Ecological Stewardship

Ethical Fashion Event at Cavallo Point

July 14, 2014

This is a guest post by INDIGENOUS

Cavallo Point – August 22, 2014:

It only takes one look to know that Cavallo Point is an extraordinary place. The warm ambiance and charmed location make Cavallo Point Mercantile the perfect place to shop for elegant, sustainably made clothing, jewelry and accessories. Join us there on August 22nd to celebrate an innovative partnership. You’re invited to preview the future of fashion with CAVALLO POINT MERCANTILE, INDIGENOUS and RSF SOCIAL FINANCE.

Cavallo-Point-Mercantile-Event-with RSF logo

Want to do more than change fashion trends? Clothing brands linked to charitable works and fair trade initiatives not only improve working conditions and alleviate poverty, they’re also successful! Ethical fashion companies, both large and small, are raising awareness about the realities of “fast fashion” and leading the way to a more sustainable business model.

The human cost behind $5 t-shirts and the fast fashion cycle were made abundantly clear—this time on a global stage—with the tragic collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh. In April of 2013, over 1,110 garment workers—most of them young women—senselessly lost their lives. Now, more than ever, shoppers are aware of the impact every purchase makes. The world is ready for change. It’s time that we use business as a force for good, solving social and environmental challenges.

Be a part of the change. Attend this exciting event and meet INDIGENOUS co-founder and President, Matt Reynolds, who will share how INDIGENOUS is revolutionizing the future of fashion. How can fashion have a positive impact? Join the discussion and let your voice be heard.


  • Cavallo Point drawing for a free Spa Treatment
  • INDIGENOUS drawing for free artisan hand made fashions
  • 10% discount offered to anyone that mentions “Artisan Made”
  • Cavallo Point will be generously contributing 5% of every purchase back to a Fair Values Fund, managed by RSF Social Finance. The Fair Values Fund invests in skills, technical assistance and equipment to benefit artisans, schools and organic farms.

Event Information:

August 22, 5:00 – 7:00pm
Cavallo Point Mercantile
601 Murray Circle
Sausalito, CA 94965

RSF Summer Quarterly: What Kind of Stewards do we Want to be?

July 7, 2014

Our role in stewardship is top of mind in the latest issue of the RSF Quarterly. Katherine Collins, founder and CEO of Honeybee Capital, explores how investing can be realigned with the natural world through biomimicry. In Clients and Conversation, Tim Brownell of Eureka Recycling, an RSF borrower, and investor Ben Gordon discuss how social transformation is at the core of the environmental change they seek. Also, learn how RSF grantee Tamalpais Trust is building the capacity of indigenous-led organizations to promote a culturally sensitive approach to environmental stewardship.

To download an electronic copy of the Quarterly, click here.


Announcing the 2014 RSF Seed Fund Grantees!

May 29, 2014

by Ellie Lanphier

Every spring, RSF provides small gifts to seed new initiatives that offer innovative solutions in the field of social finance, or address issues in one of our three focus areas. Thank you to all of our individual investors, donors, and staff members who make the RSF Seed Fund possible!

2014 RSF Seed Fund Grantees:

Malama Kaua’i, founded in 2006, focuses on advocating, education, and driving action towards a sustainable Kaua’i. Their core programs include Kaua`i School Garden Network, Community Garden, and Food Forest agroforestry project (which hosts the largest collection of banana species in the state). New programs this year include SNAP/EBT processing at farmers’ markets, Island-wide Organic Gardening Training, Native Hawaiian Charter School Food Program, and the Roots of Kaua`i Green Careers Certificate training. The Seed Fund grant of $2,500 will support the Roots of Kaua`i Green Careers Certificate Program, a free 10-week training program focused on delivering environmental, career development, and soft skills education to Kaua`i at-risk youth, aged 18 to 30, during summer 2014.

Malama Kauai


Willamette Farm & Food Coalition, located in Lane County, Oregon, was founded in 2000 to support the development of a secure and sustainable regional food system. The organization promotes locally grown and raised foods, educates consumers, and connects households, businesses, and institutions directly to Lane County farms. The Seed Fund grant of $2,500 will support a website redesign for Eugene Local Foods, a year-round online farmers’ market that makes shopping from local farms convenient for consumers and farmers alike.

Eugene Local Foods


Veterans to FarmersVeterans to Farmers (VTF) was started in 2011 by US Marine Corps Veteran Buck Adams to ensure that veterans are able to establish new careers in greenhouse farming, while engaging the residential community in creating a healthier, local food system in Denver, Colorado. The clean, healthy food grown at the Training Center Greenhouse will be sold directly to the community within a 3-mile radius, currently considered a food desert. VTF will accept SNAP benefits and sell a percentage of the food on a sliding scale to ensure access, regardless of income. The $1,500 Seed Fund grant supports outreach to the surrounding Denver community, advertising SNAP benefit use to purchase VTF produce and educating consumers on the environmental and nutritional benefits of buying local.

