Earth Consultants

Applying Lean Six Sigma to the Environment

E060: Sustainability Consulting Interview with Vanina Howan

48 min read

In this podcast, I was interviewed by Vanina Howan on her podcast called The Ecopreneur Show. She asked me about my background in sustainability, how I transitioned into consulting on my own, and how I got involved with Recycling Advocates.

I’m really proud of how this interview turned out. We delve into a host of topics, including push vs. pull, Lean Startup methods, and my volunteer consulting work with sustainable businesses and nonprofits.

We get more detailed into my personal life, so if that’s not interesting to you, then feel free to skip this episode.

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Are you interested in learning more about Lean and Six Sigma?

Or are you looking to expand your existing skills to apply them to environmental impacts at your work or local community?

Check out our FREE online course called “Lean Six Sigma and the Environment”

We’ll teach you about the lean forms of waste and WASTE walks (which stands for Water, Air Emissions, Solid Waste, Toxins and Energy)

We’ll go over examples of reducing electricity and solid waste, teach you how to involve your facilities and ES&H personnel. We’ll provide guidance on how to green your 5S and lean kaizen events, and many other tools specific to find environmental opportunities

Learn more at


Vanina (V):  You’re listening to The Ecopreneur Show, a podcast that inspires entrepreneurs and creatives on how they can make a positive and meaningful impact in the world. I’m your host, Vanina. Every other week, I hang out with entrepreneurs and business owners and leaders that are creating real-life solutions for a more sustainable future. I feel, by having raw conversations with ecopreneurs, that it’ll keep on inspiring us to take action in our own lives. Thanks for tuning in.

So, Brion, thank you so much for being here.

Brion (B):  Sure.

V:  Can you tell me a little bit about what you do?

B:  Yes. I’m a Lean Six Sigma consultant, which a lot of people have no idea what that means. And so it’s a process improvement methodology that’s come up over the last couple of decades. So a lot of large companies and corporations use this to make their processes better, improve their quality, reduce the time it takes to do tasks, better align to what their customers actually want, and try to also engage their employees in making improvements to their work so it’s less frustrating or difficult and they can do the job easier, safer, and also more productive. What’s a little different is the perception is that people think that it’s about making people work faster or harder, and if you actually set up the processes correctly, it doesn’t have to be that way. You can make it simpler and easier and they can do more work without more effort necessarily.

And then there’s elements of that that are getting to the data and my background is in statistics and that’s how I kind of got into data analysis. And then, out of school, I started working at an aerospace company that was nearby. I grew up in Iowa, so I got a job nearby and that kind of started into applying what I learned in school.

V:  And then can you tell us a little bit about Recycling Advocates too?

B:  Sure. I moved to Portland in 2013 with my wife and I really wanted to get to the Pacific Northwest.

V:  Any particular reason why?

B:  The sustainability part, for sure. I met my wife in 2007. She had some background in the environmental world and I was just getting into it. I think this was a year after An Inconvenient Truth came out. That exposed me to this problem of climate change and what’s going on here. And so I was kind of digesting what that meant and making some small changes here and there, but then I started making the connection between what I do at work and this environmental problem and then a light bulb went off that, wait, I think I can help with this. This is a problem with numbers and you just follow the data and that will help make decisions around where I can best impact the environment, how I can help.

And so I spent a lot of time just studying and learning more about it because I didn’t feel like I was very educated around that. I decided I should probably get some more education, so I actually went back to school and got a certificate in sustainability from the school that I got my undergrad and graduate program through.

V:  Because, previously, you were working as an aerospace engineer, from what I understand?

B:  I was working, yeah, in the aerospace industry doing process improvement work. I was helping the organization – I was teaching statistics, basically, or refreshing engineers on what they learned in school by trying to apply it to here’s an actual problem we’re dealing with, here’s is how you can apply some of these concepts that maybe it’s new to them or maybe it’s something they took in class but they haven’t applied in their real job. I was there to kind of support them, and train them, teach them those concepts.

V:  And so you then you went back to school, and then can you explain exactly what you went to school for and what certification you worked on?

B:  Yeah. It was sustainability and that was a general topic. It was a certificate program, so it wasn’t an undergrad or a minor or anything like that. I was one of the few people who were working full-time. It was mostly students, so that was a good, interesting experience to kind of get reconnected with the current college students. This was back in 2011, 2012, somewhere around there.

So I got more educated and I felt more confident in what I was doing and I got more excited about the possibilities because I kept talking to people – professors and other groups and connecting with people – and there was still a gap there. I found that the EPA had done some work with my background, Lean Six Sigma, work and how to improve the environment and I thought all these resources that they put out. So I just digested all of that information and saw that there were companies that had already started to go down this path of connecting their environmental impacts and using these techniques to improve that.

Anyway, so I got excited about that possibility and I wanted to move somewhere where there was a lot of good activity happening. Of course, Portland is on the list and the company I was working for, Rockwell Collins, had a facility in Wilsonville, so that seemed pretty cool.

V:  And what was that company, Rockwell Collins? Was that the aerospace company?

B:  The aerospace company, yeah. So I moved around, every five years or so, to different locations, and that kind of broke up my 18 years and made it go a little faster. Which is a long time to be at a company, but when I look at it, it was broken up every four to seven years with a different location.

V:  How did you know when to make that sort of transition? working 18 years in this industry, and then watching An Inconvenient Truth, and realized that you had sort of a similar calling but different. So how did you make that leap?

B:  I think when I realized that there was a way to apply what I was doing in business and also help the businesses reduce their environmental impact, it was huge. Knowing that my background kind of lined up really well with that, I got super excited about it. And then realizing that, outside of the EPA documents that they put out, there really was not much going on and there weren’t many people like myself doing that work. So I said, okay, there’s some positive things there that I can do and there’s not that many people doing it yet. That got me really excited about that possibility.

