Monday, February 4, 2008

Blue Is the New Green

On Friday, I went to Brooklyn in search of Blue Marble Ice Cream, the story behind the creation of a small, sustainable business, and some recycling dioramas.

Jennie, one of Blue Marble's founders, is my friend Michael's sister, and, a couple of weeks ago, Michael visited Jennie and spent some time at the shop. While he was there, Jennie explained to him a mis- recycling problem they'd been having and tasked him with the creation of 3-D recycling instructions. He stuck some spoons through a bowl, taped some cups to a plate, took the written instructions off the recycle bins, and hung the dioramas instead. People instantly stopped putting the wrong things in the wrong bins. The visuals did the trick. Hans Rosling would be proud.

I happened to be in NY last Friday, so I figured I'd go see for myself.

And I couldn't be happier that I did. The ice cream is delicious. The flavors are simple but unique: strawberry that doesn't hide the fruit's sweet-sour combination, green tea that begged me to turn it into a milkshake, a frozen yogurt called culture that's not afraid to taste like yogurt, and many more. And the business is pretty cool too. Wind and water power the freezer. Small farmers with big respect for land, water, and animals produce the dairy. And recycled and sustainably sourced materials build the walls and furniture.

Jennie and I talked about the concept, the future, the money, the satisfaction. And there is heaps I want to write.

I want to write more about the visuals, share more of Michael's observations. I want to write about biodegradable spoons and corn production in China. I want to write about substituting clay for paint. I want to write about the balance Blue Marble will always be trying to strike, the balance their vendors try to strike, the balance any small business striving to be more sustainable tries to strike: the balance between righteousness and practicality.

But I want to keep this post a reasonable length, so I won't write it all. I'll give you one thought for now and recommend that you all go see Blue Marble yourselves...

I'm fascinated by the entrepreneurs, Jennie and her co-founder Alexis. They're betting big on Blue Marble: they mortgaged their houses to seed the project. At the same time, they're playing for the love of the ice cream, not for the money. Despite the risk they've assumed, they are significantly more committed to doing things right than doing things profitably.

I'm simultaneously inspired and terrified.

Blue Marble is less than 4 months old. If it grows comfortably through the winter and early spring and catches on in a serious way come ice cream season, a lot of good things will happen. The shop will buy more dairy from the man in the Hudson Valley that does things commendably, if not perfectly organically. Taste-seeking customers will learn about the Blue Marble philosophy and realize that it's totally reasonable to demand both quality and eco-friendliness. And Jennie and Alexis will feel validated in their approach.

But what if things don't go smoothly? Will the shop just disappear? Will it live on but abandon commitment to sustainability? Will skeptics chalk it up as "yet another failed experiment in green business" and use it to discourage others from straying from proven, exploitative business models?

In my opinion, Blue Marble needs to succeed. And, in my opinion, its founders should be looking to go as big as they can possibly manage.

First of all, it seems to me that the Blue Marble business model is one that relies heavily on volume of sales. They care about keeping prices down, and they care about buying from as sustainable a group of farmers, bakers, and biodegradable cutlery distributors as they can, so they can't rely on huge margins to keep them afloat. It might be the case that Blue Marble simply can't operate at enough of a profit to responsibly manage risk unless they take advantage of economies of scale.

Equally importantly, a highly successful Blue Marble would be a hugely positive thing for a lot of people. The world needs case studies. We need role model small business entrepreneurs. We need to see Jennie's and Alexis's attitudes and practices succeed, for we need to see how profitable those attitudes and practices can be. A lot more people know they want to make money than know they want to contribute to creating an ecologically sustainable economy. But a lot of people will realize that they do want to contribute to creating an ecologically sustainable economy if they see more evidence that there's plenty of financial opportunity in it.

My sense is that, in order to take Blue Marble big, the founders will have to spend some time and money on marketing: educate their customers about their business and convince people to support them. Their mission, to build a profitable, sustainable business, is a mission I want them to wear on their sleeves. If they show their customers who they are, convince those customers that Blue Marble is the community's ice cream shop and that Blue Marble's success is the community's success, then I think they will take it big, and I think everybody stands to gain from that.

Jennie and Alexis are going to keep playing for the love. And they should. Sometimes, however, you can play for a lot more love if you keep the money in mind. This might be one of those times.

2 comments:

GreenSmithC said...

Excellent article. You encapsulate, in this short piece, some of the major dilemmas/issues facing those that choose to do business in a way different then the current logic says. If I were in NY, and wasn't *completely* allergic to dairy, I'd be there in a moment. Here's to Blue Marble's success!

Jake de Grazia said...

Man. Lactose intolerance, etc. is killing me with my Blue Marble recommendations. A bunch of people have told me they'd love to go but can't due to mysterious dairy induced reactions. Blue Marble does have tea, coffee, and baked goods too, so you won't be totally excluded if you swing by next time your travels take you to Brooklyn.