Some Thoughts at the Barstool of Sustainability

Some Thoughts at the Barstool of Sustainability;

The Growth of a Good Idea

In October of 2013, I was privileged to pull up a barstool at New Belgium Brewery, in Fort Collins, CO, to contemplate sustainability.   The discussion and brewery tour were conducted for Naropa University graduate students (and me, their professor) by New Belgium’s Sustainability Specialist, Katie Wallace.   Our class was inspired by the visit and often referred back to what we had learned and experienced.  It’s been awhile since that fieldtrip, but New Belgium continues to bubble up in my mind.   It represents an excellent and unique opportunity to consider the traditional benchmarks of sustainability and also to delve into a larger, systemic aspect of sustainability that does not receive enough attention.

So, grab a beer, pull up your own barstool and sidle up to this metaphoric bar of ideas.  Make yourself comfortable and be aware of how that stool feels underneath you.  The image of a three-legged stool is often used to portray the concept of sustainability.   The legs symbolize the need for healthy people, a healthy economy and a healthy environment and are sometimes labeled “people, profit and planet.”   If all three legs are sturdy, then a community, business or nation might be considered “sustainable.”   Take away or weaken even one leg and . . . well, you know what happens.

The good folks at New Belgium Brewery are intensely aware of this model and devote a lot of time, money and personal energy to intentionally creating a company that is good for people, planet and profit.    Check out their website to get a sense of the wide range of sustainability work in which they engage.

I find New Belgium especially impressive in how they address the “people leg” of sustainability.  The company is 100% employee owned and is a safe, friendly and beautiful place to work where employees co-envision and co-create their own benefits and incentives for making their jobs satisfying and productive.  Katie Wallace stresses the fundamental importance of creating a rich and nourishing work environment for people.  She describes her own work as enjoyable, playful and fun, and greatly values the autonomy she is entrusted with.  Because she also values developing interests outside of work, she proposed and brought to fruition a shared job description that allows her to pursue other passions 3 months of the year!  Now, she and fellow sustainability specialist, Alie Rich, contribute to New Belgium in a flexible manner that both appreciate and enjoy.

Katie talks with pride about the innovative solutions that New Belgium employees find for various challenges, saying “whenever humans are engaged and honored in the broadest terms, the potential for success is huge.”  With this kind of creative approach, it is no surprise that New Belgium also produces great beer and is well-rewarded monetarily for their efforts.  In 2012, New Belgium’s revenues were $179.6 million, up from $127.6 million in 2009!   The “people leg” and “profits leg” of this stool are solid and inspiring.

The people at New Belgium devote much of their personal creativity and profit to the “planet leg” of the sustainability stool.  Whether it be conservation measures, the purchase of wind energy, the 200kW solar electricity system or their own “internal energy tax” with which they continue to fund new improvements, their work in environmental sustainability is truly remarkable.  I found their Process Water Treatment Plant (PWTP) a particularly interesting example.  This system cleans their wastewater and captures methane in the process to fire a 292kW combined heat and power engine that supplies up to 15% of their electricity needs!.  New Belgium works with the City of Fort Collins, the U.S. Department of Energy and a variety of other partners to continually improve and hone their sustainability processes.

If you can’t tell, I’m a big fan of the folks at New Belgium Brewery.   Don’t just take my word on their accomplishments, though.  Check out the thousands (yes, thousands) of websites that review and comment on New Belgium’s sustainability work!  Sign up for a tour. The overall picture that emerges is one of great success and a real desire to make the world a better place!

Truthfully, although I’m glad to contribute my own praise, there is almost no need for this blog to this point.  Many of the aforementioned websites can provide more information than the lines I’ve written, above.   To me, though, a complete exploration of sustainability in the modern world must include the role and nature of growth.  Growth is an important part of the New Belgium story. The brewery is currently expanding its operations to Asheville, North Carolina and all indicators suggest that it will do as well in its new digs as where it started.  For now, at least, growth is a key and purposeful ingredient of their success.  Consider their look to the future as found on their website:

“We work every day to fulfill our purpose to operate a profitable brewery which makes our love and talent manifest. For the past 21+ years here in Fort Collins, Colorado, and in the future in Asheville, North Carolina, some key elements both lead to and indicate our success: our incredible culture, our strong growth rate, and our commitment to lessening our environmental impact even as we constantly add infrastructure for making more beer.”  (

Growth is a perfectly natural and healthy part of any system.  Life on Earth grows and dies, flows and ebbs, and business and commerce will always do the same.  Growth – even of some kinds of resources – is needed and good at some times.  Growth is usually seen as a strength in business; something that fortifies the “economy/profit leg.”  To the extent that the economic success helps employees and the community, growth can also shore up the “people leg.”  And, some make the case that the affluence created by growth enables a society to afford to protect land, enact and enforce environmental laws, thus, adding to the stability of the “environment/planet leg” as well.

There are many great examples of companies and communities doing laudable work in sustainability “at the barstool level” and New Belgium Brewery is among the best of them.  And, the kind of work conducive to healthier people, communities and planet that is done by New Belgium and many other conscientious companies needs to grow.   Absolutely!

But, it is also obvious that growth in the macro-sense of resource depletion and consumption rates has to be factored in somewhere.  The prospect of limitless growth and a system that bases its success on growth-for-growth’s-sake are untenable, and most people realize this at some level.  Growth for its own sake – especially because this most often means growth of resource extraction and consumption – is the driving force behind the unsustainability of human societies.  It is compromising and destroying living systems that support us and also the few remaining human cultures that do not equate constant growth with success.  Unfortunately, though, this assumption of limitless growth has become entangled with ideas of good, healthy growth.  The two are no more the same than normal growth of a body is equivalent to cancer, and yet they are often conflated or both assumed to be healthy. Thus, the need to address runaway growth proves to be an elusive and difficult element of sustainability.

