Dispatch from Iowa

Today’s frontline is Iowa. Natural Capitalism has been working with various communities here to enhance the profitability of their small businesses through a for-profit venture that some folk in California has asked us to help create a year or so ago. It’s done OK, that little business, running half a dozen “sustainability learning circles,” with small business leaders in California, Colorado and Iowa. On paper, it stands to make a great deal of money.
But last fall I began to question whether this was the best model. Nothing wrong with the circles but I became concerned that the model wouldn’t scale. Our people can’t be in every little community across the country, let alone around the world. That’s the reason we created the S@SB tool in the first place: take the knowledge that’s in the heads of the NCS staff who work with the Walmart’s of the world, and make it affordably available to mainstreet. A labor of love by NCS and the Scottish-based, digital learning company, Cogbooks, S@SB works. The companies that are using it are cutting their use of energy, their waste, engaging their employees, and perhaps most important, driving their profitability. Why most important? Because this is what will get mainstreet to drive the implementation of sustainability. For too long, sustainability has been sold as a moral imperative, as an environmentalist agenda.  Now, I’ve nothing against morality, but if we want this to sweep the world, it’s got to appeal across the political spectrum, and be something that people of all points of view want to do because it meets their own needs, not the pleasure of some activist.

Our learning circles, despite NCS’ best efforts, have been sold more as a political agenda. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, this has been a hard sell. Worse, they are a one size fits all. Oh, you’ve 1,000 employees, but you’re ready to cut a check, c’mon in.
This is one of the differences between a for-profit enterprise that wants to make its numbers, versus a non-profit that has a mission. And IMHO, we were not well meeting our customer’s needs. Oh there have been some great successes. You can see my interview in the New York Times for some of the stories (click here).
But I was bothered. I told the company’s CEO that I was unwilling to pitch the venture to investors until we had sorted out these issues. Wrestling with this, I asked Gregory Miller, my co-business professor to take a look at the offering. It took him about 30 seconds to pronounce that we had the wrong business model, confirming my fears that what we were doing would not scale. And that there was an inherent conflict of interest in what we said we wanted to achieve and how we were going about it.
The minute he said it, I knew he was right. And as soon as I relayed this to the team at NCS there was instant agreement. Greg’s suggestion what that rather than trying to profit running circles, we train people in each community to run a circle if they wish, or to consult one by one to their mainstreet businesses, or to use our tools in any way that fits the unique needs of their town – things we couldn’t know without spending unsustainable amounts of time there, thus having to extract unsustainable amounts of revenue from each community we claimed to be going to “serve.”
Trying to convince some of the other folk in the for-profit wasn’t so easy. So, as some of you may have heard, we’re parting ways. Natural Capitalism Solutions, the entity that built the S@SB tool, created the curriculum for the circles, trained the circle coaches and provided all of the substantive research to the circle members, met this morning with the Mayor of Des Moines, the Iowa Office of Energy Independence, and representatives from the city to propose our new model. For a very low price point, we will teach Iowa how to use all of our materials and help them roll this capacity out across the state. If what a community wants is our LASER tool (Local Action for Sustainable Economic Renewal) bueno. If S@SB, they can get that. If it is the employee engagement training from the circles, no problem.  It will leave in Iowa most of the money that my prior colleagues are just now trying to talk the Iowa officials into sending to California. It will create many more local jobs. And most important, it will do a better job for the people of Iowa.
Then we can move on to Wyoming, where I was two weeks ago a the GroBiz Conference, working with the Small Business Development Center, to train their people. And Michigan, and Ohio, and California, and…. Knowing that the people of Iowa now have the capacity to use our tools to meet their own needs, able to access our research if they need it, but crafting their own futures.
We’ll leave to other people the creation of top-heavy sales organizations, and the age old game of carpetbagging.
As I write, our circle here is off touring the Metro Waste Authority’s land fill. In a few minutes I will speak to the on the breaking news in sustainability and give a presentation on how to brand sustainability programs with authenticity. Maybe that’s the point. First tell the truth.
Follow Hunter Lovins on Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/hlovins

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