The produce is grown using aeroponic, vertical growing towers, which use 90% less water and land than traditional agriculture, while growing 10 times the yield. Each 10,000 sq. ft. greenhouse will grow roughly 150,000 pounds of produce each year that will be accessible year-round.


REDCOREDCO, the Rosebud Economic Development Corporation, is a non-profit, tribally chartered entity of the Sicangu Lakota Oyate (Rosebud Sioux Tribe) working to improve the lives of the tribe’s 32,000 members by promoting economic development and self-sufficiency on the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota. REDCO’s recently launched Keya Wakpala Food Sovereignty Project aims to increase tribal access to healthy, fresh, and locally grown food. They received a $2,500 Seed Fund grant to support the establishment of the Keya Wakpala Farmers’ Market, a weekly seasonal farmers’ market where locally grown organic produce will be planted, tended, harvested, and sold by tribal members. The market will open in July 2014 and will operate through the end of September or October; it will accept SNAP benefits from inception.


Indian Land Tenure Foundation, based in Little Canada, Minnesota, was formed to address the crisis of reservation land loss. The non-profit supports the return of the buffalo to the lands, culture, diets, and economies of Native American communities through their work with the Tanka Fund and in collaboration with Native American Natural Foods (NANF). NANF created the Tanka Bar, the first nationally distributed food product from an Indigenous community. The Tanka Bar is made from an ancient Native recipe of preserving bison with fruit and is sold in more than 5,000 stores nation-wide. NANF would like to buy all the buffalo meat it needs from Native American buffalo producers, but there aren’t enough Native buffalo ranchers to make this possible. Project goals over the next 10 years include converting one million acres of land to buffalo production, expanding retail markets, and building awareness. The $2,500 Seed Fund grant will support the creation of educational materials on the health, environmental, and economic benefits of buffalo restoration.

Indian Land Tenure Foundation


Dane County TimebankDane County Timebank was established in 2005 to build self-sufficiency and interdependence through timebanking. The organization received a $2,500 grant to support the design and communications for Mutual Aid Networks, a new form of cooperative where members collectively manage timebanking, community savings and investment pools (of the dominant currency, plus goods and in-kind resources), and other forms of community sharing and exchange. These are applied to this mission: to create means for everyone to discover and succeed in the work they want to do, supported by their community. Measurable goals include having three Mutual Aid Networks established, incorporated and functioning by end of 2014, with communication tools, training materials, and template agreements for new Mutual Aid Networks to adopt.


Green Meadow Waldorf School (GMWS)received a $1,000 Seed Fund grant to support Open Saturdays, a free tutoring program brought by GMWS faculty, staff, parents and students to children in struggling local public schools during the 2014-15 school year. GMWS is located in Chestnut Ridge, New York in the East Ramapo School District where more than 48 percent of students are eligible for free school lunches, and an additional 14 percent are eligible for reduced price meals. The district has faced significant budget deficits in recent years, exceeding $7 million in the 2012-13 school year and resulting in extensive cuts to programming. Last spring, more than 80 district teachers and staff members were laid off, including arts faculty, librarians, and security personnel, and full-day kindergarten has been eliminated district-wide, as has music and art, athletics, and AP and ESL coursework.

Open Saturdays is a way for Green Meadow to reach out to students in this severely under-resourced school district. The principal outcomes are learning improvements by students, but GMWS also hopes that the program will promote a culture of service in their community and support an overarching goal to build bridges between their school and the larger community while providing tangible, meaningful services to their neighbors.

Green Meadow Waldorf School


Refugee and Immigrant Fund (RIF) of Queens, New York, was established in 2007 to provide a safe space and opportunities for refugees to rebuild new lives in the United States. RIF has served over 600 refugees through legal and psychosocial assistance. They received a Seed Fund grant of $2,500 to support the growth of the Urban Farm Project through expanded reach and stronger, more comprehensive program development, implementation, and evaluation. The Urban Farm Project began as an additional therapeutic tool to help refugees recover from trauma. While providing a soothing natural environment for psychological recovery, the project also offers several benefits, including job readiness skills development, English language immersion, immigrant integration, and green job training. RIF made the strategic decision to fully focus its resources on the Urban Farm Recovery Project from 2014 on, expanding it from a therapeutic intervention to a comprehensive immigrant integration program using urban agriculture training as a catalyst for integrating newcomers in New York.

