By Jeffrey Hansen
Remember is to live again. I recently was reviewing my thoughts, my point of view about “sustainability” before, and this interview from my MBA Moore University came back to me again, reminding me all my research, expertise and passion about sustainability in 2011 and the way that we create the value proposition for Blossom Inspirations.
Today I want to share with you some of that vision from 2011 that continues shaping our way of living, dressing, eating and interacting with our eco-system, our environment, our just one planet.
When were you founded and how was the idea of Blossom Inspirations born?
The idea behind Blossom Inspirations was born out of the grafting of several smaller ideas. Rosa Chang, one of our founding partners and native of Lima, Peru, lived in Mexico City at the time and would visit back and forth bringing her friends in Mexico gifts of Peruvian made handicrafts – jewelry, belts, Alpaca gloves & scarves.
Jorge Cam, another founding partner, at the time was working with several artisan groups on tourism and development projects. With a connection to the source of production, the idea to sell handicrafts from Peru started to develop.
Jeff Hansen, having recently graduated from the Moore School and with experience in the Peace Corps saw the connection between low impact ‘cottage-industry’ production with artisans and the green movement at the time. We all saw that we had a great product (handmade), a great workforce (inspiring artisan stories), and a great market opportunity (emerging ecological/sustainability movement) to work with.
What does the name mean?
Blossom Inspirations was derived out of our effort to look for artisan communities where we can invest in training and better tools – like planting seeds and then nurturing those investments, growing them into better opportunities for the artisans to make better products. In addition, a lot of our products incorporated flowers into their design.
What does it mean to practice Conscious Consumerism? In what ways does your business do this?
In recent years, we’ve seen companies take a more ‘socially responsible’ approach to business practices. We hear a lot about efforts made to reduce pollution or benefit communities either out of goodwill or for good publicity. What we don’t see is a lot of attention given to the consumer side of that equation. Companies may be changing, but that is due in large part by pressures from consumers. People are more conscious today about where their products are made, who makes them and how.
We encourage conscious consumerism by providing more detailed information about our products, where they are made and who makes them. We encourage our customers to ask questions and be comfortable with the back story of what they are buying.
Not only do we encourage consumers, but we hope to set an example and pressure other businesses to provide the same level of detail of the products they make. We’d like that someday a consumer can pick a pair of sneakers or see a car they are interested in and have at their fingertips information about the materials used in its production and to know a little about the person or people instrumental in making it.
Explain the Green Movement and the importance of your involvement in it:
The Green Movement is another name for the shift in attitudes and practices toward environmentalism. It started in the 1970s with political activism to pass legislation protecting the environment and its resources. Today we see Generation X, which grew up on the 70s and 80s, entering the consumer world with preferences toward ‘green products’.
Personally, I see that the Green Movement is subset of the ‘Conscious Consumer Movement’. Not only are people demanding more eco-friendly products, but transparency in general from companies and producers. Consumers want to know about the environmental impact, as well as if people were exploited in its production and any other pertinent information.
Right now, I think the movement on a slight downward slope following the initial excitement. This is normal and I liken it the Dot.com Bubble of the late 1990s when companies were eager to adopt a web presence without full understanding of how to leverage that. Today, companies claim to be ‘Green’ and fail to completely understand what that means (many false claims) or fail to see the advantage in investing in those changes.
Our first steps toward becoming more ‘green’ was to take a production audit to fully understand our products, the raw materials used, the people handling them, and the production as a whole. With that information we were able to see opportunities to improve, innovate, and help the people involved. People need to realize that it’s an ongoing process toward continual improvement.
What opportunities does a “Green Business” have that others do not?
Businesses that strive to become ‘green’ are generally long-term thinkers. They see opportunities to invest and see benefits down the road. In order to think longer-term, companies have to move away from the monthly balance sheets and quick results mentality. Green Businesses also tend to be more detailed-oriented, creating value where consumers may not be thinking value exists. Energy saving light bulbs and a paperless office are not huge PR stories, but Green Businesses tend not to care about self publicity.
For those companies that adopt this new way of thinking, we see many benefits. First, the segment of ‘green consumers’ is a growing one and already has a name: LOHAS (Lifestyle Of Health And Sustainability). The LOHAS segment make up about 20% of the US population and spend nearly $300 billion annually. They’re more loyal and less price sensitive than other segments which is great news for retailers.
Explain Your involvement in CarbonFund.org.
CarbonFund.org is the leading nonprofit carbon reduction and climate solutions organization in the US. They help individuals and businesses reduce their carbon footprint and climate impact by connecting them with ‘third-party validated renewable energy, energy efficiency and reforestation projects’.
We’ve been involved with CarbonFund.org since 2010. After completing a Lifecycle analysis, measuring the carbon output at the individual product level, we approached CarbonFund.org to help facilitate the investment in carbon offsetting projects. We were sponsoring a couple different projects in South America (they change from month to month) with the idea to complete the cycle by trying to benefit the region of the world where our products are made.
What does the World Fair Trade Organization do in your eyes...their most important initiative?
The World Fair Trade Organization helps regulate the business relationships between companies in developed countries and workers in underdeveloped countries. For us, it was never our intention to take advantage of our artisans, but having begun to adopt the Fair Trade guidelines, we’ve had to change and add things that we haven’t considered. Though we are not certified, it is our intention to qualify as a Fair Trade wholesaler assuring our customers that every effort is being made to protect our artisan workers and help them thrive.
