How to Hack Systems For Environmental Change

Environmental Issues Can Be Daunting

Let’s face it: tackling environmental issues can be daunting. Climate change, pollution, and unconscious consumption are problems which are convenient for the masses to ignore. They’re long-term challenges requiring long-sighted solutions, overwhelming many in our instant-gratification society. 

For those who are passionate about environmental change, it’s tough to know where to begin addressing such a widespread and urgent challenge. Sometimes you might feel like your contributions would be so insignificant that you never take action at all.

However, that feeling of being small, of only affecting one drop in the global environmental tide, is actually the perfect place to begin your change-making journey. In this article, you’ll meet two successful social entrepreneurs who began with personal concern for the environment around them and followed local supply chains to identify opportunities for interrupting those systems with sustainable practices.

Rather than attempting to tackle the challenge globally, they defined clear local parameters, allowing them to measure success in their own cities and neighborhoods.

How did they create vehicles for change from scratch? They didn’t. They leveraged existing social infrastructure by building solutions that fit within current systems and supply chains. If leading an environmental movement entirely on your own still sounds impossible, that’s because it is. These successful social entrepreneurs prioritized partnerships with key local actors such as the government, community associations, and small businesses.

Example 1: Yo Hago el Cambio, Costa Rica

As founder of a luxury travel agency in Costa Rica, Silvia Vargas knew that consumers are increasingly selective about the businesses they patronize, placing a premium on those who give back to the community or environment. While visiting an environmentally-friendly biodiesel plant, Silvia learned some shocking news: used oil from restaurants across the country was ending up in the ocean and rivers, wreaking havoc on the environment. One liter of used oil can contaminate up to 1000 liters of clean water, and the environmental damage cannot be reversed.

Applying her marketing expertise, Silvia developed a solution: encourage restaurants to participate in oil recycling programs by offering an elite eco-friendly designation that owners could display in their restaurant and online. By working as matchmaker between local businesses and existing oil recycling plants, Silvia was able to overwhelmingly increase the volume of oil recycled in tourist towns across Costa Rica.

Working within the existing supply chain and leveraging existing infrastructure (and business contacts) made it possible for Silvia to focus on using her unique skills of sales and marketing without investing much up-front financial capital in her social change solution. Her vision? Make environmental sustainability the highest distinction any company can strive for, from local restaurants to high end hotels. This is why she places special emphasis on designing high-quality, visually-appealing virtual and print materials for recycling partners to showcase their sustainability efforts, a method that continues to pay off as more and more restaurants seek entry into the eco-friendly club.

Example 2: VertiFarms, New Orleans

The farm-to-table trend is in full force in the US. But what if the farm is located way too far from the
table? For eco-conscious urban dweller Kevin Morgan-Rothschild, the carbon footprint of shipping
produce long distances in freight trucks is unacceptable. As Kevin learned about aquaponics, the science of growing plants suspended in water without soil, he began to see the possibility for some environmentally-friendly shortcuts in the local agriculture supply chain.

“We believed that we could grow fresher, superior products, and support the local economy,” says Kevin.

Through VertiFarms, farm-to-table becomes roof-to-table with the installation of aquaponic gardens on rooftops of New Orleans schools, supermarkets, restaurants, and even a synagogue. Since its launch in 2011, VertiFarms has helped various organizations grow over 21,000+ lbs of fresh produce. In addition to cutting the carbon footprint of produce shipment, these rooftop growing solutions reduce water consumption by up to 90% and grow 5x more vegetables compared to soil.

VertiFarms achieved success by aligning their efforts with existing local campaigns working to alleviate food deserts in New Orleans, and building relationships with businesses which had a built-in need for fresh produce. Rather than creating a new supply chain around the aquaponic garden concept, they fit the aquaponic garden into the existing agricultural system. They saved start-up costs by working with local businesses to incorporate the roof-top model; not only did it eliminate the carbon footprint of transportation, it meant rent-free locations for their aquaponic gardens.

How can VertiFarms continue growing? Kevin’s vision for the future includes leveraging funds generated by paying customers, such as high-end restaurants, to support unfunded activities; (e.g. engaging local schoolchildren in environmental and agricultural learning projects.)

Start small for big success

These social entrepreneurs are proof that environmental change initiatives are not just the work of scientists; anyone with a passion for protecting the planet can apply his or her skill set to a conversation. In fact, the most successful change makers don’t try to “do it all;” they start local, identify gaps in existing systems, and build partnerships with like-minded players in the field. By using these strategies, you can have greater, faster impact with less startup capital, and become part of a larger movement.

For those whose interest lies in addressing other social challenges, good news! These same principles apply whether you are working to prevent animal cruelty, promote equal rights for people with disabilities, or reduce juvenile incarceration rates. No social issue exists in isolation; each is part of a complex system with diverse actors. When seeking to make a difference, consider how your unique skills can be used to address one specific element of a local system. It may seem small now, but that’s where successful entrepreneurs like Silvia and Kevin started—and you can too.

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