Refugee and Immigrant Fund


Cooperative FermentationCooperative Fermentation seeks to democratize our food system through the creation of cooperatives in food and farming in Maine and beyond by incubating new co-ops, providing popular education and presentations, producing food, facilitating community meetings, and supporting cooperative transition of existing food and farm businesses. The $2,500 Seed Fund grant will support cooperative consulting, co-op economic development workshops, and research and implementation of new economic models including: barter, sliding scale, alternative currency, hour exchanges, community investment, and multi-stakeholder co-ops. Cooperative Fermentation hopes to reach a variety of people through these programs, while maintaining a focus on younger farmers and food producers in Southern, Central, and Midcoast Maine.

Ellie Lanphier is Program Associate, Philanthropic Services.

Seed Fund Grantee Highlight: Catskill Mountainkeeper

May 15, 2014

by Ellie Lanphier

Catskill Mountainkeeper_landscapeCatskill Mountainkeeper takes on the important and often difficult role of striving to be the best advocate for sustainable growth and resource preservation in the seven-county Catskill region of New York. Through innovative programs and partnerships, Catskill Mountainkeeper has mapped and made available all the trails of Sullivan County, facilitates the region’s movement towards renewable energy, and is growing the next generation of food entrepreneurs. In 2013, Catskill Mountainkeeper received a grant from the RSF Seed Fund to support the pilot launch of the Capital Access Loan Program, designed to help regional farmers expand their businesses and boost the local economy.

The Capital Access Loan Program grew out of two studies commissioned by Mountainkeeper, “A Western Catskill Region Foodshed Research & Analysis,” and “Ground Up,” which demonstrated an immense opportunity within the region to grow the local agricultural economy. Catskill Mountainkeeper:

The report found that agriculture has the lowest start-up infrastructure cost of any land use for economic growth and an average economic multiple of 2.5 (for every dollar earned by a farmer 2.5 dollars are pumped into the regional economy). Coupled with our region’s abundance of accessible clean water, the lowest land costs within 100 miles of New York City and access to the thriving New York metro market, the Catskills is a prime area for agriculture. The New York metro market with its population of over 20 million is currently experiencing a strong trend towards the purchase and consumption of food that is grown within 100 miles. The demand clearly exceeds the supply available and this trend will continue to grow.

Working with business consultants and a well-established bank co-founded by farmers, Catskill Mountainkeeper vets organizations that apply for business expansion loans from $15,000 to $40,000 at low interest rates, and seeks to provide long payback periods and grace periods when needed. (For more details on who qualifies: Capital Access Program Inquiry Form) With every loan comes help with business planning services, an important piece to the model’s efficacy and to the success of the farmer.

Catskill Mountainkeeper_group shot 2

The Seed Fund grant supported this business planning component specifically. “The Seed Fund provides small grants – but this one had a big impact,” says Catskill Mountainkeeper’s Development Director Jennifer Edwards. “Most of the funds we raised for this program are restricted to the capital loan.  It is more difficult to raise funding for the necessary staff and consultant time to implement the program. This grant allowed us to develop a highly conceptualized business plan and we expect to see long-term and far-reaching successful outcomes from this work.”

One lucky applicant to receive funding in the past year is Jonah Shaw of Catskill Food Company, a farm-based, artisanal handcrafted foods enterprise using ingredients farmed almost exclusively in New York. Shaw, who has made a career in many facets of the food industry with a mind for sustainability, creates his sausages from heritage pigs and all processing takes place within the state, featuring seasonal ingredients when available. Catskill Mountainkeeper chose Catskill Food Company as a great example of how a viable local food system can create jobs and meet the desire for local food in the region.

Catskill Mountainkeeper’s work is greatly influenced by their perspective that their region has come to a crossroads, and that what develops now will determine their future for many years to come. They have chosen to promote their natural resources, natural beauty, local talent pool and fortuitous location and hope to lead the region to a sustainable and profitable future.

Catskill Mountainkeeper_group shot

To learn more about the Seed Fund, or to donate, please visit our website.

Ellie Lanphier is Program Associate of Philanthropic Services at RSF Social Finance

RSF Makes a New Loan to Eureka Recycling

February 19, 2014

RSF Social Finance (RSF) is pleased to announce a new loan to Eureka Recycling, a non-profit recycler specializing in zero-waste. RSF financing will be used to purchase new recycling equipment which will help the company transform its operations, reducing operating costs and improving service to its clients.

Truck Side AngleBased in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Eureka Recycling provides curbside recycling services to the Twin Cities of Saint Paul/Minneapolis and the metro area. Eureka Recycling is one of the largest non-profit recyclers in the United States and is a leader in demonstrating the best waste reduction and recycling practices not only for the Twin Cities metro area, but for the nation.

Eureka Recycling puts into practice a model of resource management rather than waste management, a model that assumes waste is preventable, not inevitable. As a mission-driven non-profit organization, Eureka Recycling looks beyond the bottom line to provide the best practices for recycling and consider the optimum balance of cost, personal convenience, and environmental benefit.

