a higher cost alternative, that doesn’t make a lot of sense for the bottom line. Glen’s Garden Market does it anyway, but we exist for the purpose of making this change.
But for somebody who’s trying to balance payroll against inventory costs — who needs to buy new uniforms, a new oven or some other big expenditure — it’s near impossible to realize the wisdom of also paying nearly three times as much for energy. Or buying a piece of equipment that’s considerably more expensive upfront because of its long-term energy benefits.
The way to make those choices easier is to remove the cost-competitive piece of the analysis. It’s what I was describing with our pricing methodology. I’ll take a jam that comes in the door at a much higher price relative to the competition, and I’ll sell it for the same price because I want somebody to choose the jam that we believe in.
The same analogy holds for energy or equipment investments. I worked long enough in Congress to know how hard this is to do, but the more you can create almost a false market signal to undermine the disadvantage of the more expensive choice, the easier it is for folks to make that choice.