So I did some internal projects with the company and got some great successes there, but after a while, I just kind of realized that I was ready to go faster. There was a lot of knowledge that I wanted to share, of things I’d gathered and collected, and there’s a lot more companies out there that need that exposure or that training and I can’t do that working full-time. I started to kind of work my way towards my own consulting.

V:  So can you explain that? so you started doing your own consulting work, so did you reach out to other companies saying that, “I have this certification. There’s ways that I can help you improve your company”? is that how you go about it?

B:  I probably started doing some stuff online, just posting information, putting together training material, free stuff, writing articles, stuff like that, to get the word out just to see if there was momentum or interest in that topic and there was a little bit here and there. But I really felt like I had to go spend a little bit more significant time. So I actually – and we’re going to get to Recycling Advocates here; it’s a longer route here – but I realized that I need to start spending time outside of work to do that. And I was doing that and I was spending most of my weekends and nights working on this, but it still wasn’t really enough to get enough momentum there where I could go on my own. So I started coming cutting back hours at work, went to 30 hours for about six months, and then I found an organization I could partner with for some consulting work; they had some steady work for me to do some training. That was enough to say I’m ready to take that leap, so that helped a lot.

And then since then, that gave me time to start building up my client list, people I want to work with. But it’s taking longer because this is new stuff for the groups I’m working with and trying to connect with. Large companies know about Lean and Six Sigma methods, but most of the sustainable businesses and nonprofits, this is new. So I’m doing a lot of education and explaining what exactly do I do and how can I help them in some way.

V:  Can you walk me through how does the consultancy process work?

B:  Usually, it starts with an intro class or training, because I usually like to at least get them on a clear understanding of what these concepts are, and then maybe give them some thoughts around how we can start working together. Usually, it’s an introduction to the Lean methods. Those are little less data-focused. There is a lot of data, but it’s not quite as intense as the Six Sigma side of it.

So I usually start with that and talk about workflow and employee engagement, and then just talk about the types of problems they have, which is they’re not able to keep up with the orders that they have or requests from their customers because this can be an office process, it can be electronic. It doesn’t matter what the business is doing, most everybody has an end customer or a recipient of their products or services that they offer and that product and service takes a certain amount of time to complete internally and sometimes it takes longer than they want it to take and it’s not as fast as the customers want it or there’s quality issues that the customer doesn’t get what they want.

So whatever the problem is, if it’s too slow or not good enough quality or it costs too much or it’s too environmentally damaging, the process, whatever the issue is, the methodology I teach is just about let’s work through that problem to some structured way of solving it. So the training is just to kind of introduced them to some of the concepts and tools and how we will solve some of the most problems and teach people how to solve it themselves eventually.

But the typical day for me is all over the place. It could be I’m teaching a class for four or five days in a row, it could be at a conference room hotel for the general public through the other consultancy, it could be me meeting with a client and working through a specific problem, it could just be meeting with the client to talk about strategy and plans, it could be me working on some data analysis and sending it to them. I’ll review other people’s projects and certify them to the Lean or Six Sigma criteria, so it could be phone calls with somebody, walking them through their next steps on their project improvement that they’re doing. So it varies a lot each day, which is pretty nice. Sometimes, I have to remind them like, “Can you remind me where we left off?”

V:  Because you’re wearing so many different hats all the time.

B:  Yeah. I’ve talked to 10 different people in the last couple of days, I can’t remember what we talked about two weeks ago.

V:  So you need a refresher after working with so many different companies.

B:  And then it comes back to me in another couple of minutes. But that’s nice that you get a lot of flexibility and unique things.

V:  Since we’re talking a little bit about the companies that you’ve worked with, there’s one particular question that I was looking for, let’s see.

B:  I can tie it back to the Recycling Advocates while you’re working on that too.

V:  Yeah, go ahead.

B:  When I was working at the aerospace company, I was running the Green Team and so I was trying to get a group of employees together to start talking through and saying what can we do to help with environmental projects in the company. And so I found some people who were interested in that and set up a monthly meeting and we would just get together. The city of Portland has the Sustainability at Work program and we were in Clackamas County in Wilsonville, and so the local counties had a similar program so we took the checklist and started going through that checklist with some help with the Clackamas County Solid Waste Advisor. That process really helped us get a jumpstart and some momentum at that facility. We got through and got to their gold level certification with the business, but I made a lot of great connections there.

Recycling Advocates, at the time, Betty Patton was the president and she had set up a meeting to talk about green teams and I’m like, “Cool. I want to network with other green team people because I feel like I’m on an island by myself.” So I met her and then, long story short, started coming to meetings, joined the board shortly after that.

V:  And then became president. So how does that…?

B:  Yeah. And then Betty retired and she kind of asked if I could take over and I just had started the consulting, so I said, “You know, actually, I’ve got a little flexibility with my work schedule now, although I am starting a new business. I don’t know how effective I’ll be, but I’ll give it a shot. I don’t know what I’m doing. If you’ll help me and help navigate me through this, I’ll give it a try.”

V:  And can you explain to people what Recycling Advocates does exactly in Portland?

B:  They’ve been around since 1989, over 30 years now, set up by Jean Roy. She’s done amazing things throughout the community, setting up different nonprofit organizations. And so, initially, at the time, there really was not a lot of recycling options and so it was an organization to give a voice to local citizens to be able to advocate for better recycling options in the community. And so from there, there’s some history and connection back to the Master Recycler program. I think they were involved in helping develop some of the curriculum for that program. But over the years, the system has changed a lot, for the better, and gotten really good. I mean, there’s still opportunities and things that need to be improved, we all know that. So when I took over, I was trying to figure out where do we go from here, so we tried a couple of things. We did the Zero Waste Conference last year.

