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The Eco-Story of Ascenta

The following post was featured on Ascenta’s blog yesterday, in honor of Earth Day. We appreciate Ascenta’s continued support and for sharing their founder’s kind words with us- thanks for Loving Blue, Marc!

Established in June of 2003 the Ascenta story is nearing a decade. It seems like an appropriate stage of a company’s life cycle to reflect back on what you set out to accomplish and what you’ve achieved since. Being that it’s Earth Day this reflection is centered on Ascenta’s long term vision of sustainability and ecological prosperity.

Back in 2003 I have to admit that I had yet to fully define what my vision was for Ascenta. I naively followed my passion for natural health and a belief that we could transform lives with omega-3, the “missing” ingredient. After contemplating the broader meaning of health the story of Ascenta began to evolve. The goal of creating health became a goal of building prosperity and a notion that everything is interconnected.

As we began to shift our thinking we soon realised there were so many areas within our business that needed attention. The challenge was that we were still a relatively small growing company, resources were scarce, and seemingly never enough time to get everything done. The prospect of adding new tasks and a different way of thinking was a bit daunting.

This is typically the juncture where most companies adopt a “good enough” mentality and shift their primary focus towards fiscal responsibility. A good analogy would be a student graduating from university and excited to take on the world. As they take those first steps into a brave new world they quickly realise their goals and dreams don’t line up that well with how society defines success. You therefore let go of your dreams or at least give them a hard pruning.

Companies do the same thing. The thrill and excitement of a start-up company is undeniable. It’s a platform system for ideas and imagination. The socially oriented entrepreneur however will soon face the reality that the model you are trying to build does not yet exist thereby requiring you to become a pioneer and navigate uncharted waters. Adhering to your vision and values will be constantly challenged and you even risk alienating yourself. While loosening your grip on your original intentions can relieve some of the pressure this becomes a slippery slope and could ultimately compromise the vision.

All these challenges facing the social entrepreneur I have lived first hand and admit that I have made decisions in the past that were heavily influenced by internal and external pressures. In those cases I did what was expected of me, not what I wanted to do. The greatest gift for navigating through life is self awareness. It monitors in real-time the choices you make and its impact on your life. Ultimately it helps you identify when you make poor decisions and lets you learn and improve.

While many companies aspire to become sustainable the truth is that today there is no such thing as a sustainable company. Our current economy does not follow a cyclical flow. It’s a linear mathematical model that believes natural resources are inexhaustible and the planet has infinite storage capacity for waste and toxic debris. Therefore most of the resources a company requires to operate (power, construction materials, office supplies, electronics, etc) are scarcely available as fully eco-friendly alternatives.

While the vision is to be sustainable the process to get there is about reducing your ecological footprint. Making the best possible decisions based on ecological impact requires a solid understanding of the product or ingredient supply chain. One of the best examples I can highlight would be the garment and textile industry. While most would regard a simple t-shirt as having a relatively low ecological impact the reality is a very different story. The cotton for this t-shirt is grown in a field where heavy pesticides and herbicides are applied to the extent that no other life forms can be supported including other plants, insects, and wildlife. These chemicals eventually leach into the groundwater and are no longer localised.

Next the cotton is likely to be processed in a developing country where the factories discharge the toxic effluent from the dyes into the nearby river thereby impacting biological life over a vast geography. It should be noted that this practice also occurs in developed countries. Furthermore the employees in these factories work for unfair wages and statistically present with cancer rates 40x higher than the normal population. The matter of fact is that in business we often focus only on our own activities and discount the impact of the entire supply chain from which we depend. Supply chain management is probably the most challenging and time consuming aspect of the “sustainable” company.

It wasn’t until 2006 that we intently began examining the impact of our business beyond our own activities. Because the primary resource for our products is fish we needed to first and foremost better understand fisheries management. To help us do that we developed a relationship with a marine biologist working in the area of fisheries management and conservation. It’s a well known fact that our global fish supplies have been depleted by overfishing. It was therefore extremely important that we audit the fisheries we were sourcing from as well as audit any fishery we planned to source from in the future.

Greenwashing has become a very sophisticated practice in the world of commerce so applying scientific rigor to the process of supply chain management is critical. We witnessed this first hand in our assessment of the Antarctic krill industry. The story behind krill oil sounds too good to be true. Multiple internet sources promote it as being an almost inexhaustible resource and claim that it provides omega-3 with up to 10x the potency of omega-3 from fish. After conducting thorough research on this potential source the findings clearly indicated the krill fishery was a poor ecological choice at this time and the benefits of krill omega-3 over fish omega-3 were not significant. Today consumers pay upwards of 10x as much for krill oil vs. fish oil due to savvy marketing not scientific validation. Despite the potential for increased profits krill is not on our list of approved omega-3 sources.