The concept of limitless growth is not easily accounted for in our barstool simile, so permit me to expand the metaphor.  Our stool has to have three sturdy legs, and in certain circumstances, growth helps us strengthen these legs.  However, the legs have to support not only the stool’s seat, but also the weight of the person on top.  This is, ordinarily, not a problem for unless we become monstrously obese, most well-constructed barstools can accommodate the load.

The grossly-obese-stool-occupant analogy works for some companies, such as Enron and other juggernauts for which growth was or is the overwhelming aim, not just part of their business model.  These companies collapse on their own weight and the ripple effects of their demise is often substantial.   However, most successful companies today do not jeopardize themselves and their communities and countries in such blatant fashion.   Whether by providing needed or wanted services, acting in more responsible ways, or otherwise not making growth their absolute top criteria, they do good work for many people over long periods of time.

What then?  How do we properly model the negative effects of the ever-present need for growth?  OK – take a big swig for this one . . .   Perhaps we need to envision a larger stool that is situated atop all of us – an overarching barstool, atop which sits an enormous elephant!    Having made the idea of limitless growth the “elephant in the room,” we have effectively banished it to this seat of a colossal stool looming overhead.   Our actions – individually and collectively – add weight to the elephant and affect the legs supporting it.  Most everyone insists that the elephant continues to grow, but it’s mostly out of sight and out of mind.  We don’t often check in on stability of the situation or think much about how the actions of individuals and businesses affect that stability.

In our beer-aided discussion, we can temporarily suspend the taboo against looking too closely at this perilous state of affairs.   We are relaxed and in the moment.   We can joke about large, immovable objects, the Titanic and so forth.   But, even as we banter, boy does that elephant grow!  Total and per capita use of resources of all types is already beyond the capacity of Earth to sustain.  Consumption continues to rise in almost all corners of the globe, including in the United States where it is already the highest.  This is a crushing weight that only gets greater as our economies pursue growth as the main defining measure of success.  As the elephant blimps out, it is in our best interest to contemplate the existence and nature of this beast!

Now that we’ve come this far, here’s why New Belgium really intrigues me as a unique case-study.  As the brewery prepares to opens new doors in Ashville, it appears that its growth – like that of any responsible company – is in society’s best interest.  But New Belgium is also a company that takes pride in being – and benefits from its designation as – a “craft brewery.”   According to the Brewer’s Association, an American craft brewery is small, independent and traditional.  The definition of each attribute is interesting and can be found at  The requirement of “smallness” is of particular interest here, and to be considered a craft brewery, “annual production must be 6 million barrels of beer or less.”


New Belgium is not going to pass this limit anytime in the next few years.  In 2012, they sold 764,424 barrels of beer, which was up 16 percent from the previous year’s 712,843 barrels.   They are the 3rd largest craft brewery behind Boston Beer Company (which brews Sam Adams) at 2,215,000 barrels in 2012, and Sierra Nevada at 966,007 barrels that same year.  So, we can cheer and toast New Belgium (and probably many other craft breweries) for their good work, community mindedness, and attention to sustainability.   However, unless the definition of craft breweries is changed, then any given craft beer company can grow itself right out of this category.  Boston Beer Company, although leveling out in growth, is currently being scrutinized as to whether it is staying true to the spirit of a craft brewery (see website A).  As a company grows, does it reach some point at which the original values it held are compromised or harder to maintain?   Also, beer brewing is inherently a very energy and water intensive operation (see website B), so every brewery contributes its own share to feeding the elephant.  And, with regards to the relative environmental impacts per unit of beer produced, the big companies can have less impact because of their economies of scale (see website C).   The question of scale and of further growth cannot be avoided, even for this small part of one industry (craft breweries take home over 10% of beer sales in the U.S.).

Some do not question the matter of economic growth as a threat to the environment or sustainability.  But, it is incumbent upon those who do to pay close attention.  In my own estimation, addressing the societal narrative of growth-for-growth’s sake is, perhaps, the most important sustainability challenge of our time.  Under current conditions, it is very difficult for businesses, cities and countries to seek alternatives to the existing narrative, especially on their own.    As in raising children, it may “take a village.”  Can business owners, think tanks, universities and everyday citizens open up a conversation about how we can envision and create systems that do not require constant growth for success?  Can we find and emulate models of successful businesses and other institutions that grow at some times, not at others, perhaps even shrink occasionally while still providing great places for people to work, to stay employed, to produce good things and services for society?  These are questions worthy of barstool conversations and beyond – discourse at all levels and all places.  (For more thoughts on the pros and cons of growth and on alternatives to growth, see websites D and E, below.)

I close by circling back to the opening discussion on New Belgium Brewery.  I highlighted the “people leg” of New Belgium’s work in sustainability because that is where I think the greatest hope lies for finding ways to transcend the “growth for growth’s sake” narrative.  Just as New Belgium as a company, a community of people, needed to be able to trust Katie Wallace in moving ahead with an alternative employment arrangement she proposed, trust is the key ingredient between people at all levels to be able to find alternatives to the growth paradigm.  This is especially true during the initial transition phase away from this untenable way of doing business to new ways that work.  That’s worth hoisting a mug for – to toast a new path forward, to seal a promise of sincere exchange in determining that path.