“We are not like many traditional non-profit environmental organizations because we have a large operation in which we manifest our mission each day,” says Tim Brownell, CEO of Eureka Recycling. “We believe that it is most powerful to advocate from a place in which we have rolled-up our sleeves to do the work and know that what we are of others is doable and will get the job done.”

marcela 001All of Eureka Recycling’s efforts are designed to help individuals, organizations, and communities understand the significance of zero-waste and to achieve their own zero-waste goals. This includes activities beyond recycling such as encouraging reuse through the Twin Cities Free Market, a web-based program that connects community members to share durable goods that might otherwise end up in the landfill; composting services for restaurants, grocery stores, and other food businesses; and education and advocacy programs to promote community responsibility for waste-reduction.

“Eureka is much more than a recycling company,” says Mike Gabriel, lending manager at RSF. “This organization has deep roots in the community. And, with the breadth of services they provide, they’re really helping to build a vibrant and resilient local economy in the St. Paul area.”

The support and financing from RSF will also allow Eureka Recycling to launch their ‘Zero-Waste Lab,’ an education tool, feedback loop, and measurement device for governments, corporations, and communities.  “Now that zero-waste efforts are becoming more mainstream, there are many claims regarding policies, collection and processing designs, and packaging changes that are supposed to reduce or eliminate the growing waste stream,” explains Bryan Ukena, Business Development Director at Eureka Recycling. “Eureka’s Zero Waste Lab will actually help to distinguish those that are just talk from those that show true results.”

 staff photo_web

About Eureka Recycling

Based in Saint Paul, Eureka Recycling is one of the largest non-profit recyclers in the United States and the only organization in Minnesota that specializes in zero-waste. Eureka Recycling provides curbside recycling services to Saint Paul’s homes and apartments with a mission to demonstrate that waste is preventable, not inevitable. In addition, Eureka Recycling is a leader in waste reduction education, programs, and advocacy.

Small Grain, Big Change

November 19, 2013

This essay was originally published in the Fall 2013 RSF Quarterly

by Jillian McCoy

In 1993, Caryl Levine and Ken Lee decided they wanted to start a business together. They took a market research trip to China and while visiting rural farmers, they found their calling. Caryl and Ken were introduced to the culture of rice and some of the issues connected to it: an astounding loss of rice biodiversity, the plight of farmers at the base of the pyramid, and unsustainable agriculture practices. “The most unique rice widely available in US supermarkets at that time was Basmati. It was shocking to learn that thousands of varieties were going extinct because there was no market,” says Levine. “When we started to think about the larger economic and environmental impacts, we knew we had a great opportunity in front of us.”

These economic and environmental impacts are of no small measure. Nearly half the world’s population relies on rice as its dietary staple and about 75% of that supply is generated by small-scale, irrigated production—simply put, small farmers. This type of production consumes up to one-third of the Earth’s annual freshwater supply, depletes soils, and after cattle, is the second leading cause of man-made methane production (a major contributor to climate change).

Two years after that trip, Levine and Lee co-founded Lotus Foods, Inc. with a mission to support sustainable global agriculture by promoting production of traditional heirloom rice varieties, some of which may otherwise have become extinct, while enabling small family rice farmers to earn an honorable living. Lotus Foods works with in-country partners to source rice from Bhutan, Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Italy, and Madagascar, and distributes it in natural food and specialty grocery stores in the US and Canada.

When Lotus Foods was founded, distributing fair-trade heirloom rice varieties from farmers in developing countries to North American consumers was new ground. “We were totally winging it,” says Levine. “We had to take a crash-course on rice, farming, and the whole industry.”

In addition, Levine and Lee faced a challenging supply chain. On one side, they were working with farmers to improve quality assurance (for US markets), and helping to educate them on the long-term impacts of sustainable practices versus the short-term economic rewards touted by conventional distributors. On the other side—distributors, retailers, and consumers—needed education on the value of diverse rice varieties and fair-trade pricing. But their passion for their mission was always there, and, slowly but surely, the company gained traction.

Group shot

Ken and Caryl with farmers from the Ramnagar Project in the Himalayan State of Uttarakhand, who are growing traditional basmati rice organically using System of Intensification methods

In 2005, Lotus Foods developed a game-changing partnership. They were contacted by staff at Cornell University who were involved in promoting research and awareness about a sustainable rice-growing methodology called System of Rice Intensification (SRI). The SRI methodology uses significantly less water than the conventional flooding methods used to grow rice, and results in higher yields and the need for fewer inputs (seed, synthetic fertilizer and pesticide, and often labor). Furthermore, whereas the water-logged soil of conventional rice paddies is ideal for methane production, SRI fields with drier soils and healthier plants are not.

