Green Line Series PHX | Courtney Klein Johnson On Building A Triple Bottom Line Enterprise

ImageOn her first day of college at Arizona State University, SEED Spot Co-Founder Courtney Klein Johnson would have told you she’d be well on her way to being the next Katie Couric by now. Instead, a life-changing experience working in rural Mexico significantly altered her life course and she is now thriving as a social entrepreneur working to catalyze and grow a business community that values impact as well as profit. Courtney will participate in our Make Money by Doing Good: Designing A Triple Bottom Line Enterprise Workshop, Thursday, December 6 in Phoenix — but first, we’ve got a primer on the Triple Bottom Line concept and how it plays out in the world of business.

GoGreen Conference: To get us started, can you give us a quick backgrounder on SEED Spot and what it is that you do there? 

Courtney Klein Johnson: Chris Petroff and I started SEED Spot in February of 2012. The name behind SEED spot comes from the idea that everyone has a seed inside of them — an idea that is yet to be born. We’re a place where you can go to get the resources and guidance to take that idea out into the real world. We’re working with social entrepreneurs in Phoenix with dreams of creating sustainable businesses that have impact via a product, service or technology that improves lives and communities. We have 16 full-time companies and 40 part-time companies that we’re supporting this year.

GG: On your website you talk about the intersection of purpose, passion and work. What happens when you align these three elements? What lies at that intersection?

CKJ: Magic. Incredible stuff. I think that authenticity lies at that intersection. People who find a cross-pollination of all those things often arrive at the most authentic place for themselves and for the businesses they create. And with that comes a loyal customer following; a base of people that believe in the “why” even more than the “what.” And I believe that brings more value to whatever project or service you’re providing.

GG: A lot of times when we talk about sustainability, the conversation can stagnate on environmental performance metrics — efficiency, consumption, technology — but SEED Spot seems to have a broader perspective on what it means to be sustainable. Fill us in on your philosophy. 

CKJ: We would argue that a sustainable business is one that is not only created in a way that is fruitful for the entrepreneur, but fruitful for the people that intertwine or interface with the company as well. That goes for your employment practices to the product or service itself — how is it made, the lineage of its components and the impact they have. Sustainability also means sustainable revenue. SEED Spot itself is set up as a non-profit organization, but we’re still charged with setting up sustainable revenue channels for ourselves. It’s important to look at setting up your organization properly in the market and assessing your costs appropriately. The tension comes in when you look at the higher costs that come with supply chains to be sustainable or eco-friendly. It matters where and how things are made, but so does the price point — and the most sustainable companies are the ones that have found the right balance between that sacrifice and sustainability.

GG: Have you seen a big shift in the Millennial and Gen Y generations in terms of better integrating the concept of “doing well and doing good” into their business models? Is the traditional belief that profit is king be on its way out?

CKJ: Yes, definitively. Profit for the sake of profit is an archaic way to do business. And it’s not only a generational thing. These generations have enabled older adults to look at their spending patterns and the impact they have on their own local economy. You can trace the dollars back in any local economy and realize that supporting local business also leads to things like better education, because you are supporting the entire vitality of a community and your money trickles down to libraries and parks and schools.

I do believe that Millennials as a generation have a more heightened sense of what’s happening in the world around us and the impact that our dollar has in the world. That’s, in part, due to technology and the Internet, globalization and the 24/7 media cycle. Our generation has been raised in a unique, fast-paced environment where we can see the whole world in front of us. And that situation has certain call-to-action factors baked into it. How can I support that product when I know exactly what kind of poor labor forces go into making it? We’re a generation that is questioning things much more and are keen to know the “how” and “why” as well as the “what.”

GG: Do you believe the most recent recession has provided more open opportunities to question the status quo system in place?

CKJ: The recession has forced people to look at their spending patterns in general and think about what they value and why they value it. Things that used to be frivolous expenses are no longer allowed into the budget. In terms of thinking about how far your dollar goes and what you spend it on, people are much more critical in general. I’d like to think that has a trickle down effect into questioning the sustainability of products we purchase as well.

GG: Moving into Making Money While Doing Good workshop at GoGreen Phoenix. Can you explain what “triple bottom line” is and give us some examples of the give and take that happens with this approach?

CKJ: A triple bottom line is defined as taking into consideration people, planet, and profit — in that order. It’s really a matter of priorities. The more critical consumers can become about understanding what types of products they consume and endorse is the first self-induced action you can take in understanding how your dollars impact your community and the world. The localization effect of triple bottom line companies is the idea of keeping everything local. By supporting local businesses over big box shops, we’re supporting place-making. I mention this because I think there are a lot of different ways to look at a triple bottom line company and I hope to break it down in great detail during the session itself.

GG: You mentioned there is sometimes tension between keeping with your values and facing the reality of making a profit in order to keep your organization going. What are some of the situations that come up? And what kind of problem solving do you have to do to keep things balanced under a triple bottom line approach?

CKJ: The most glaring thing is the cost issue. You can find things that are incredibly cheap, but destroy everything you may believe in. Take paper —you can buy some really cheap paper. But, what were the best practices — or the worst practices — that went into getting that paper to your doorstep? The bleaching, the shipping, the trees? Or you can buy recycled paper, but that may come with a higher price point.

The question is: Can we sacrifice some convenience and price in order to gain in other areas of our triple bottom line? That magnifies itself when it comes to larger purchasing and procurement issues. We have to ask what it takes to save costs and keep overhead low, but also look at what it means to invest in products and companies that we know will continue to grow if we support them. The way we look at, you have to determine how this purchase you’re considering, based on volume, is going to impact your footprint. But you also have to take into account whether an investment in a more sustainable or local company will support the economy and spur lower price points through increased demand. By putting that lens on the situation you can look at the impact from an economic standpoint and see just how valuable your purchasing power really is.

GG: How can a company that is built on a traditional model embed triple bottom line principles into how they do business?

CKJ: The most obvious buckets to look at are procurement and supply chain. Your internal procurement includes offices supplies, printer ink and toner, paper — things like that. There are ways to localize those purchases by working with a supplier in your community and/or buying more eco-friendly products that incorporate responsible materials and recycled content. SCF Arizona has done a great job. They’ve shifted their procurement purchases to a local office supplier. That may or may not always be at the same price point, but SCF Arizona knows that with these purchases they’re supporting the local economy. From a supply chain perspective, there are endless options for offshore manufacturing and purchasing of materials. Start asking questions: How can you chunk out your biggest cost and start to embed your values from a purchasing and supply chain standpoint on a more domestic and/or sustainable level? How can you work with your suppliers, even internationally, to ensure they are treating their employees acceptably? It’s a researched base activity and you have to do some digging, but there are payoffs.

Courtney Klein Johnson is the founder of New Global Citizens and Co-Founder of the startup incubator, SEED Spot. Want to learn more? We’ve got you covered. Courtney will join Vermisoks Founder, Miguel Jardine, ASU Global Institute of Sustainability General Manager Dan O’Neill and DIRTT Director of Operations & Sustainability, Houston Peschl for a hands-on workshop showing how to thrive under a triple bottom line at the second annual GoGreen Phoenix, Thursday, December 6 at the Phoenix Convention Center. Register today at phoenix.gogreenconference.net

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One response to “Green Line Series PHX | Courtney Klein Johnson On Building A Triple Bottom Line Enterprise

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