Trophic Cascades and the Push to Be Better

Trophic Cascades and the Push to Be Better

Wolf standing on rock with trees and snow in background

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Trophic cascade is the term used by ecologists to describe the impact to an ecosystem of adding or removing a predator at the top of the food chain. A recent example of trophic cascade is seen with the reintroduction of grey wolves to Yellowstone in 1995. While scientists are still studying the myriad impacts of the reintroduction, they have already observed that the willow population has become healthier and more robust (because the wolves keep elk from overeating willow) and the beaver population has grown (with better food sources from the willow). These well-fed, industrious beavers have also created new dams and ponds, which help serve as cold-water habitats for fish and recharge the water table.

The concept of trophic cascade is relevant outside of ecology, because it serves as a model for understanding complex, interdependent systems. It challenges us to think about our own ecosystem– what are the things and people that we impact in our network, and what are the things that impact us? Where might Clean Yield have an impact that we haven’t yet considered? What are the ripple effects of decisions that we make? As a socially responsible business, we think hard about these questions, because we know that we make better decisions when we consider all stakeholders.

This awareness of our interdependence also challenges us to think about how we can do better. This fall, we attended the annual B Corp Champions Retreat, where we were inspired by stories of how businesses are having big impact. At the event, a number of companies presented on their efforts to support a more-inclusive economy. One company highlighted how they had improved their hiring practices to include candidates that had previously been incarcerated. Several companies expanded their family-friendly benefits. All of these policy changes potentially had effects that went well beyond the companies’ employees themselves.

An innovation that particularly struck us was from a consultant who wanted to tackle the issue of financial stability. She noted that most Americans have no more than $500 in savings. When unexpected costs inevitably hit, many people resort to payday lenders that charge exorbitant interest rates and fees. These high-cost loans can kick off a cycle of increasing debt that is hard to break. This consultant partnered with a local bank and business to develop a socially responsible income advance program. The program is now available at nine businesses and reaches over 600 employees. While we would love to see more businesses pay sustainable, living wages and support employees with savings education and plans, we thought this was a tangible example of how B Corps are finding new and creative ways to make the economy more inclusive.

With seven employees and a leased office in a rural area, we struggle with where to focus our time and energy. This year at our annual Clean Yield team retreat, we will be sitting down to work through this question. We will be exploring our various stakeholder relationships and thinking about where we should focus our time and attention to have the most impact. We will be thinking about our ecosystem and where there may be opportunities for us to spark positive systems change. We’re working on building empathy and compassion into client relationships, engaging our employees as whole people, and reducing our footprint – but we wonder where we could have real impact with other external stakeholders.

Some ideas have already been floated. One idea is to hold a town hall forum in our community to engage folks on a particular topic through a facilitated discussion. Another idea is to be more strategic in our philanthropy – could we better align our corporate philanthropy, volunteer time, and community relationships to have real, measurable impact on a particular issue? Yet another idea is to consider developing media campaigns to support some of the engagement and policy work we are doing – could a catchy tag line, Twitter hashtag, and viral video be used to save shareholder rights?

We don’t have all the answers, but we’re excited by the opportunity to consider our own trophic cascade and to think about the ripple effect of our actions. We are committed to raising the bar of how businesses can enrich their communities. We also recognize that it is time to try to amplify the impact of our work. As part of the B Corp movement, we must more fully consider community stakeholders and help be a force for good in the broader economic and business community. Clean Yield may not be the wolves in Yellowstone, but we hope that the B Corp movement will be.