SRI improves global food security, empowers poor households, conserves water resources, and promotes human and environmental health. Today, SRI is enabling some of the world’s most marginalized farmers to double their yields (or more) using 50% less water, 80-90% less seed, and no agrochemicals. Over 2.5 million farmers in 50 countries have recorded successful adoption.

Despite this success, SRI has experienced some resistance. “True of any great development, it always meets initial skepticism,” says Lee. “This approach is the exact opposite of input-driven agribusiness. It’s very farmer friendly and you don’t have to buy any inputs like seeds or fertilizers.”

As for resistance from the scientific community, “Farmers know best how to make this work on their land. It’s a methodology not a technology,” says Lee. “Researchers are challenging this because they can’t replicate it in their labs. As long as farmers are seeing it work in their fields, I don’t really care what the dissenters are saying.  And consumers and the food industry have been very supportive of our efforts to create market incentives for SRI farmers.”

Lotus Foods now helps their current farmers transition to SRI growing methods, and partners with existing communities of SRI farmers to bring their rice to market. Sustainability and economic empowerment remain at the heart of their efforts. “New farmers must produce enough for themselves and their community before exporting even becomes a possibility,” says Lee.

As farmers flourish, so does Lotus Foods. In recent years, the company made significant investment in rebranding their line, building their management team, and solidifying their commitment to SRI. Despite some losses during the recession, the company is now poised for growth and has been profitable for the past two quarters.

Lotus Foods recently developed a new partnership with Whole Foods which is now distributing a new value-added product line. The company is continuing to develop new products and distributes via other major retailers like Safeway and Costco. In January 2013, RSF financed a line of credit to support this growth.

Working with RSF was a natural fit for Lotus Foods. “We’ve always valued working with a mission-aligned financial partner,” says Lee. “A financing relationship is one of the most important for any business owner.”

As the company grows, Levine and Lee are still focused on what inspired them in the first place: social and environmental impact. When it comes to the company’s success, they aren’t concerned with growth simply for the sake of profit. “What we really want is to expand the market for our product, so that more farmers have an opportunity to grow this way,” says Lee. “Global warming, water resources, food sovereignty, poverty alleviation—major issues worldwide—these can all be positively affected just by changing how rice is grown.”

Jillian McCoy is Senior Associate of Communications at RSF Social Finance

We Make the Road by Walking – Part II

August 26, 2013

Kenny AusubelThis essay was originally published in the Summer 2013 RSF Quarterly.

Click here for Part I

By Kenny Ausubel

Climate change compounded by the concentration of wealth (and subsequent distribution of poverty) is pushing natural and humans systems to a perfect storm of tipping points. Nature does not favor centralization because one shock can crash the whole system all at once.

One key is to build resilience from the ground up through a radical decentralization of our infrastructure, energy and food systems. It means a greater devolution of political power to local and regional levels. It means democratizing wealth and access to capital and it’s do-able based largely on what we already know.

Using off-the-shelf clean technologies, we can radically increase energy conservation and rapidly ramp up distributed renewable energy. We know how to feed the world using ecological agriculture that sequesters carbon, restores natural capital, and builds local economies. We have a good idea how to begin to restore ecosystems on a large scale—fairly quickly in some cases. We’re rapidly learning how to deploy biomimicry to emulate nature’s designs and recipes with green chemistry, cradle-to-cradle industry, living buildings, and smart growth. We can conserve and use water wisely. We’re reinventing finance as well as governance, instituting rights for nature and revoking corporate constitutional rights.

In this Age of Nature, we’re looking to nature as mentor and model, rather than physical resource.

The vanguard of the banking industry, including the Bank of England, is studying ecological networks and disease patterns to understand how nature avoids cataclysmic systemic shocks. One conclusion is simple: Too big to fail means too big. Break up the big banks, as the conservative Chicago School of Economics originally proposed.

A 2012 study funded by the Rockefeller Foundation compared the performance of 17 values-based banks against 29 banks considered too big to fail. The study showed the values-based banks outperformed traditional mainstream banks in return on assets, growth in loans and deposits, and capital strength. The smaller banks delivered better returns. The report concludes their success is precisely their values, and they’re smaller.

Twenty states are now studying how to create a state public bank based on the Bank of North Dakota, a major success story. This publicly owned bank receives all state revenues and promotes local commerce and industry, makes student loans, and supports new farmers. It was largely unaffected by the banking crisis.

Business also appears to be reaching a tipping point. Two thirds of companies are turning to sustainability for a competitive edge and higher profits. For the first time in 2010, investment in renewables exceeded that in fossil fuels. According to McKinsey & Company, solar energy will come back strong after 2015, driven by the rapid spread of distributed energy with miniature community power stations and home solar. Google has capitalized two solar residential funds of $365 million apiece.

