Finding Fertile Ground

As the Founder and CEO of Leverage Lab, Sara Blenkhorn dedicates her time and energy to the intersection of business and sustainability. She helps companies achieve B Corp certification, honing their ethical business practices and baking them into the DNA of their companies. With 20 years of experience in the field, Sara helps businesses capitalize on declaring, measuring and monitoring their impact.

Her passion for engaging people has gifted her a vast network and an uncanny ability to lead productive workshops; finding ways of working across silos, and building collaborations that are in service to a wider agenda. Over the last five years, Sara has had the pleasure of working with: The City of Vancouver, the Government of Alberta, Lululemon, H&M, UBC and over a dozen others.

In this episode, Sara shares how she and others worked hard to establish a project, only to have its growth cut short due to factors outside their control. Listen in to discover the powerful lessons she gained on her way to Finding Fertile Ground

 

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Show Notes

 

Transcript 

Jalen 

Not so long ago, things sort of shifted with a major project that you have been working on... and that shift has brought up some significant learnings and experience, right? I'm wondering if you could take me back to where you feel is like the origin of that story. 

Sara 

Yeah, thanks, Jalen. And let me tell you a little story about how it all started. I when I was 16. My parents. Moved to a little town outside of Guadalajara called Ahik, and we moved from rural Nova Scotia to Ahik. When we arrived, you know I was awestruck by the poverty and also by the state of the lake that was there. The lake was. Completely dried up. We were looking at like cracked sand in. Place so that used to be a thriving lake. And I remember being really troubled by the poverty that I was seeing. And that the lake had completely dried up that we you. Know that we let that happen. And so I started volunteering for a local organization that brought in an international organization. Of the International Lakes Society. And they brought together all of the participants in the demise of the lake and all the participants who would potentially be affected by the Lakes Revival, and that they get looked at the lake as a system. And when they brought all of those folks together. 

They were able to see that all of them were extracting little bits, and none of them understood. It's sort of like. The tragedy of the Commons. None of them understood that all. Of that amounted to the. Entirety of the wake. And so they. Started planning together and collaborating and. Looking at the lake as a system and they work with the farmers. Up the Letterman. River, which was the tertiary river point and changed their crops from flood irrigation to drip irrigation. They worked with the water treatment tertiary plant that was extracting water from the nearby city Lahara and upgraded their systems and so on and so forth. You know really in the end they were able. To see the. Lake of this system, lower all of the different impacts and the lake slowly came back to life. And I would say that that story is really. Important to tell because it was pivotal in my in my career. And in my me really helping me understand what my passions were and where I. Wanted to work. And I went on from there and did an undergrad and International Development, traveled the world, doing so many programs abroad and that degree. And then I did. A master's degree of science and sustainability. 

So with a pretty well rounded understanding of what I like to say is what's screwed up in the world, I really was left with no choice but to. Try and create a solution, and also to create a solution that, you know, had go to market abilities because at the same time you know I needed to sustain myself and my own needs that classic. You gotta fill your own cup first, right? Fast forward. Lots of details in. Between but I I landed in Vancouver. And started trying to figure out. You know what are the? Wicked problems in Vancouver? Where this is Vancouver, BC you. Know where are the the challenges and the wicked problems. After some some research, I was met with some strong interest from the the fashion industry here in BC, Canada and quickly learned. That 22,000 tons of apparel waste heads to landfill every year and that from a waste perspective is problematic. But when you get into the problem, you start to understand. That you know, a lot of that stuff that's not being sold. In secondhand markets is being shipped overseas and that's. A big carbon contribution. A lot of the stuff that then lands in these developing countries eventually lands because it's not really fit to be worn. Nobody's really betting that, per say, ends up in their landfills. And that becomes our problem because. A lot of these developing countries don't have the waste incinerators or the waste programs that we have here in place in in North America. And so a lot of it's being burned and a lot of if you look at the composition of a. Lot of the textile and. Fashion waste is it's it's petroleum products, so we're. You know we're creating. Ozone layer depletion and contributing to climate change in. A big way. And you know and then. You look upstream in the fashion industry and there's so many challenges with, with dyes and chemicals and water pollution and and then also the human element of how folk. Being treated, we've been. Aware of some of them as as the. As they become aware, apparent in the news. All that to say, you know we. We wrote a collaborative white paper on the problem. And brought industries together to do that to. Really look at the. The fashion industry and the waste within fashion as a as. A problem so. Went to my inception story and we're really able to understand the complexities of the challenge and from there we came. Up with six. Leverage points for change and we were awarded some incredible funding funding from the Vancouver Foundation and Advanced City and KENDOR. Textiles to really. Take our organization to the next level and start doing things about the challenge. We had, we had discovered together. 

