Melissa Garcia Lamarca is a fulltime worker member of Sustainability Solutions Group (SSG), a Canadian-based cooperative that consults with institutions on a range of environmental, economic, and social sustainability projects. Last month, we met up for lunch at what I thought was an eco-friendly café in Montreal. 

“Salmon is not a great option. Fish farming has huge impacts and wild stocks are being quickly depleted,” Melissa said. “I had a portion earlier this week, so that’s out of the question. I’ll probably have the veggie panini.” With an ecological footprint of 4.8 hectares in 2007 (more than twice what the Earth can support per person), she wasn’t about to increase her footprint on account of a lunch with me.

With an expert in sustainability as company, I quickly adjusted my calculations for what I would be having. We placed our orders and then launched into a 45 minute conversation on how SSG had grown from a consultancy firm billing CA$50,000 in 2005 to nearly CA$300,000 in 2007.

SSG sets a high standard for sustainability consulting firms. For one, it is worker owned and has a flat organizational structure. All decisions are made by consensus, or consensus minus one. There are no bosses and no managers. 

“We’ve been inspired by the concept of a balanced job complex,” Melissa explained. I asked what that meant. “All tasks are balanced for empowerment. Coop members share equally in the empowering work and the less empowering work.” Wow, I thought, that’s pretty cool. But does it work? Melissa responded that distributing tasks in this way can sometimes be less efficient than if each member specialized in an area of administrative support. Specialization, however, could quickly give way to hierarchy, and that would defeat the whole purpose of creating a democratic workplace. 

Early on, Melissa and her colleagues Yuill Herbert, Geneva Guerin, Lindsay Cole, and Karen Gorecki realized that they were entering a high compensation industry. They could charge clients market rates and compensate themselves with lavish salaries, or they could use the opportunity to develop a wealth redistribution program. 

With roots in activist communities across Canada, the coop members chose the second option. Ten percent of each new contract goes into the SSG Community Support Fund. Coop members then award solidarity or capacity grants to grassroots organizations working on social justice and environmental causes. In 2007, the group dispersed CA$28,334 in grants of this kind. 

All of SSG’s members are compensated at the rate of CA$25 per hour regardless of the contract type or scope. The difference between the $25 per hour and the full contract rate is divided among the Community Support Fund, administrative expenses, and compensation for non-billable and pro-bono services. In 2007, SSG used some of its surplus (that’s coop talk for profit) to launch several advocacy campaigns, including the award winning Count, Cut, and Compel campaign, a heuristic designed to update “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle” from the 1990s.

Like any well run firm, SSG has developed a range of indicators to gauge the success of its work. In listening to Melissa talk and in subsequent perusing of SSG’s annual reports, I was struck by the thoroughness with which SSG has converted a qualitative community-oriented mission into quantitative metrics for evaluation. 

In the section of their 2007 annual report devoted to “cooperation, collaboration, and community,” the group reports on progress made towards these goals in terms of:

  • Percent of revenue to community support fund
  • Percentage of project hours worked engaging more than one worker-member
  • Percent of collaborative projects with other individuals/firms
  • Percent of clients/allies responding that SSG’s work is making a positive difference

These indicators combined with metrics focused on the environmental impacts of SSG’s operations and worker satisfaction help to keep the group’s focus on leading meaningful and balanced lives and becoming a leading voice in the sustainability movement. 

Melissa and I ended our conversation by talking about the role of long-term strategic planning in building an organization. I asked if SSF had opted for a “plan and execute” approach. With policy documents on everything from “seven internal cooperative principles” to a “human resources strategy,” it seemed that the group was veering toward excessive bureaucratization, albeit without hierarchy. I put in my two cents for agile approaches to community process. 

“Our strategic planning and policies are only meant to define the broad targets and are by no means rigid and inflexible,” Melissa said. “We sometimes overlook important issues, and then have to adjust.” Melissa explained that SSG recently recognized it had no policy for maternity leave. “We had to move quickly, since one of our fulltime members was having a child in the coming months.” In response, SSG put together a generous policy that respected the group’s commitment to a healthy work-life balance.

With that, Melissa and I paid our bills at Café L’Entretien, unlocked our bicycles and headed back to work. My way home took me in a different direction. But lunch with Melissa convinced me that I needed to be on the same path toward environmental, economic, and social sustainability.

imagePeter Deitz is a micro-philanthropy consultant and the founder of Social Actions, a Web site that helps individuals and organizations use social media to plan, implement, and support peer-to-peer social change campaigns so that grassroots solutions to local and global problems can flourish. He also writes a blog about micro-philanthropy.