The hardest thing to change in a system is the paradigm, yet that’s exactly what we’re seeing. Emergence in an emergency. Breakdowns to breakthroughs.

As Naomi Klein wrote, “The real solutions to the climate crisis are also our best hope of building a much more enlightened economic system — one that closes deep inequalities, strengthens and transforms the public sphere, generates plentiful, dignified work, and radically reins in corporate power. It demands a new civilizational paradigm, one grounded not in dominance over nature but in respect for natural cycles of renewal —and acutely sensitive to natural limits.”

In this Time of No Time, what we don’t have is time. Can we dodge the point of no return by ramping up the emergent shadow civilization fast enough?

In this Time of No Time, what we need to get past the wall of mirrors is a strong heart. Andy Lipkis of TreePeople sees it this way: “I believe every single one of us has a scanner on board that’s operating in our body that nature must have installed. It’s our heart, and it’s asking the question, ‘Where am I needed? How can I help?’

“When something hits your frequency, my frequency, it converts to adrenaline, a biochemical response. It might be a drip. It might be a shot. When we’re given a shot of adrenaline, like when we see a car accident, it gives us the power to go help lift a car off the injured person. It looks like a miracle, but it’s nature’s gift to us. When the ecosystem is hurting, we get the drip. We’re hardwired for this. The love that’s there can sustain us. It’s what really feeds us.

“I’ve come to believe nature has adapted us to be its healers. It has raised us from being infants that were helpless to brilliant, powerful, compassionate beings. We’ve got to take care of the mom, Earth, because she has given us everything to raise us to this point — not so we can kill ourselves.

“Where am I needed? How can I help? Your heart will answer. You’re big enough. We can do this.”

At no time have we ever before faced what we face today. Can we muster the healing forces fast enough? Can we convert what lives in our hearts and conversations into new social forms—live out the renewal that nature and the Earth are calling for?

We make the road by walking. It’s an honor to walk this road with you.

Kenny Ausubel is Co-CEO and Co-Founder of Bioneers, along with his business partner and wife Nina Simons. He is an award-winning social entrepreneur, filmmaker, radio producer, and author. His recent book, Dreaming the Future: Reimagining Civilization in the Age of Nature, won the Grand Gold Nautilus prize for Ecology/Environment. He co-founded Seeds of Change in 1989. He was a central advisor to and appears in Leonardo DiCaprio’s feature documentary The 11th Hour.

We Make the Road by Walking – Part I

August 22, 2013

This essay was originally published in the Summer 2013 RSF Quarterly.

Kenny Ausubel

By Kenny Ausubel

In this moment of radical environmental and social disruption, the world is experiencing the dawn of a necessary and revolutionary transformation to becoming an ecologically literate and socially just civilization. The existential gauntlet is to make the shift fast enough to outrun global cataclysm. The next five to six years will be the once-in-a-civilization window to change course. We can move from breakdown to breakthrough.

The Mayan people call this the “Time of No Time.” From here on, we’re on Earth time. Mother Earth is shaking to her core. It’s a time of madness, disconnection, and hyper-individualism. It’s also a time when new energies are coming into the world—when people are growing a new skin. The Mayan vision says we in the West will find safe harbor only if we can journey past a wall of mirrors. The mirrors will drive us mad, unless we have a strong heart. Some mirrors delude us with infinite reflections of our vanity and shadows. Others paralyze us with our terror and rage, feeding an empire that manufactures  fear and benefits from resignation. But the empire has no roots and it’s toppling all around us. In this time, everyone is called to take a stand. Everyone is called to be a leader.

To get beyond the wall of mirrors, the final challenge is to pass through a tiny door. To do this, we must make ourselves very, very small. To be very humble. Then we must burrow down into the Earth, where indigenous consciousness lives. On the other side is a clear pond. There, for the first time, we’ll be able to see our true reflection.

We’re re-imagining a civilization in the Age of Nature that honors the web of life, each other and future generations. It’s a revolution from the heart of nature. For decades, brilliant scientific and social innovators such as the bioneers have been in the shadows patiently creating the systems for how we will live on Earth for the long haul. For the most part, the solutions are present, or we know what directions to head in. It’s not that we need more solutions—we need to rapidly spread and scale, where possible, what we’ve already got. We need to mobilize in a way historically done in times of war. It’s emergence in an emergency.

In 2012, two highly problematic rude awakenings are pointing to the need to open the floodgates of transformation and they are not unrelated.