And you know the whole world this is this is 2 1/2 years ago and. The whole world. Changed and I I think back to your original question, I think the piece about fertile ground is really like things are always changing and you really have to look at you know what? Are the variables that you're. Faced with now. And it might be different tomorrow. Tomorrow, as we've all. Really became become hyper aware of with the pandemic. 

Jalen 

Things can turn dramatically quicker than we realize, yeah. 

Sara 

It's true. So we learned, we learned. A few things. You know, we definitely spent some time listening and I think that the key to great innovation is really, you know, knowing your wicked. Problem but also like. Keeping your ear to the ground and constantly being able to understand the variables necessary for quote UN quote for it all ground you know. 

Jalen 

You got this grant to do this work and then, but more recently you've had to basically shutter the project and that's a piece around the the 1st all ground that this has really hit home for you, right? And that's probably the context in which, like some of these really difficult lessons have come from. Is that right? 

Sara 

Yeah, I think that things are constantly shifting and we we need we as an organization decided to close, close our doors and go into what we're calling hibernation mode just because we have so many assets. You know, we might want to reuse them or recycle them or repurpose them, but the organization. As it has been, we definitely have. Decided to close the doors just because. When we looked at where we were at, after several pivots, I think we were, we were. We had to. We were forced to make a decision. 

Jalen 

What was it about the nature of the ground that. Wasn't that made it not favorable for flourishing? 

Sara 

Yeah, I mean, these are the things that we've  learned. That I wanted to share, but. You know, in in the business in which we're in. Where a lot of a. Lot of the work. That we had to do we. Had to teach people. About the problem, before we could sell them the solution and that that is that, you know, takes really deep marketing pockets because you're you know, you've got to really educate before you. Then say OK. Have them realize that the challenge is. So, so big and that they, you know, they're they're needing to do. Something about it? And yeah, I think the non the nonprofit funding model in that vein also requires full-time fundraising folks. And we are we, we're a team of doers and innovators and systems change. Professionals and project managers and consultants. With a lot of subject matter expertise. But not necessarily nonprofit. Fundraisers think projects like this at this at that level really require full-time fundraisers. 

Speaker 

You know without without any like top-down policy directive such as EPR, provincial or any sort of EPR in place. There's no risk looming. For folks where they feel. The urgency now you look. You go look across the pond and. Places like Europe. They've got smaller land masses and very progressive policies. And so you're going. To see a lot of fashion brands in that area of the world being progressive because they have to, and they're feeling the pinch of that, that pressure, whereas here in Canada, you know, there's a big land mass. When you throw things away, and I'm using air quotes, you know, it really feels like there's an away, whereas in Europe it's like, you know, next to your window. 

So I think that without that top-down directive. It's really hard to shift the needle and more specifically to get the retailers to make any changes even if they care about climate change or they have, you know, sustainability. Policies in place. And then I think the last one. Is really around readiness? We are hearing  a lot of talk about how companies were ready, but when came to like signing up for these initiatives, there was a say do gap and not always you know like there are many brands that did sign on to our. Programs and our our education program. But largely in in. Order to be super successful with what we were doing we really needed. That, say, do gap to be. Tighter or less of a say do. So I think I think those are those are some of the things that we learned about fertile ground and specifically as a nonprofit what really needs to be in place. And I think also like I think when we started out at this the ground may have been a bit more fertile. I mean, everyone says we were before our time, but then everything changed with the pandemic and a lot of the funding that was available. You know now being diverted to more COVID related or diversity equity inclusion related which. You know all important causes and. You know I. Think that the pool of money that we were, we were working with dried up. 

