Frequently Asked Questions

How was Sustainable Food Lab started?

Launched in 2004 as a non-profit organization, Sustainable Food Lab began as an ambitious initiative to take sustainability from niche to mainstream in major food supply chains around the world. The founding leadership group of thirty people came from three continents, and multiple businesses, nonprofits, and governments.

At the very first Food Lab workshop, then Unilever Chairman Antony Burgmans said that “We are frustrated that the changes we see are too slow. They are not delivering the kind of improvements that secure the resource base for the industry for the next 20 years. How can we generate faster change? We are intrigued about the possibility that this diverse group working together can create something at the ground level and deliver change at the top of the system.”

What’s the difference between hiring you for a service and becoming a member?

Our services are available for hire to organizations wanting to incorporate sustainability into their operating model. Our member organizations help support our mission to create a sustainable food system while benefiting from discounts on our services and closer access to our deep network of sustainability professionals and initiatives around the globe.

How can I get involved in a current project or start a new one?

Please contact us! We’re always busy, but we love new challenges. We work with individual organizations and multi-organizational partnerships. Our mission is to accelerate progress across the industry.

How do you support system leadership?

Part of our mission is to grow the number of people across the food system who have a profound commitment to the whole, who can see reality through the eyes of people very different from themselves, build relationships based on deep listening, and learn by doing. As system leadership grows, situations previously suffering from polarization and inertia become more open, and what were once seen as intractable problems become perceived as opportunities for innovation.

To learn more about System Leadership, read this article co-authored by one of the Food Lab’s co-founders, Hal Hamilton.

Why do you advocate for equitable benefit?

Ask any farmer what sustainability means and they will say it starts with their ability to make a living and reinvest in their farm. Most farmers take their role as stewards of the land very seriously. Without productive land, they will not be able to continue to operate. Living income is more than a wage issue. It’s about the well-being and resilience of entire communities in the food system. The whole food industry depends upon farmers, farm communities, and the agricultural landscape.

Why are you called Sustainable Food Lab?

Our origin lies in our founders’ work on “leadership lab” methods within the MIT Society of Organizational Learning, and our core assumption is that effective leadership is shared and diverse. When individuals or organizations try to tackle complex issues on their own, they are often limited by their siloed views. We intentionally included the word “lab” in our name because the space we create invites experimentation, new ideas and adjusting our approach as we learn more together. By engaging with Sustainable Food Lab, partners don’t just have access to our experts but to our network of others doing critical work on the ground. Together, we address sustainability challenges with a holistic systems approach.

What is systems thinking and how can it be applied to sustainability in food?

In a way, system thinking is common sense. It’s not linear. For example, we know that our children behave the way they do because of a lot of different influences: our parenting, their friends, and whether they got a good night’s sleep. We also know that nobody wakes up in the morning intending to cause traffic jams or pollute a river, yet traffic jams and polluted rivers are all around us because of thousands of things that people do. System thinking helps us sort out causation so we can figure out what to do to solve a problem. The more complex a problem, the more we need tools for system thinking.

Applied to sustainability in food, system thinking is a discipline for understanding the enabling conditions that we need to create so that we achieve the results everyone wants, such as good farmer incomes, healthy soil, clean water, and biodiversity. Designing a shift in enabling conditions so we get desired results is why we learn to think in systems.

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