What steps have you taken to become Fair Trade Certified? How many more to go? What does the application process entail?
The Fair Trade Certification process consists of the Application, Referee Review, Provisional Membership and Self-Assessment. It’s a process that could take up to 2-years to complete. We are currently in the Application process as we work to adopt our business model to incorporate ALL of the Fair Trade principals.
Currently we are working on an artisan manual explaining to artisans the type business relationship we wish to cultivate with them – including their worker rights, safety & work conditions, how fair prices are decided, child labor regulations, environmental precautions, etc.
A lot of the process is documenting unwritten rules (i.e. always where a face mask when working with chemical dyes), publishing them and following up on their compliance. We hope to have all Fair Trade guidelines in place, artisan training and compliance along with their regulatory compliance cycle in motion by January 2012 with provisional membership achieved by April 2012. (In 2015 we became members of Chicago Fair Trade and Fair Trade Federation and we are a proud member).
Were you hurt by the economic downturn?
Yes and no. Rosa and I were both working in General Electric’s consumer finance division during the economic crisis of 2008/09. Eventually, GE would eliminate our division, letting us go on the same day. No hard feelings toward GE, both of us received a fair severance package and with that seed money were able to realize this lingering idea.
Growing our business has been slow (by design) which could have been influenced by the economic downturn. We are optimistic as we see growth in the US and Mexico leading into a strong Christmas season for 2011.
How is business now?
Business is good. We’ve concentrated our sales efforts in Mexico with idea to ‘test market’ products before introduction into the US. We’ve been very pleased with the response from stores. The Mexican consumer is not as ‘green sensitive’ as the US or Europe, so we’ve had to rely more on the appeal of our fashion designs. This has pushed us to improve products which we feel now will have a good impact in the US.
Are you an active advocate of business sustainability? In what way do you promote your low-impact business practices? Would you consider yourselves pioneers in this industry?
We definitely advocate business sustainability, environmentalism, and social responsibility. We do publish a blog and a social media campaign which talk about those themes. Currently we are in the middle of our Carbon Reduced Summer in which we are publishing a series of tips to reduce your carbon footprint. We also promote like minded businesses through our media channels.
Though I haven’t seen another example of a business that really takes into consideration all stakeholders (consumers, suppliers, workers, and the environment) when producing and selling, I hesitate to call us a pioneer. One of the ideas behind our business was to see if a business could function and profit while all stakeholders involved also benefited. We wanted to get away from the zero-sum game (I profit “+2” from exploiting workers “-1” and/or the environment “-1”) and see if value could be added at every node of the production chain– this idea may be avant-garde in that respect.
In what ways do you give back to the community?
Most of our contributions have been to the artisan communities. We’ve purchased holiday baskets with staple foods, safety equipment such as goggles and face masks, toys and school supplies for their kids, zero interest financing for better tools, money and insurance funds for medical needs, and visited some in hospitals.
Most importantly, we’ve connected with the community visiting homes and meeting families. We make sure that they know there is someone on the other end of that order form, that we have a mutually beneficial relationship.
We have documented all that in our Fair Trade section
Explain what it’s like to be an entrepreneur. What challenges did you face? What is the most important thing you’ve learned?
Being an entrepreneur is a little unnerving. It’s a quite a shock to go from a corporate office environment where you were the expert of one area or one project to having the responsibility over all departments. In a given week, I can find myself reviewing import/export regulations between South American countries, correcting HTML code for our website, and reviewing the latest fashion trends for the coming Fall – quite a range. There is a certain swagger you need to carry, knowing that whatever problem comes up you can either find the answer or teach yourself how to solve it. You have to be constantly learning (I’m currently studying Adobe Illustrator Design, Google Analytics, and Portuguese) to help your business grow. The other big thing is knowing when to ask for help. You’re never going to know everything you need to and when that day comes, it’s humbling to admit your limits and ask or pay for a needed service or consultation.
What is the easiest way a business can practice sustainability?
I don’t think there’s any ‘easy’ way for a business to become sustainable. In many cases, a paradigm shift is needed starting at the top. Pressures from stockholders and investors need to be nullified so a company can focus on the long-term. Management needs to be honest with themselves and about their capabilities for change.
I would start small, involve all levels of the corporate hierarchy and identify 3 things that could be changed fast where results are measurable (energy efficient light bulb, car pool program, paperless office). With a few marks in the win column, a company can start to identify itself as one the road to becoming a ‘greener business’.
Describe your experience at the Moore School. What lessons did you take from school that helped you in the real world?
Studying at the Moore School was a great experience. I feel I was lucky as my language track and class group gelled almost immediately. Class discussions were a great balance of theory and practical application with each professor peppering their subject with personal experiences to highlight key points. The diversity was also tremendous – a diversity of cultures but also of different areas of expertise – ie. CPA students tutoring people for the accounting exam, foreign exchange students helping with languages. local Columbia students inviting groups of students to their home for the holidays, etc…
Specifically to me, in addition to classes, I studied in Mexico and Peru. I was involved in the Small Business Development Center as a consultant helping local businesses with free resources and consulting.
Every day I draw on lessons learned in Marketing, Management, Economics and Accounting classes. Often the toughest ones were the most useful (Sweigart & Philipoom’s ’s Decision Analysis). Being an entrepreneur is really the synthesis of everything I learned at the Moore School.
Jeffrey Hansen (IMBA, class of 2007)