Five years ago, I started a small documentary project I assumed would last a few months. The film, Dukale’s Dream, ending up including multiple trips to Ethiopia and the creation of a social business. When I first met Dukale, a small coffee farmer working incredibly hard to support his family, I was impressed. It is hard to walk away from an experience like that, so I kept returning to it. For years.
You might think, as I did, that it would be easy for me to help. I could use my voice to advocate for the fair trade movement. What I discovered is that building a truly sustainable business and supply chain is a new frontier. Everyone was experimenting and inventing.
When this dawned on me, I admit I was surprised. I always assumed we knew better ways to do things because the problems were so evident. Solutions, unfortunately, don’t come easy. Ask any entrepreneur and they will tell you that the development of new ideas takes time.
At this point, I was tempted to move on. After meeting coffee farmers, however, it was no longer abstract to me. I had to figure this out. As I met people that eventually comprised my business, Laughing Man, I came to respect a new generation of creative problem solvers who had been trained in their respective fields with an eye toward sustainability. Their scientific knowledge, business savvy, and powers of invention repeatedly amazed me — but it took a while for all this talent to find each other. My partner, David Steingard, grew up in cafe and went on to practice law only to return to the family business. A knowledge of environmental policy and law, as it pertains to coffee, is a rare skill set. For David, Laughing Man was a chance to bring all the parts of his experience together. For me, it was good luck!
I am extremely fortunate to have the acquaintance of Jeffrey Sachs at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. He has been an inspiration and important resource to me as I worked through how Laughing Man should operate. The Earth Institute’s academic programs, especially the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy, are graduating professionals who would’ve gotten me to market much sooner. Many of graduates are established professionals that remind me of David; individuals who changed direction not only because of the importance of sustainability, but out of a desire to reconcile their careers with concerns that are both personal and larger than themselves. I am hopeful that the growth of expertise in environmental science and policy will make sustainable businesses more common.
Last month, after all this time, we finally released our documentary recounting our journey. Despite coming so far, I feel that we are just getting started. It is very exciting to create new sustainable solutions. As businesses and governments are realizing the importance of doing so, opportunities abound.
It might be time to start a new documentary.