For the Common Good
As a part of my MBA studies, I spent 8 days in July studying business in Costa Rica (I know, poor me). “Sustainable Organizations for the Common Good” challenged our U.S. American lenses. Our Costa Rica trip was a study on how businesses promote (or in some cases ignore) the “triple bottom” line of people, planet, and profit. Costa Rica is a prime location for this kind of study. It is a very small country with a lot of familial interconnectedness (people). It a country situated in an ideal climate which helps with ecological sustainability. Costa Rica produces all of its electricity through renewable resources. It has a 2020 goal of offsetting all of its carbon emissions (planet). And, as a leading exporter of coffee and other agricultural exports, it is finding a way to raise the general standard of living across the board (profit).
For me, one of the highlights of the trip was our time studying a coffee collaborative. In Atenas (a region and also a small city in the central valley), coffee farmers have been practicing the “triple bottom line” for decades. Rather than selling out to the big corporations or being totally subject to the governmental powers that be, coffee farmers in Atenas banded together to form a Cooperative. Unions exists in Costa Rica, and like many here in the United States, they create an inherent conflictual relationship between the union and the management. Some Costa Ricans imagined a better way forward. Cooperatives are their attempt at negating the conflict. In many ways, the cooperative model is a peaceful “third way” approach.
To join the Cooperative, a farmer must produce at least two 80-pound bags of coffee in a year and this production level grants the farmer equal standing with all other farmers in the Cooperative. Everyone gets one vote whether they produce 2 bags or 50,000 bags a year. Managers are chosen from among the members through a process of consensus building and mutual discernment. It benefits farmers to work with management because the managers are farmers. They are all in it together.
The Cooperative standardizes what types of coffee it produces and each farmer can purchase the plants needed. They have collectively found ways to naturally deal with pests (no pesticides). They fertilize organically. All of these things benefit the planet.
Profits are shared according to production level and the Cooperative has long standing contracts with several US bulk buyers who pay a fair price (fair trade certified) for an 80-pound bag of coffee. In addition, built into the Cooperative is the idea of pooled excess profit.
They hold a certain percentage back in order to invest in more enterprise. With excess profit, the Cooperative members decide together what new businesses they will start. The goal of each business they begin is to benefit people – specifically, the local people of Atenas. The Cooperative owns and operates the largest and best grocery store in the region (it’s hopefully on the verge of putting the local WalMart owned store out of business). It also has a liquor store, a gas station, 46 public transportation buses, an agricultural supply store, and a bodega corner store. From fairly priced grocery items, to accessible public transportation, to job creation, the Cooperative is the best at everything they do, and everyone benefits. Most noteworthy, the president of their board told me, “The real aim of Cooperatives is social good.”
We are a Cooperative
A lot of what the Cooperative does in Atenas, Costa Rica could never scale up to the United States. The U.S. lacks the familial interconnectedness that makes trust primary in Costa Rica (people aren’t in focus here). In the U.S., we’ve largely abandoned real connection to the land (the planet isn’t a primary concern here). Not to mention, withholding income to reinvest it for the common good doesn’t make most shareholders in U.S. companies too happy (profit is king above all here). But, when we imagine Good Business in Circle of Hope… we are shooting for investment in the common good. We are essentially a Cooperative.
You may have gotten a taste for some of our ideas already (that’s me to the right taste-testing coffee at the Cooperative’s coffee mill). Let me share some initial thoughts about Good Business in Circle of Hope. We’ve been developing them over time, you can let me know what you’d add:
“Good Business” is Circle of Hope’s organic approach to starting and maintaining businesses in communities as a rich way to empower people and make a difference.
We desire to foster Good Business because we are called to fight injustice and worldly principalities. Our efforts at Good Business provide goods that people need (since often neighborhoods don’t have the services they need). We desire to connect people to life-giving sources. As a church, we are called to holistic regeneration and this includes our neighborhoods. Good Business is a way to be the church by infiltrating a community and meeting people where they are in need, as Jesus does.
- is concerned with love rather than profit only
- reinvests in people and neighborhoods
- is concerned about the welfare of people (employees in particular)
- pays a living wage
- teaches skills people can use
- is concerned with reuse and fair trade
- operates with integrity
- is accountable to the church, employees, and the community it serves
- has a triple bottom line (people, profit, planet)
Our 2016 Map
One of the major initiatives of our 2016 Map states that we want…
To create jobs and strengthen our finances:
Start another business as part of our new approach to doing good business
- Form the Good Business Creation Team with a goal for developing one new good business.
- Potentially multiply Circle Thrift in conjunction with church-planting efforts.
- Receive wisdom and practical help for business/mission sites from a new Next Sites team.
I like that we’re trying to do it together through consensus building and mutual discernment. Cooperation is key! I’ve heard rumblings already about what we might want to try to do. I’m looking forward to whatever we do because I know it will benefit people, take care of the planet, and make a profit (which we always use to expand the love and compassion of Jesus)!