V:  Which was wildly successful.

B:  Yeah, it was great, and hope to do another one soon, that would be great. And just trying to figure out what is the current needs in the community and where do we fit in, as an organization, to provide a voice.

V:  Yeah, and you’re also pushing for the Bring Your Own Cup too. Can you talk about that?

B:  That was when I joined, they were just starting to talk about the next campaign. And so they talked about some things around to-go containers, but also Go Box had been in place as well, so how do we work together with them? we kind of stepped back and we kept coming back to coffee cups a lot because Portlanders love coffee. The confusion around the coffee cup was more and more evident as people said, “This looks like paper. I’m going to throw it in my recycling bin.” So the contamination aspect of it was huge and then we started getting some rough numbers and that’s where we came up with this 15 million cups a year in Portland get consumed and thrown away for a single-use item.

V:  When Jocelyn mentioned that in the Go Box interview, I was stunned by that number.

B:  And that’s a rough number we came up with; it’s probably more than that. But we knew, at least that number, we can feel pretty comfortable with, probably upwards of 100 million cups. So we all kind of nodded and said, “Yeah, this is something we can go deal with. It’s two levels, it’s why are we doing that? there are options. You don’t have to use a disposable cup, and the contamination.” And so there’s a two-pronged approach is to educate the coffee customers and the coffee shops, and then also the public about if you do have to have a cup, where does it go, and it goes in the trash.

V:  Since we’re talking about with people and since you’re in both fields, where do you feel like is the driver of change? do you feel like it’s with the government or do you feel like it’s with the people?

B:  I have, over the years, changed and I think it’s the people. We all, every day, make choices and decisions that drive the businesses. Ultimately, they’re responding to us. So if we like convenience and single-use items, they’re going to produce that. And they might drive it initially, but it’s up to us to decide not to choose those options.

V:  What made you change? You said it’s different now, so can you explain that?

B:  I think, at first, I was thinking that the government needs to step in and regulate these items or incentivize or make rules against it. And there is a place for that, but ultimately, as I even assessed my own buying decisions and purchasing, I think it kind of stood out like is this really where I want to be spending my own money? and if I’m not supporting the businesses that I like, I’m not sending them the clear signal that they need. In our society, if we’re going based on… The businesses are going to provide what the customers want and so if they want convenience and single-use and the customers keep buying those things, you’re telling the business that that’s what you like and they’re going to keep doing what you like. So ultimately, why you’re seeing, I think, a change in how businesses are reacting in some of the new businesses coming up that are being successful as they’re responding and people are supporting those businesses and, without that, they can’t make it.

So ultimately, I think it comes back to the individuals. We vote for the people we want in our offices, the decisions at the government level, and we spend our money, every day, and every dollar is a vote for that business and so I really think it has come back to we, as individuals, have to make that decision every day. And sometimes it’s hard because the best option is inconvenient to get to and it costs more money sometimes, but it’s really you have to be really committed to say, “This is really important to me and it’s worth it and I know this is helping. In some way down the line, it’s going to make a difference. It’s going to make this business last a little bit longer and get enough time in there to get the exposure that it needs for it to take off.”

V:  I’m also about the individual too. I think that one of the biggest examples I always lead with this is the organic food movement. I feel like that really started with the people. It was just people just asking for organic food and now it’s just the common norm. Now businesses are like, “Oh crud, we’ve got to start making organic produce if you want to survive,” and so now you see organic everywhere. First, it was just in your little grocery stores and I remember just seeing it from time to time, and now, it’s just like it’s the common norm, so I think that’s a great example of that too. And I think it’s really cool, also talking about the plastic too, I think people are becoming more aware that it’s also affecting our bodies too with all the plastic that we are pouring hot coffee into our cups and packaged things too and how it affects us in the long term, so I’m all about the individual.

I want to go back a little bit. There’s a specific question that I actually have for your consultancy. What are the common areas of improvement that you see in businesses that you consult with?

B:  I would say that there are some, I call it, easy things that sometimes they just need to focus some attention on a problem and the solution isn’t that difficult or challenging. Like they kind of have some ideas already, they just need to sit down and focus their attention on it. It’s easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day activities and it’s hard to step out and spend time fixing the process when you’re in it all the time and it’s a challenge and you just want to get through the day. So one big challenge is actually carving out time for businesses to make improvements in their work. Once they do that, the solutions are not difficult to do. It’s probably they have some great ideas already, they just haven’t really spent the time to go step away and work on it.

That’s one thing I encourage is let’s carve out some time, each day or each week, for your team to step back, look at what’s going on, and really rethink is this the best we can do this? Are there ways I can simplify this or, in some cases, automate? But that’s not always the best option. I would rather them make the process simpler and easier and then, later, you can automate it. Sometimes, they just automate a bad process that doesn’t really fix it. So that’s one piece.

V:  I think that’s a really interesting example. I’ve never heard of that – just carving out time to just reassess and look at the whole picture then. Because I agree, I think sometimes we can just get so stuck in the day-to-day and think, “I need to do this. I need to be busy,” but by taking steps back and reassessing with your team is really valuable in itself.

B:  There’s a natural reaction to be afraid or fear problems and talking about problems. That’s one of the big elements on the Lean methodology is that you have to be comfortable bringing up and talking about problems. Otherwise, you’ll never be able to solve them if you can’t honestly talk about it and without fear. That you cannot fear like I’m going to get in trouble or I’m going to get fired or get written up because I brought up this issue. It’s we have to be very transparent and be able to say, “Lay all the problems on the table so we can actually see which ones we have to deal with.” If I only talk about half the problems and the other ones are buried and hidden, I’m not getting a full picture and I’m not working on the right stuff, potentially. So the first thing is trying to get people to just bring forward all the problems and lay them all out. That’s difficult for some organizations that are – we were talking off-line earlier about are people comfortable talking about issues and problems. So that’s the first barrier there, is to make it okay to bring up those problems.