The first is the onset of conspicuous climate disruption. As Bill McKibben points out, scientists have underestimated the speed and scale of early climate disruption, at a rise of just 0.8 degrees Celsius. Even if we stopped pumping carbon right now, the temperature will rise by another 0.8 degrees Celsius. But we’re not stopping—we’re putting record amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere. At this rate, in 16 years, the planet could become uninhabitable. Meanwhile the major oil corporations hold reserves five times higher than the amounts of carbon we can burn to keep below the hopefully “safe” threshold of 2 degrees Celsius of warming. They’re planning to burn it all. As McKibben warns, rapid transformative change is the only way through—picture the civil rights movement in fast forward. The key is stopping the fossil fuel oligarchs before they poach the planet.

The second indicator of the need for transformation is the reality of the greatest extremes of wealth ever seen in human civilization. While the following may seem judgmental, I use it to make my point. As the International Forum on Globalization observes in its report Outing the Oligarchy, “Today’s single biggest threat to our global climate commons is the group of billionaires who profit most from its pollution and, in turn, push government policies that promote more fossil fuels… Cooperative global action to address the most daunting challenge humanity has ever faced is being held hostage by a handful of profiteers who wield decisive power over our governments.” Globalization has triggered a tectonic shift of financial wealth and political power upward to a group of multi-billionaires. According to Jeffrey Winters, the author of Oligarchy, wealth in the U.S. today is “two times as concentrated as imperial Rome, which was a slave-and-farmer society.” But we know this is not the way. As Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz points out, more equal societies are better for everyone, including the wealthy.

Jeremy Grantham, the far-seeing Chairman of the $100 billion GMO Capital fund, asserts that global warming will be the most important investment issue for the foreseeable future, and advocates very large immediate investments in renewables and smart grids. He says humanity’s vexed relationship with the planet is the great economic story of our time. He concludes that, “If we maintain our desperate focus on growth, we will run out of everything and crash – Peak Everything Else.” That’s the nub – Boom and Doom –the final throes of an oligarchic economic system bedeviled by its original sin of unlimited growth on a finite planet.

Click here for Part II.

Kenny Ausubel is Co-CEO and Co-Founder of Bioneers, along with his business partner and wife Nina Simons. He is an award-winning social entrepreneur, filmmaker, radio producer, and author. His recent book, Dreaming the Future: Reimagining Civilization in the Age of Nature, won the Grand Gold Nautilus prize for Ecology/Environment. He co-founded Seeds of Change in 1989. He was a central advisor to and appears in Leonardo DiCaprio’s feature documentary The 11th Hour.

Drivers of Change: Part II

August 8, 2013

Sandy Wiggins is a renowned sustainability leader. Here, he shares how green building became a worldwide movement.

Read Part I

What was the tipping point in which green building became a “hot” industry? When did it become affordable enough for mainstream buy-in?

The tipping point came in early in 2006.  Suddenly, green building seemed to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue.  In particular, I noticed architectural firms that had never taken an interest were starting to actively seek out green building projects to gain experience.  I was also doing a lot of public speaking, and I would always ask the audience to which I was speaking to raise their hands if they had heard of LEED.  Almost overnight, the response to that question went from maybe ten percent of each audience to well north of fifty percent.

It is true that a decade ago there were few manufacturers who were interested in providing green products and that the products that were available commanded a cost premium.  That’s completely changed.  There isn’t a single building material manufacturer that hasn’t changed its product offerings to meet the green demand, which of course has brought down prices.  It’s also true that there was a dearth of integrative design expertise in the design community, which has led many beginners to spend a lot of unnecessary money on their projects.  That’s changed more slowly because it requires a paradigm shift by the design community, but it is catching up to the materials industry.  However, asking about when green building became affordable to the mainstream may not be the right question.  A better question might be, “When did the mainstream begin to realize that building green makes better economic sense than business-as-usual?”

What has happened over the course of the past decade is that general awareness about the long-term and externalized costs of not building green have become widely understood and, for various reasons, that has motivated owners and developers to take the plunge even when there might be a first cost premium.  Consumer demand has also factored heavily into that shift, as has the growing body of data that documents the real performance and health benefits for human beings that occupy green buildings.  I would say that, because of all of these factors, by the end of 2007 the cost conversation largely disappeared as the principle decision-making criteria about whether to build green.

Has green building had any effect on healing the broader economy? If not yet, is there potential?

I would say yes.  The building industry is enormous and touches every other industry and every individual.  Because of that, green building has become part of the parlance of almost everyone in the developed world.  It has raised awareness globally about environmental sustainability and that awareness has bled over into the many other conversations in many other industries.  Businesses, of course, are populated by people, and that awareness also then affects how those people act in other areas of their life.  It was my own growth in awareness through green building that led me to see communities and local economies as critical domains for implementing change and the financial industry as the “pig in the pipe.”

Are there any lessons learned that could be applicable to other environmental/sustainability movements?

