Sustainability is one of the big buzzwords of today. Major corporations are constructing internal employee groups to help identify how they can make more sustainable decisions. Consulting firms have started to include sustainability consulting in their portfolios as an expertise group. And this past fall, the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board codified the first-ever industry-specific sustainability accounting standards, with Georgia Tech Scheller College of Business’s own Professor Jeffrey Hales at the helm as chair of SASB.
With all of this buzz, you’d think that corporations and consumers alike are eagerly awaiting sustainable products and solutions in which to invest. On the contrary, individuals and corporations seem to govern themselves by the philosophy of rapper DJ Quik: “If it don’t make dollars, it don’t make sense.”
Before I delve deeper, I’d like you to know that I received my bachelor’s degree in petroleum engineering from The University of Texas at Austin. Upon graduation, I worked for a major energy company for a few years. I even spent quite a bit of time working (and living) on an offshore platform in the Gulf of Mexico. This is the point in the blog where you’re either laughing at the irony or simply questioning my qualifications as the writer of a sustainability blog. I’ll redeem myself by saying I am now going into the third year of my PhD program in Civil and Environmental Engineering at Georgia Tech, where I am also a rising second-year MBA student at the Scheller College of Business. To stir the pot even further, I was also a full-time high school algebra teacher.
While this background seemingly makes me a “Jill of all trades, master of none,” I’d argue that it does make me a master of one thing: what drives people’s decision-making. If I am able to see the common ground on decision-making for the energy sector, the education system, and the environment, I’m willing to bet I can extrapolate this theoretical common ground to other industries and consumers as well. And perhaps of no surprise to you, this common ground I’m talking about sounds a lot like the philosophy of DJ Quik.
The sentiment about sustainability needing to make dollars and sense is also shared by Patrick Pittaluga, Cofounder of Grubbly Farms and Georgia Tech alumnus, BSBA 14. I was fortunate to attend his talk in the Business, Environment, and Society Series, hosted by the Ray C. Anderson Center for Sustainable Business.
“When consumers show with their spending dollars that they care about sustainable products, major corporations will follow suit to show that their values are aligned with ours.”
Grubbly Farms’ main product at this time is Grubblies—treats for chickens made of oven-dried black soldier fly grubs. Grubblies offer a sustainable alternative to conventional feed because of how they’re produced. Conventional feed requires a decent amount of green space and water to grow soy and grain. Grubblies, on the other hand, simply require pre-existing food waste to “grow” the grubs.
Pittaluga spoke about the success he’s had with starting his own sustainable business. He also addressed some of the unique challenges he has experienced and expects to experience going forward simply because his company is a sustainable startup.
Grubbly Farms has garnered a pretty decent following in the backyard chicken farming market segment. Keep in mind that Grubblies are snacks, not chicken feed. And their main market share is smaller-scale chicken farmers because Grubblies’ current price point is too expensive for large-scale farmers to justify. Is this product for such a niche market really pushing the sustainability needle at all?
You might be asking, “Well, why doesn’t the company just start making feed and ramp up production so they can decrease their price?” This brings us to one of the challenges Patrick brought up for sustainable startups: scalability. With large-scale farmers paying pennies on the dollar to what they’d pay for a Grubbly Farms alternative, imagine the degree to which the company would have to scale up production to reach a commercial farmer’s willingness to pay and demand.
During his talk, Pittaluga polled the audience to see just how “sustainable” we were. Before revealing the poll and its results, I want you to keep in mind who the audience was. We were not representing big “money hungry” corporations, and we’d likely self-identify as making more sustainable decisions than the average consumer. Those of us in attendance thought it was a good use of time to spend an hour listening to a guy talk about how insects could help fight food scarcities, reduce our carbon footprint, and make top-shelf grade fertilizer for cannabis growth.
Now back to the poll. Patrick asked how many of us really value sustainability. All of our hands went up. He then asked how many of us compost our food waste, and at least fifty percent of our hands went down. Patrick said he was actually impressed by the number of composters because he usually only gets one or two hands still up. Composting is great for the environment because it keeps food waste out of our landfills and allows us to reuse it as fertilizer. Those in the audience knew this. However, at the end of the day, composting takes time and effort to do yourself. Sure, there are composting services, but those cost money. Now we’re back to “what drives people’s decision-making?”
Quite frankly, very few startups are ever going to have the capital to meet the price and quantity expectations that have been our nation’s status quo. I’m not naïve enough to think that Fortune 500 companies are going to be persuaded to invest in startups like Grubbly Farms after watching a commercial with dramatic music in the background. They are persuaded by consumer trends. Sadly, most of us are ill-informed or in denial about where our world is headed.
When consumers show with their spending dollars that they care about sustainable products, major corporations will miraculously follow suit to show that their values are aligned with ours.
Some people might not fancy the perceived manipulative nature of their investment, but if the end result is supporting the cause, I’ll take it. Again, to be sustainable or not to be sustainable: that is the question.
Victoria Dean, who is enrolled in Georgia Tech’s Dual Degree Program, is a rising third-year Ph.D. student in Civil and Environmental Engineering and a rising second-year MBA student.