Then once you have time to go work on those problems, you can start chipping away at those but the problems never go away. Individual problems go away if you can fix them correctly, but problems, in general, are always going to be there. You take the best running organization and you will go in there and, within an hour, you will find hundreds of problems and things they need to fix. So once you get into the mindset that problems are just things we have to deal with all the time and they’re never going to go away completely, there will just be new problems and challenges that come up, so let’s get used to the fact that we’re going to have problems all the time. It’s just picking the right ones to work on and then actually spending time working on those problems and getting out of the day-to-day chaos and firefighting that we’re used to just to chip away at those problems.

V:  I think it’s so interesting that you talk about being able to put your problems in the forefront and being able to accept them because I think about the company Toms. They got a lot of flak because they’re all about giving a shoe to a child in need. What happened was they got a lot of flak because cobblers were losing their jobs in the villages that they were in because people were like, “I don’t need to hire a cobbler. I can get a free shoe over here.” I think Toms did it the best way that they could, which was understanding the problem, accepting the problem, and then being like what can we do as a company? and so they started building factories there and actually hiring the cobblers to work with them.

But I think that this is just an interesting topic but because I feel like, especially in the sustainability world, I feel like sometimes it’s like either you’re right or you’re wrong a lot of the time. It’s always like how do we find those missing holes that people are like, “Yeah, your company is great, but you’re not doing X, Y, and Z,” or, “Yes, you’re zero waste, but you’re not vegan,” or trying to nitpick at all the little problems for that. I think the same is with companies too, I think people are just afraid to even say if there’s something a little bit off about their company. Like, yes, they want to be perceived as the best company possible, but I think that fear of showing problems is a real thing. I just think it’s really interesting that you’re discussing that for a company, that that’s one of their biggest issues.

B:  I think that prevents people dealing with the real issues that are going on. So once they can start laying those problems out, which is difficult and there’s cultures that have been built up that that’s a bad thing. If you have problems, then you’re not doing your job correctly and we don’t trust you anymore. But it’s really about how you deal with the problems has to be more important and how you bring your team along with you.

It can’t be that one person is fixing everything because you’ve just taken on all that weight on your shoulder as a manager or a supervisor of that area, if you are the ones trying to fix everything. You have a whole team of people that can also fix problems, you’ve just got to trust them and give them the ability to learn how to do it right. That’s what I try to teach is techniques to solve problems, but it takes time to practice that and you have to be okay with sometimes our solutions don’t work and that’s a learning experience. We’re not going to be perfect at first, but we’re going to practice this and, eventually, over a couple of years, we’re going to get really good at this and then we’ll be able to solve any problem that comes our way.

So once they do start working on improvements, I would say half the time, it’s pretty straightforward what they need to do. They already know, they just haven’t spent the time doing it. The other piece is there are some techniques and some analysis that can help them solve problems that they haven’t been able to solve, more challenging things. How they do their work, whether it’s a batch or smaller batches or one at a time, makes a difference in how fast they can go and how much backlog you have in your process. So there are some technical things that I teach that people don’t think about or are confused about until they see it in action and then they’re blown away by they thought they were doing it a really efficient way and I show them that there’s better ways to do things, different tasks.

V:  What are your thoughts on companies that do made-to-order, meaning that when a customer decides to buy a T-shirt, they specifically make that T-shirt for that?

B:  That’s great. I think you tie it to we don’t have to predict what the customer wants. We wait for the customer to tell you what they want. That’s called a pull system. A push system is let’s forecast and guess at how many shirts and pants and hats we need to make or how many vehicles we need to make or how many you name whatever the product is. Let’s guess and we’ll make a bunch of these and ship them all around and hope that that meets the demands. The problem is you’re not going to get that right and so you’re going to make too many of certain things and you’ll have to discount them or you’re going to not make enough and you’re going to run out. And so it gets very difficult to try to predict those things, so it’s better to set up a process that is very responsive to the actual customers’ demands.

A pull system would be like let’s put out two shirts, two large shirts, on the showroom floor and then, when somebody orders one large one, we send the signal back to the supplier that, “On your next delivery, please send us one more large.” And so you buy one and then you replenish one and that would be instead of saying, “We’re going to ship you 300 and we hope that that covers you,” you set things up in smaller orders and very responsive. If nobody orders a large shirt, it sits there but no other shipments come in because there’s no signal back to the supplier that anyone is buying it, and so it’s very responsive and flexible.

So that, I think, is ideal is you only make what the customer wants or provide that service when they ask for it directly, not spending time hoping that they might need it and find out I wasted all that time. I could’ve been doing something else or making something else or not having to figure out how to get rid of all of these excess items that nobody wanted.

V:  That are sitting there. I relate to that. As somebody who’s worked in the fashion industry, I relate to that all too well where you have an idea, you think you know what you want to make for the customer and then, once it’s out there, and some people… Of course, sometimes you get traction, but sometimes you don’t and then there’s just inventory sitting there too. That was the big one for me when I was… I used to be a fashion designer and I made it all in California, I sewed it all myself and I was as sustainable as I could, but if it didn’t sell, then it would just sit there. It would sit in inventory and I thought what’s the point? if somebody’s not wearing this and it’s not going anywhere, what’s the purpose of it all? I didn’t know that those are two different methods of, you said pull and…

B:  A pull and a push. A push is, “Here you go. Take what we’re going to give you.” A pull is, “You tell me what you need at the right time.” A pull is harder to do and that’s why it’s easier and sometimes we’re incentivized to do the push because, hey, you need to buy 100 of these to get the price discount you want. It sounds good and that’s why people bulk buy – “Look, I can get this price per… I can buy three dozen bananas and save 20%,” but if I end up having to discard or compost 20% of those, did I actually save money? and then I had to store all of those bananas in one spot and now I need more space. And so it creates some short-term incentives to do the push or the batch work and the long-term is actually go into smaller amounts, but you may end up saving money in the long run when you do actually do the numbers.