Jalen 

So there are a number of things that sort of went into the project, not sort of not taking off in the way that you had hoped or that with the direction that you were originally planning like if you were to start something similar next year of the of those factors that seem to be getting in the way, are there any of them that you feel like there's something you could? Do about. 

Sara 

Yeah, but not enough to sustain an organization. And I you know I would. I really love what Fabio has done over at Mattress Recycling, you know like, he found a window with mattresses and lobbied and got that legislation in place banning land banning mattresses from landfill. And then overnight, he had a business model. And he was able to. Say OK, if you put this law in place. This we have a plan for what to do. With the materials and that's exactly. What we're trying to do at the textile lab for circularity in our in our road map, we brought stakeholders together to do a road map to textile recycling. So the idea there was that we were going to show policymakers that, hey, we've got a plan. We figured out, you know what it's going to cost to do recycling here in Western Canada. If you do put ER. In place and that's, you know, that's part of our programming. We still have folks signed. For that who are? Are are working with that? My colleague Emily McGill is facilitating and running it. And you know, it's still just not enough. I think it goes back. To that point where when you. Have to educate people or lobby. For for policy. 

Speaker 

That takes, you know, it's a really long, I want to say, sales cycle. To get it in place and it's not a, it's not a priority. Plastics a priority on in the in the waste diversion, the waste band policy framework. So you just don't know. You don't? You don't really know whether you have influence even, let alone control. 

Jalen 

So do you think that was? Was successful with the mattress recycling was that it was more far more specific. Or like an easily identifiable or... 

Sara 

Yeah, I bet that that had something to do with. It I bet. Also, you know Fabiola's ability to have you know in place what he. Could do with each of the pieces. You know his. Reputation is know how I don't really, I don't. Really know exactly. But I know he he did a full. Court press on on that and was and I didn't think it happened over and over night. You know, I do think it. Was a A A. But you know when it did go in, he did have a business in place overnight because now he had to figure out. What to do with the mattresses? Right. So I think he had a solid plan. 

Jalen 

Right. What kinds of things might you consider doing? Because I mean, I don't see you pulling up stakes and heading in a totally different direction. 

Sara 

Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think that these these points and these learnings are really and and like seeking fiddle around and really helped me to to look around and to, you know, look for the right signs of readiness. And you know, whether there's a say, do gap and you know, if there's. Speed and momentum and yeah, it's been exciting cause I've been I've been building. I call myself a AB Corp certification concierge. Meaning I don't work for for B lab and. B Corp is a certification for businesses saying that they are sustainable and it's under the umbrella of both social and environmental sustainability. I help companies. Attain that certification. But what's different about this venture is that you know the readiness is there, the say do gap there isn't really. On all the. Progressive companies I know are getting B Corp certified. You know they. This this industry, this the certifications dubbed to like triple. 

And you know, there's currently there's 6400. Certified B Corps globally. You know, 2000 plus in US and Canada spanning 159 industries in 87 countries with one unified. Oh you know so like. I think the work and the awareness is being done by another organization called B Labs. And they're doing. The education right and I just need to do what I'm good at, which is helping companies to measure where they're at their baseline relative carbon, waste water. Best practices, policies and procedures around transparency, diversity, equity, and inclusion, you name it. And so that's the. Work that I get. To come in and help businesses do. To get the 80 points that they. Need to pass. And walk them through the verification process that that B. Lab does to to certify folks. So, you know, I really looked at these learnings and in my in my pivots looked at how do I how do I take what I've learned and apply that to my life, apply that to. My next venture? But still have impact. Still feel like I am. Living my purpose, which is to help help with the intersection of of businesses, sustainability and inevitably see ourselves revolutionizing capitalism, you know, changing the game of changing the face in the game of capitalism, which is what B Corps are are doing globally. 

Jalen 

Yeah, I often talk about it as the organic certification for business, yeah. People get that I'm wondering. Like I I get this had this suspicion that maybe this work doing would be Corp certification might have the momentum of it, might actually wind up circling back to your original this original focus. Do you? Do you imagine that might be possible? 

