Like many entrepreneurs, I started my business for the freedom it gave me to do things my own way. I was more individualistic than cooperative with a lone ranger mentality. But I wanted to do the right thing and be a sustainable business. At first my goal was to have the best possible practices—recycling, composting, solar hot water, renewable electricity, buying fair trade, paying a living wage—within my company. What could be better?
In the 1980s when my restaurant began buying from local farmers, my intention was to develop a network of farmers to supply my restaurant with pasture-raised meat and poultry, and organic fruits and vegetables. As the only restaurant in my community offering an abundance of humane and sustainably grown local farm products, this would be our market niche, our competitive advantage. But in a transformational moment, I realized that there is no such thing as one sustainable business, no matter how hard we might try. We can only be part of a sustainable system.
Envisioning a whole regional food system that incorporated the values I upheld, I began helping local stores and other restaurants, even my competitors, to buy from an expanding network of local farmers. Rather than focusing only on the short-term interests of my own business, I turned my attention to the long-term economic sustainability of my region by working to build a local economy that benefited everyone—family farmers, farm animals, local businesses, rural and urban citizens, and the quality of our soil, air and water. And, of course, it benefited the long-term interests of my business, too. Transitioning to a just and sustainable economic system, I discovered, requires cooperation and sharing.