As an entrepreneur one of my greatest mentors is Yvon Chouinard, founder of the outdoor apparel company Patagonia. In 2012 Yvon published the book entitled The Responsible Company. In this book he discusses the importance of supply chain management and coined the phrase “an examined life”. The process of examining your life, or business, means making conscious decisions about everything you do to ensure it aligns with your values and leads to the change you want to create in this world. Becoming a responsible company means understanding all the issues, researching all the viable options, and making decisions aligned with your values. This philosophy must be applied throughout your organisation.

How far is a company willing to go to push those boundaries and pioneer a path towards sustainability? For a company like Patagonia they will go as far as they possibly can. Yvon is considered one of the great social entrepreneurs of our era and has leveraged business success to create global change. He may even argue that the change he created was responsible for his business success. Either way the story of Patagonia is a North Star for companies like Ascenta.

While the story of Patagonia and The Responsible Company have contributed greatly to my beliefs Yvon’s greatest influence has been the result of an initiative he gave birth to in 2002. Discouraged by the amount of greenwashing and the continued degradation of the natural world Yvon, along with his good friend Craig Mathews, created 1% for the Planet. With a commitment to donate at least 1% of total sales to environmental non-profits 1% for the Planet companies represent a new level of environmental responsibility and transparency. Unlike most corporations where environmental giving is considered “charitable”, 1% for the Planet companies view it as a cost of doing business. Some refer to it as “keeping the Earth in business”.

Since its inception in 2002, the network of 1% for the Planet companies has grown to over 1000 companies worldwide, representing the largest source of environmental giving in the world having reached over $70 million in 2012. Back in 2007, I was exploring several ideas in an attempt to start closing the sustainability loop including establishing university grants for the purpose of funding research in ocean conservation. To my surprise the university board of directors turned down the idea citing concerns it may appear that the university was endorsing the company’s products. While this left me scratching my head I reminded myself that sometimes things happen for a reason.

Not long after, I was at home relaxing to a new CD by one of my favorite music artists Jack Johnson. While reading the back cover of the eco-friendly CD sleeve I noticed for the first time the 1% for the Planet logo. Jack Johnson has always been a point source of inspiration for me, so I decided to look further into this logo. That became the light bulb moment as if fate brought us together.

Philosophically everything about 1% for the Planet resonated and I was eager to present this idea internally at Ascenta. While there were natural hesitations around the financial risk of the commitment, we all decided this embodied our vision and values. Entrepreneurs and business leaders know that as a growing business there will be times when finances are constrained and years where profits will not be realized. The idea behind 1% for the Planet is that companies have an ecological impact regardless of their profitability therefore environmental giving should always be linked to sales not profits.

At Ascenta we see this as a long term investment in our future. Without healthy productive natural ecosystems there would be no business. Since joining this movement in 2007, Ascenta has donated over a half million dollars to environmental non-profits including the David Suzuki Foundation, Environmental Defence, Nova Scotia Nature Trust, Ecology Action Centre, and Heal the Bay. Being associated with 1% for the Planet has enriched our culture at Ascenta, increased our awareness of key environmental issues, and connected us with some of the most inspiring and dedicated people trying to build a better world for all of us.

While 1% for the Planet is our most significant endeavor thus far, continuing to apply the idea of leading an “examined life” has lead to other key initiatives. In the province of Nova Scotia we have been subjected to an archaic energy industry fed primarily by dirty coal. Nova Scotia Power Inc is consistently listed as one of the top greenhouse gas emitters in Canada and reluctant to move the region away from cheap fossil fuels.

Then came along Bullfrog Power, a green certified renewable energy provider founded by eco-entrepreneurs Tom Heintzman and Greg Kiessling. Established in 2004, this Canadian green energy start-up gradually expanded out from their Ontario roots and today bring green energy alternatives to commercial and residential customers from coast to coast. When green energy came knocking in Nova Scotia we were excited to sign up and take this critical next step along our path towards sustainability.

While it’s easy to overlook the small things, we know when you multiply small changes you can generate big results. Based on that we’ve implemented some things at Ascenta worth noting such as eco-transportation rebates for employees, eco-purchasing policies for food, office supplies, and electronics, community garbage sweeps, and eco-themed staff presentations. Last year Ascenta was recognised as one of Canada’s greenest workplaces.

The next big adventure for Ascenta will be a new facility slated for 2015. Building our new home is an exciting chance to ask ourselves “imagine if…?” While our imaginations may not represent what’s possible today, it will surely help us breakthrough the status quos and push the boundaries of what is possible.

As individuals as well as businesses, it’s important to remember that the brain and the heart have different reward systems. The brain’s reward system is primarily based on receiving while the heart’s reward system is primarily based on giving. Conventional businesses think with their brains. Socially oriented businesses think with their brains and act with their hearts.

On this Earth Day 2013 I want to express my deepest gratitude to the entire Ascenta team and to all our supporters. Without you none of this would be possible. We are excited about what’s to come and hope you come along for the journey.

If you want to be happy then chose to be happy. If you want to be successful then chose to be happy. If you want to make others happy then chose to be happy.

– Marc St. Onge

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