V:  But you’re saying pull is more difficult for business?

B:  Yeah. You have to have your processes dialed in really well to be that responsive and flexible to respond like your customer demands change. So yeah, it’s a maturity thing to get to that point, but usually, it’s much more cost-effective in the long run.

V:  Can we talk a little about that? I feel like I hear, from so many businesses that, let’s say, aren’t as sustainable, say, “I’d love to do that, but it’s more expensive,” or, “We don’t have the budget for that.” Can you debunk that a bit or just talk about that a bit?

B:  Yeah. I don’t know if I’ll be able to solve that. Part of it is that the way they’re looking at the numbers can be skewed. They’re looking at purely financial numbers and our financial system doesn’t account for environmental impact very well. I’d love to see that change someday because I think the businesses would actually fall in line perfectly if you had the incentives, financially, for any impact they have negatively to the planet, whether it’s a carbon tax or something like that. The businesses are making a lot of financial decisions. They’re not always looking at the triple bottom line, however, and so are they really incorporating the environmental impact and the impact to their workers and the community in those decisions? kind of like Toms example you gave. Maybe, financially, that makes sense that they could lower the cost of the shoes in the method they chose, but did they calculate or impact the effect on the community and the cobblers and the local residents and what that would do. Maybe they tried and they underestimated the impact it would have. So first is most companies still operate in just looking at the profit and loss piece of it and not incorporating a broader view and partly because it’s hard to get those numbers.

It’s hard to balance clear financial numbers with this vague environmental impact. Like how much does it cost to use 200,000 extra kilowatt-hours? you get charged for it, but you’re not paying for the environmental impacts that goes with that as well. If that was factored in, they could make better financial decisions that way. So, one, I think that we’re always going to be battling this when the externality costs are not being factored into business decisions, so I’d like to see that improved. I don’t know if that will happen anytime soon.

V:  I was going to say, do you see that being something that the government would incentivize or what?

B:  Yeah, I think it’s going to have to be that because the companies are not going to voluntarily. Some do, but the majority of the companies probably having the biggest impact are not going to voluntarily say, “We’re going to add costs to our expenses to factor in these externalities.” So I think it’s going to have to be pushed from the government side to them to say this is how it’s going to be, so that we can properly, if you’re responsible for this, you need to pay for it.

Polluter pays model is really what we’re trying to say. It’s not you can do what you want, but you’re going to pay for the full impact of your decisions. Not some of the impact and then someone then in society is going to cover the rest of the bill, which is what’s happening today with the use of coal and who’s paying for the asthma treatments for the kids who live near there? that is the piece that’s missing today in the business models and so some way to factor that into the decision that says this is going to cost us more and now I can make a better trade-off because I am paying for those externalities.

I can’t remember where we were going, but the financial problem is a challenge. Good companies are factoring that in as best as they can, but oftentimes, the financials are very clear, the other stuff is vague. The impact in healthcare to the community and the environmental damage it’s causing, those numbers are not as clear and hard, and so the companies, I think, revert back to what does the profit and loss say and they make decisions that way.

V:  I’m just digesting that a little bit. I think it’s just a question that I don’t think maybe we can answer during this episode. For me, I think about, yes, a large company, it does affect the kids’ health or something like that too, but some companies might just be like so what? for me, of course, that doesn’t relate to me at all, but I think some companies can be like, yes, that’s bad, but what can I do with my company do that and how does that benefit me as a company?

B:  Each company, though, is made up of individuals and many of us have worked in big companies and we felt like what can I do? but we can influence and we can ask those questions in there, but I think sometimes it feels like the machine, especially like a company that is a for-profit, a publicly held company that has quarterly statements that they have to make, finance, they’re in there. The questions aren’t being asked about, okay, that’s great. Let’s look at your financial statements. Now let’s talk about your social responsibility. That’s not part of their quarterly calls and that’s not part of what they’re being held to and that doesn’t affect their stock price.

But if those things were being discussed and said, “Okay, we’re going to decide to invest in you based on your triple bottom line approach, not just your financial impact,” that would change things. I’ve seen some good progress with investor groups that said we’re not going to invest in committees who don’t have a social responsibility report and are serious about that. Like BlackRock has already said we are moving in a direction that we’re not just looking at profit and loss because we know that’s not a good indicator for long-term health of a company. So when those things start changing, that will help some of the bigger companies say this is what the investor group wants us to do and now it’s important to the company to consider those things.

But today, it’s still so much focused on the financials. We don’t measure the big impact; we look at the gross domestic product, which is a measure of finances. It doesn’t incorporate the full picture. The example that just blew me blew me away, I think it was in a Master Recycler class, that a woman who takes her child to the library produces nothing for the GDP, but an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico produces millions of dollars in GDP growth for someone who had to pay to clean up the oil spill. That’s looked at as more positive than somebody who’s staying at home, taking care of their child, and going to the library and using the free resources there. We can’t be making decisions about the health of our economy based on a number that is flawed and misrepresents, I think, what people would value in our society. That’s a whole other topic.

V:  Wow. I’m processing that.