I believe there are opportunities for movement building that can be discerned through examination of those key drivers that catalyzed and accelerated green building.   The most important of these is meaning.  There is no more powerful force on earth than a person with a sense of purpose.  If we can find ways to elicit people’s most deeply held values (they tend to be the same for most of us by the way), connect those values to the global issues facing the human family and then empower them to act on those values in their daily lives, movements happen.  The fundamental increment for change is the individual human decision.

During his three-decade career Sandy Wiggins in the real estate industry, Sandy Wiggins has led the development and construction of projects totaling over one billion dollars. He is Past Chair of the U.S. Green Building Council, Founding Chair of the Green Building Certification Institute, and co-author of LEED for Neighborhood Development. He serves as a Senior Advisor to RSF Social Finance and is a Director of RSF’s Social Investment Fund.

Drivers of Change: Part I

July 31, 2013

Sandy Wiggins is a renowned sustainability leader. Here, he shares how green building became a worldwide movement. 

How did you come to work in this field—why green building?

I would say it actually chose me. I needed to make a living and through a series of what seemed at the time random events I stumbled into a career building things.  I quickly discovered that I was good at it and enjoyed the challenges it presented.  It was also creative and financially rewarding, so I followed that course for the next 18 years, allowing one challenge to lead me to the next and soaking up success.  Then I woke up one day and realized that I was living a mercenary life and that all of the joy and meaning had gone out of it.

In 1995, shortly after this realization, I was having lunch with a friend who was also the architect for a project I was developing.  He handed me a tiny article he had run across on the environmental impact of buildings.  I was dumbfounded.  I had never before that moment considered that the decisions I was making every day as a businessperson were having such a direct impact on the world.

That was when green building chose me.  Understanding those impacts became an itch that I couldn’t stop scratching.  As my understanding of the magnitude of the suffering inflicted by the building industry grew, I felt compelled to do something about it; with knowledge comes culpability.  And I found that my experience and success in the industry opened both doors and ears so that I could act on that impulse.

What were the key drivers that moved the green building movement along?

As with most movements, there wasn’t a plan. But, I have spent a lot of time thinking about this in order to understand the drivers that might be replicated in support of other sweeping changes.

From its outset, the green building community was inclusive and operated on consensus.  Everybody was welcomed into the tent to join in the conversation about what it meant to build green and how to go about it.  That’s messy, but it generated broad industry buy-in early on in the movement’s development.

Another early driver was the brilliant distillation of the impacts of the built environment into clear, concise, and memorable data points.  The elevator pitch that never fails to open people’s eyes is: In the U.S., building accounts for 40% of all raw material consumption, 40% of all of the waste in our landfills, and buildings are responsible for 40% of our energy consumption and carbon production.

LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design), of course, has been a major driver.  Establishing a system that measured the “greenness” of a building and also rewarded the building’s owner completely changed the game.  It created a common language, where none existed before, for what it meant to be green.  It also became a brand that drove market awareness and competition.

Addressing the economics of building green coupled with broad education about those economics slowly changed the way that people in the industry talked about cost.  It enlarged the field of view and brought capital projects and operations people together, often for the first time, so that operational costs and Life Cycle Assessment crept into decision-making that had formerly been made solely on a first-cost basis.

As a third party verification system, LEED also made the adoption of public policy possible, which turbo-boosted the growth of green building.  The US GSA started this trend, which was quickly picked up by hundreds of other national, state and local agencies.

Another driver was the publication of a series of seminal studies that linked green building strategies to improved human health and performance.  The first of these studies, published by Heschong Mahone in 1999, linked student performance to daylighting in green schools.  This was quickly followed by studies linking green building strategies to the performance of office workers, increases in retail activity, reductions in absenteeism, reductions in nosocomial disease, and improved public health.  All of these phenomena could easily be translated into economic as well as quality of life benefits and became powerful motivators for change.

The most powerful driver, however, is one that is least talked about.  From 2005 through 2007, I spent much of my time traveling across the country speaking to and meeting with business people from every sector of the industry.  It was during this period that I realized that the engine driving this sweeping change wasn’t the buildings or their impacts, it was the people.  Everywhere I went I met architects, engineers, developers, bankers, manufacturers, and builders whose lives had changed as a result of their engagement with green building.  Like me, most of these people had reached a point in their lives and careers where they had lost their sense of purpose and joy.  Green building was waking them up, connecting them with a larger purpose and each other, and infusing their lives with meaning.

Read Part II

Sandy Wiggins During his three-decade career in the real estate industry, Sandy Wiggins has led the development and construction of projects totaling over one billion dollars. He is Past Chair of the U.S. Green Building Council, Founding Chair of the Green Building Certification Institute, and co-author of LEED for Neighborhood Development. He serves as a Senior Advisor to RSF Social Finance and is a Director of RSF’s Social Investment Fund.

This was originally published in the Summer 2013 RSF Quarterly

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