Manifest Idealism Through Pragmatism

by Ari Pliskin

Designing a Green Menu

One of the One World Everybody Eats core functional elements is to provide “local and organic” options, “sustainably grown, raised or caught...where possible.”  By many estimates, the most environmentally sustainable diet would only include locally sourced, organic vegan food.  Giving up beef, for example, would reduce carbon footprint more than giving up cars, according to scientists.  

Based on estimates like these, I recently heard activists seeking to establish a new cafe discuss serving only locally sourced, organic vegan options.  However, there are two problems with this approach, both based on the need for you to bring in more money than you spend.  Remember that a business that does harm and makes a profit will continue to exist even though it shouldn’t, but a mission-driven organization that does good in the world but can’t generate enough revenue to cover its costs won’t continue to exist even though it should.

There are two problems with an overly idealistic menu:

  1. You need enough people to buy your products to stay in business and
  2. You need to control costs: local organic food is often more expensive.

While greener choices are becoming more popular every day, most people’s eating and dining habits are shaped by the familiar industrial food system.  Most eateries that strive for financial and environmental sustainability must use a mix of organic and conventional, plant-based options and meat.  

While pursuing a middle ground approach, I recommend developing concrete measures of sustainability that are regularly reviewed and striving over time to improve performance.  One strategy to accomplish this is to educate diners through your marketing about the impact of their choices on people and on the planet.

Effective Innovation is the Greenest Strategy

Management guru Peter Drucker provides some guidance regarding how to use the tastes, beliefs and buying power of your potential clientele to determine what type of menu is right for you.  In Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Drucker describes that technological advancement (e.g. adding feature after feature to each iteration of the iPhone) is one of the least successful strategies for innovation.  Successful innovation, he argues, results from perceiving changes in society and responding to them.  

According to Drucker, “The greatest danger for the new venture is to ‘know better’ than the customer what the product or service should be, how it should be bought, and what it should be used for.”  He describes various examples in which firms fail to sell new products because the firms are more focused on their own internal technological exploration than on the actual needs and desires of consumers.  Often times, executives in these firms will blame the customers for failing to appreciate their products.  Drucker explains that to build a company that lasts, to truly innovate, the business must be built around the customer.    

Thus, Drucker explains, “innovation is both conceptual and perceptual.  The imperative of innovation is therefore to go out to look, to ask, to listen.  Successful innovators look at figures, and they look at people.”  Instead of making business decisions based on their own knowing, the innovator bears witness to the customers.  Further, they do this in a way that combines statistical analysis of data and being on the ground interacting directly.

One of the sources of successful innovation that Drucker describes is a gap between our values and the way things actually are.  Therefore, as a cafe operator, we can provide more sustainable options as consumers learn more about the impact of their choices.  We can also educate consumers more about their choices.  As the same time we must be careful not to get ahead of our customers.  We have to meet them where they are, provide food they will actually be excited to buy now.

The Next Generation

Evidence suggests that consumers are increasingly willing to spend more money for options that are healthy and that care for people and planet.  The following data reported by the New York Times suggests both the current limits and increasing possibilities of ethics based food choices:  

Consider millennial shopping habits. Even in the realm of fashion, many are indifferent to prestige brands and lavish ad campaigns, preferring to buy online or get “disposable” clothing at H & M or Zara, which boasts that its organically farmed cottons are “completely free of pesticides, chemicals and bleach.”
The do-goodish pitch is aimed squarely at millennials, who collectively favor companies that embrace the values of good citizenship. The Brookings report says millennials overwhelmingly “responded with increased trust (91 percent) and loyalty (89 percent), as well as a stronger likelihood to buy from those companies that supported solutions to specific social issues (89 percent).”
And consider food. The new generation may have had health-consciousness drilled into them at home or in school. But they have raised it to a new level. “For millennials, food isn’t just food. It’s community,” The Washington Post reported last year in an article on the Silver Diner chain, which has developed an up-to-the-minute locavore menu and “started actively catering to those on vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free diets.”
It was a shrewd calculation. An estimated 12 percent of millennials say they are “faithful vegetarians,” compared with 4 percent of Gen X’ers and 1 percent of baby boomers, according to one study.
Taken together, these habits and tastes look less like narcissism than communalism. And its highest value isn’t self-promotion, but its opposite, empathy — an open-minded and -hearted connection to others.

Generation Nice: The Millennials Are Generation Nice, By Sam Tanenhausaug, Aug 2014

Therefore, idealistic menus and models are on the right track.  We just need to decide how much idealism is right for this moment and how to create a world in which more will be appropriate tomorrow.