B:  I got into consulting because I wanted to work with businesses where I didn’t have to… That wasn’t even on the table. They would be interested in making choices that were for the community, for the environment, and for their workers, and also good for business too, and you can do that, it’s possible. But I wanted to work with companies who already understood that. I didn’t have to convince them that the financial method, there’s other ways to look at it. I just wanted to go and work with the B-Corporations and nonprofits and these organizations that I know that already have that mindset and help them be successful.

V:  I feel like so many of big companies now, there’s like Loop with Procter & Gamble, that’s a huge shift also. I feel like, now, I’m seeing so many companies that are trying to say this is plastic-free. I think there is definitely a shift. As a consultant, have you seen more companies that are reaching out to you because it just seems like that’s the way customers are starting to be more like?

B:  I think, definitely, the business are growing and that is exciting because that means that’s more people I could go help and work with. Some companies I reached out, I didn’t know what they do, so I’m learning and, “I had no idea there was a whole business wrapped around this. This is very interesting.” Even Renewal Workshop, I knew about them through, I think, the Master Recyclers class, but then having the opportunity to go work with businesses like that is really cool. But it’s still new for them on the process improvement stuff because a lot of them don’t come out of… They came out from mission-driven purpose. The same with the nonprofits. They didn’t set up the nonprofit with maybe a business background; they set it up for a passion around the problem.

And so whereas, in a larger company, you have a lot of people with engineering degrees and they would have been exposed to some of these methods and techniques, perhaps in school, or they take an MBA program because that’s how you move up in the company, and so they’re exposed to it through the MBA programs that they go through, but a lot of the organizations that I’m reaching out to, they come up through a different channel. Which is great, but they don’t necessarily have the same business background as some of the larger companies that traditionally would ask for this kind of help in process improvement.

V:  I feel like I am way more familiar with mission-driven businesses. I didn’t know that those were two different things.

B:  In general, I would say. There’s definitely people who worked in a big company with all that background and then just said I don’t want to do this and I want to do something different, but I would say there’s a lot that got into the business and it was just kind of by accident. I think Tofurkey was like that. They started off as I’m just making some tempeh. I didn’t know this was going to turn into a billion-dollar company. In fact, the story seems like they barely made it. Many times, they struggled and now they’re a huge company.

V:  So is that mission-driven?

B:  Yeah, I think it was just filling a void and trying to come up with something to make some money for a job. You stick with it long enough and, all of a sudden, you help change a movement around vegan food and the company is worth billions of dollars. I don’t think that was the goal going into it – I’m going to build this billion-dollar company. I think some of it is it comes out of that passion for a problem or an issue, not so much of how do I build a business that I can sell or get an IPO around and then make a lot of money, which maybe a lot of companies started that way.

V:  Sometimes, yeah. If I was listening and I was just starting a mission-driven business, what advice would you have for them?

B:  I would say start with the simplest, smallest solution you can provide to a customer and get it in front of them and get feedback on that idea. Don’t invest in a huge amount of stuff or things or items or infrastructure. Find your customers or find the people you want to work with and just figure out what problems they have and then try to figure out if your solution can help them or not, or change and modify your solution.

Where I’m at, too, is I’m working with these organizations and saying this is what I offer, but maybe that’s not what they need. Maybe they’re not ready for my help or maybe I need to approach it differently or there’s parts of my consulting I need to shift directions on, depending on where they’re at in their maturity or knowledge levels. So I think being very flexible starting off, but getting in front of the people that you want to work with and help and not locking into a solution of how you’re going to help them.

There’s a methodology called Lean Startup that is geared around that is how to provide a minimum viable product and test it out, a low-scale, low-risk, get feedback, and then adjust as you get that feedback from the people who actually might pay or want that product or service you’re offering. I think that would be one thing so you don’t go in saying, “Here, I’ve got this great idea and I’m going to throw all of this money,” or effort or time into it and find out later there’s nobody that wants what I have to offer because I didn’t really understand my customers. So I would say look into that methodology if you’re just starting off because I think it will give you some really good ideas around testing your ideas first.

V:  There’s a term, and excuse my cussing, there’s “ship the shit,” which is something that people talk about in the product design world, is that you’ve got to ship it as soon as possible. Even if it’s crap, just get it out there, get feedback from people. Because I think that, a lot of the time, I’ve seen it actually happen a lot where somebody will be very wrapped up in their idea or their business and they’ll be like it needs this and it needs to be perfect and it’s got to be X, Y, and Z and it’s got to be this sort of look and they drive so much time and money and investment into it and nobody has even seen it. There’s nobody there that’s even going to give feedback and you’re not going to even know that something that was so clear to you may not even translate for your customer or there might not be a large enough audience that even wants that product. So I think that’s really good advice for somebody who’s starting up.

B:  I think like the food carts and the pop-up shops, I think that’s a perfect example of you have something to offer, don’t invest in a building and put up a storefront, hire employees, and then, in six months, you’re completely out of all your life savings. There’s so much simpler ways that you can go about that that will be less risky and get you to what you really want, which is helping, usually, that customer or some mission. It may change your solution, but you’re still going to achieve your mission or your goal.

Especially if you’re mission-driven, the solution may change but your vision won’t change but it may be different than what you originally thought it would be. So if you stay focused on what the end result you’re trying to achieve is, then you can be flexible with what your solution ends up looking like. Don’t get so wrapped up in that solution that you won’t give up that idea when you hear the feedback is telling you to go in a different direction.

V:  So you think pop-up shops and food trucks are…

B:  It’s a way to test out on a lower-cost scale. And maybe even before the food cart, there’s simpler ways to just have a free dinner and give out food and ask for feedback and modify and change it – “Would you pay $5 for this? would you pay $10 for this?” That feedback is hard to ask because you’re going to find out, very quickly, if your solution is going to work and it’s scary for people. They’re going to want to know, it’s too scary. If they don’t like it, what do I do? but if you say it may change, but if you end up helping achieve that mission, isn’t that what you got into this for? so have that flexibility; don’t get tied down to that solution.