Speaker 

I mean. I really hope so I think. You know the the beautiful thing is is like it's. Just a a different way to slice some of my skills. I'm still running workshops. I'm still helping people collaborate around sustainability goals. It's just happening inside of companies and corporations rather than spanning. Across different company. So it's the same work. I'm still sharpening my tools, which is exciting for me because those are my sweet spots. That's that's where I shine. That's that's where I get and I hope so, I mean. I think that those those lessons learned will I'll keep them in my back pocket and you know, I'll always be looking for ways. To to see. Greater impact and to see systems change, it's just to as part of my DNA from. That that story I told you back in Mexico, all those years. 

Jalen 

Has your heart mended yet? 

Sara 

Yeah, I mean. It's, you know, despair. Despair is not. Yeah, I mean, we all sit with despair, I think, to some degree. But I you know, when you're when I'm there. I I realize like it's just it's not helpful. It doesn't inspire me. It doesn't inspire others. And I think with anything. It's like the the cars you get down, you get a. Choice on how you want to play the. Right. That's what's in my control. And I just, I just don't choose to, not to do despair. It's boring. The pathetic thing to do and so I choose to. I choose inspiration. Choose innovation and choose you know, and I think I think the ticket is to not hold on, not hold on to anything too tightly. Because it can all change in a minute. 

Jalen 

So are there things that you did or have happened in your life that have helped you learn how to do that? Cause that sounds easy enough, but there's a big gap between the words and the doing right in terms of what it takes to make it happen. 

Sara 

Another say do gap, huh? 

Jalen 

Of a different, slightly different sort, right? 

Sara 

Different, indeed. You know, I've. Had a I've had my fair share of grief. Yeah, I lost my mother about a year and a half ago to cancer. 

Jalen 

I'm sorry. 

Sara 

And thank you and. Yeah, I I find that those experiences are really humbling. Really teach you. How? How to let go of something in its specific form, but how to hold on to it in another form or? Another way and. There's some beautiful lessons in. Grief. If you really look. And they teach us how to how to be present with the now and decide how, you know, what really matters and how you really want to show up for. That in in your fullest. And I I think it's it's been it's been. A guide, a guide for me as tragic as it is,  there's a juxtaposition with it that, you know, on the other side is just this gratitude for the moment and gratitude for right now and. And the power. Of choice of how how you want to. How you want to work with that? How you want to. Be with that. 

Jalen 

And were there any? Books or teachers that sort of. That you that helped you with that figuring that out? 

Sara 

Many many. And you know, I think. What's accessible to all of us is just. Going in and listening to that inner voice is taking the time. To to sit with it and be with grief and. Listen to what it's. Saying I will, I will add that water, water. Has taught me so much. You know, sitting by sitting by rivers and just watching, you know, it just flows by, you know, and. The symbolism, and even just sitting in sitting in a river and feeling it flow around you and how you know like 90%. Of our body is water, right? And just how easy it is. For water to flow. And also sitting sitting by the ocean. And watching you know each wave. It's so consistent. Just comes in with. This like consistent. See and the bigger. The way the bigger the crash, there's so many. Analogies to life, you know. 

Jalen 

Oh, sure. 

Sara 

But just. 

Jalen 

There's wisdom all around us. We have the eyes. To see it, yeah. But I still feel I feel like there's there's there's ways in which you've you've accumulated some of that that maybe has there been so many lessons along the way. It's hard to remember where you've picked up all the bits. 

Sara 

So many so many insightful friends and community members and entrepreneurs and mentors. It just would be unfair to name one or two here. 

Jalen 

Well, I mean, there's one thing that I know about you. It's like I've always known you to be committed to personal development and to see that as being kind of integral to being able to be successful and vital in the work that you're doing. I mean, I think that's the most succinct way I can think I can extract from this right now. You know. 

Sara 

Thanks Jalen, you know. There's like that curiosity is like they say that, like, love is the gift of life and I don't. I don't disagree with that at all but and I. Feel like curiosity is, like, the how you get there, right? Lean in with curiosity. There's so many. Different ways to explore and see the world. 

Jalen 

And I appreciate the time you've taken to share what you have and then the vulnerability as well because these are difficult things to share. 

Sara 

Thanks Jalen. 

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