V:  Yeah, because then people can get so wrapped up with that one thing and once they get feedback and it’s completely shut down, it’s just like, “Oh my gosh, I’ve spent two years working on this and I finally got feedback and now I realize, oh shoot, I should have adjusted this.” What you’re saying is have a lot of flexibility when you’re starting a business and be open to the critique and feedback that you’re receiving. I guess here’s one question is, I think I find this too, is also who you’re getting feedback from. Because I feel like, sometimes, it’s important to listen to, especially as somebody who’s a consultant, listen to what everybody has to say, but is there like a filter that you advise for that too? because sometimes you might not want to… That person might not be the best person for advice.

B:  Right. I would definitely look at the person and what their background is just to determine how much you should weigh their decision and maybe where they’re coming from. Definitely not all advice should be treated equally. And then sometimes you say, “I’m on to something. My gut says this is something I still want to go down. I’m hearing some pushback, but I really believe in this,” and there’s a lot of successes that have happened for people pushing through on an idea that no one really thought would take off. You have to keep that in mind too.

If your heart is there and you said, “All right, I’m going to give this a shot. I understand, I’m listening to the feedback, I’ve heard it, I’m taking it into account, but I still believe in this,” trust your gut to some point too as long as you’re open to hearing the other feedback. Don’t go in there blindly and say, “I was ignoring that.” So it’s definitely take it into account and then take it into account based on who’s saying it for sure.

V:  Actually, I’m curious about I know you worked with the company Green Banana Paper. Can you explain a little bit about that?

B:  As part of my sustainability training, we had to do a paper or a presentation on one country that we pick. You can pick any country you want, but you have to describe the situation of the company right now, what are their sustainability challenges that they have. I kept seeing, in this drop-down menu, when you would select the state, it would show Federated States of Micronesia. I always thought, “Is this a joke? did somebody put this in there and it got stuck in one of the algorithms and then people have and copying and pasting this US states drop-down menu and this got left in there or something?”

One day, I did a little research and it was like this is a whole island chain. It’s one country, but it’s thousands of islands spread out in the middle of the Pacific Ocean that is actually a part of the US, kind of like a Puerto Rico. So they’re not states, but they’re in an agreement or a compact with the US. After World War II, they were a Japanese territory and we took over a lot of the islands. Then I said, “Maybe I’ll pick this one as my country,” and I started doing a little research and it’s a very interesting place because they’ve kind of been left alone. I mean, the US supports them financially, and beautiful islands that are still very remote, very remote. So it just really intrigued me and I was like, “I’d like to go there someday and really see what’s going on.” Because I like to travel, and I like traveling places that people don’t go to. I don’t go to the large…

V:  You’re like my friend’s partner…

B:  I moved to Dominica in the Caribbean and it’s a very green, lush island, but not many people have been there. So stuff like that, so I was like I want to go there someday. And so I was going through some Kickstarter or something like that and I saw this wallet manufacturer that was making wallets out of Micronesia and I was like that’s cool, finally a business. Because I looked at Kiva and I was always looking for interesting places to donate and nothing ever came up in Micronesia, because I would look for that to see if I could support because that was one of the things that I talked about.

My presentation was they really need to build up their own economy because the funding from the US is eventually going to go away and it’s always in turmoil whether that’s going to last or not. It’s millions of dollars a year, hundreds of millions of dollars, and so I’m sure it’s always on the table for being cut at some point. So what they want to do is be self-sufficient and, to do that, they need to build up their own economy, and so I was always looking for small businesses starting up that might want to help develop an economy for themselves where they could get off of having to rely on the US and then say, “We can do our own thing. We don’t have to do with the US wants us to do.”

So I saw this initiative and I was like, “Cool. I’ll donate some money to this Kickstarter to help this wallet manufacturer.” So I got on their newsletter and I got a wallet – I’ll show you. This is a newer version.

V:  Oh wow.

B:  This is a newer version of it, but it’s made out of banana fibers. They have a bunch of coconut and banana trees on the island and when they die, they just kind of sit and rot and sometimes the farmers will burn them just to clear the space so they can grow more trees, and so there was just waste. They eventually will compost, but usually, they will burn them to not wait around for that to happen.

So this guy, Matt Simpson, he was from the US, he went over and did some teaching work, volunteer teaching work, fell in love with the island, and I think he got a job in Kosrae, which is one of the Micronesian islands, and he saw this business opportunity. He was doing all this research on what you can do with different fibers and things like that. They have a plethora of materials and they needed some business. There was very few businesses on the island; they rely a lot on the government. So he started figuring out how to operate and build this factory and he made this little facility that makes wallets.

In his newsletters that came out, he said, “We’re looking for volunteers to come and help us if you have skills or knowledge.” He was looking for, I think, social media and marketing and things like that and I threw out the idea that, “I can provide some training, if you’re interested in that. I need an excuse to go to Micronesia. I’ve been wanting to go there and I’m a consultant now, so I have flexibility to block off extended amounts of weeks. I would never be able to do this before, but now I can block off a month or so if I want to do this,” and he was like, “Sure. Actually, I’m learning this on-the-fly. I could really use some professional help on how to run a business.”

And so we figured out some dates and so I went out for five weeks. In part of his facility, he built an apartment above the factory where he lives and the back is an apartment for people who are visiting and helping out. There’s like two hotels on the island. There’s not a lot of places to stay and it’s expensive to do that if you’re there for five weeks. And so my job was to just look at their operations and give them some training on the Lean and Six Sigma methods, and then work with him directly on coming up with more of a system on how he can better manage, especially if he was going to be traveling and doing a lot of marketing stuff and remote work. It was amazing.

V:  How long ago was that?

B:  I left in end of May this year and then came back right after Fourth of July, so it was about five or six weeks total with travel, and it was really cool. People describe it as Hawaii 50 to 100 years ago in terms of the lack of development. There’s not high-rises, it’s pretty simple living. Beautiful weather, beautiful scenery, just it was awesome. The people are wonderful and they’re excited about this business and trying to build something and they got some spending money and they like to see their product being sold all over the world and knowing that it comes from their island. They have a lot of pride in that and he’s just trying to get this business going and turn it into a success. So I had really high expectations going in and it really met all those expectations. It was a really amazing experience.

V:  It will be cool to see, after doing consulting with them, to see how it kind of develops over time.

B:  And I’m hoping to send other people there to continue with that work. I’d like to go back and help again. I don’t know how quickly I can get back over there, but I made the connection, when I was there, with someone who worked in Ohio who is in a healthcare organization. They have a Lean and Six Sigma department, they have some people who might be interested in traveling over there to continue some of the work that I started. The cool part is he’s trying to make it fully sustainable. It’s a vegan product, he’s trying to hit zero waste. Not only is this a cool experience, but you’re exactly the type of businesses that I want to succeed and help and work with.

And so we did some stuff on productivity of some of the sewing operations and looked at some data and I was collecting data each shift and kind of recording to see who was doing well and who was struggling with some of the different types of wallets, looking at some of the quality criteria and making sure that was clear and consistent, setting up kanban or pull systems so that they weren’t ordering too much of supplies. They have a challenge that it takes a couple of weeks for material to get to them because it’s so remote. Like I said, most people have never heard of Micronesia, let alone the island of Kosrae. It’s just a really unique place to go and visit. So that was a really awesome experience that I never would’ve gotten to if I wasn’t doing consulting.

V:  I was about to say, it’s so incredible that you’re consulting job has such flexibility and you really can go from different places and meet really interesting businesses too. I think it’s really cool that you transitioned into that. We’re wrapping up on our…

B:  Can I add one more thing?

V:  Yes, please do.

B:  I did that for free. I covered my travel and my time there and I got paid in wallets, which was nice, for little bit of my help. But I really had to take a step back when I started consulting. I really got wrapped up, initially, of how much money was I bringing in and I caught myself being so focused on am I making as much as I used to make. Then when I stepped back and said what is my goal here? it’s to stay busy enough that I can pay my bills and stuff like that, but these experiences are really valuable. And so, initially, when people asked me how business is going, I would say, “It’s going okay. I could be busier,” but now, as I’m starting to think about it, it’s like it’s going awesome because I get to do what I want and I get to work on awesome projects and help great people. And I don’t want to work all the time. I don’t want to work 50 hours or 60 hours a week; if the needs are great. But my measure of my own success was still jaded to the old system of how much money am I bringing in and what’s my salary this year and I had to force myself to think through that that’s not really what my goal is here.

So that was a mental shift that I had to make myself. Even though I was supposed to be helping businesses with triple bottom line, I was still thinking about it the old way of just how much client work do I have. So that’s really helped me step back and say this is going great because I get to have that flexibility and work with the groups I work with, whether I’m super busy or not busy at all. It’s a different way of measuring my own success of my consulting business, so that’s helped.

V:  Wow. I think a lot of listeners will relate to that, defining what your version of success is, too, because I think everybody’s is different. Some people, it’s profit, how much they make, and some people, it’s the experiences that you have, which is kind of like isn’t it better to lead the life that you want to live than just going the day-to-day, just saying it pays, but what are you paying for?

B:  That experience was literally priceless. I couldn’t put a number to it. It’ll be something that I’ll always remember and hope to go back at some point. So you can’t put that on a spreadsheet and measure that.

V:  You can’t at all. Brion, one last comment. Thank you for adding that. What is one piece of advice that you have for a starting ecopreneur?

B:  I think, kind of along those same lines, I’ve kind of been reinforced with this following Gary Vaynerchuk, about just give away what you know and help people. It’s a longer strategy, but it just feels better. I don’t feel like I’m very good at marketing myself or selling what I offer, but I’m happy to put in time and effort into things. Just early starting off, I just made stuff and put it out there and tried to do as much free stuff as possible, just to get out there and, eventually, things come back. It’s the connections I made with some of the volunteer work that’s led to some client work.

Sometimes, too, the people I was volunteering with, they’ve said, “Hey, we’ve got some money. We can actually pay you this time,” and that was a surprise and I didn’t expect that or think that would be a possibility. So I would say just help people with whatever skills you have and be useful and then we can work out the money and stuff later. And it may never come, but I think it’s just easier to just be present and be helpful and try to figure out how you can make a difference. Some of that will be good for business and others will be free work, but it will all pay off in the end I think, and it feels good and you meet great people because they’re also there probably helping and volunteering and stuff. It goes back to this, what is the end result and what is success, and so I guess I would say just try to be helpful to people and the rest will take care of itself in the long run.

V:  Totally. I think one thing that I can’t remember which actor this was, but there’s a saying which is pay attention versus crave attention. Pay attention, as in help other people, be engaged with the work that you like to do. Don’t crave trying to get in front of something or seeing how many followers you have or who’s listening. It’s just the more that you create good quality content and the work that you love to do, just by doing that will start growing to give to people. Brion, thank you so much for being on the podcast.

Hey, Ecopreneurs. Thanks for tuning in. If you enjoyed this episode, come over and join me at Zero Waste Habit. I’d love to hear your story and what positive impacts you’re making in the world. Anyways, I hope you’re having an awesome day and I hope to see you in the next episode.

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