Buying Into "Impossible" Dreams

I recently returned from an amazing and inspiring week at Costa Rica's EARTH University, which supplies bananas and other produce to Whole Foods Market (Nasdaq: WFM  ) . The experience reminded me that if you want to change the future, you've got to buy into the dream -- and get to work. Nothing is impossible.

A little more than 20 years ago, EARTH University obtained its patch of land in the humid tropical rainforest in Guacimo, a rural town on Costa Rica's eastern coast. An environmental organization planted some dream-busting seeds when it dismissed the idea that EARTH University could transform an existing banana plantation on the grounds into a sustainable, ecologically friendly operation. It recommended the plantation be shut down.

But guess what? Today, EARTH University is running a sustainable banana plantation that's helped revolutionize the industry.

Revolutionizing bananas 101
During five days as an EARTH U "student," I learned how the university's banana plantation challenged "business as usual" in the industry.

Reducing waste: EARTH University transforms organic waste into fertilizer and recycles the plastic bags and rope it uses in farming. Here's my favorite part: Refuse from banana harvesting that normally would have been thrown away, causing environmental problems, is now transformed into banana paper, my new favorite thing. (Writers love paper.)

Biodiversity: EARTH University has protected biodiversity by switching from the conventional banana farming's monoculture method to one that allows for a more natural approach in the field, allowing grass and other vegetation to grow and create nutrient-rich soil. It has also worked on reforestation near rivers, eliminating herbicides and using organically treated blue bags to protect the bananas without dousing the entire environment.

Conservation: EARTH University has worked to conserve water and soil by using ground covering in ditches, reusing the water in its banana packing plant, and catching waste byproducts to be reused as fertilizer.

The fact that EARTH University made these changes has catalyzed change in the banana in the decades since the school's inception. Big banana companies Dole (Nasdaq: DOLE  ) and Chiquita Brands (NYSE: CQB  ) have been changing their ways over time. Take a trip to your conventional grocery store, and you'll find organic Dole and Chiquita bananas.

Some EARTH University students have gone on to work at these companies and share their knowledge. Plus, EARTH University's real-world proof that implementing organic, sustainable, and more worker-friendly methods for banana farming actually wasn't impossible inspired many changes, too. Suddenly the landscape changed from "business as usual" to a living, breathing example of the "impossible" dream.

Embrace the possibilities
Once one really buys into predictions that some dreams are impossible, failure may be inevitable. It's a negative way to think, and we should all try to avoid it.

Interestingly, Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL  ) has recently come under fire for unpleasantness in its supply chain. Steve Jobs was once quoted saying many electronics manufacturing jobs would never come back to America, and one has to wonder how much of that relates to the "costly" worker standards here in the U.S. To hear Jobs, who often inspired his employees to do the impossible in the early days of the Apple business, call any feat impossible is a big disappointment.

Apple has recently started making steps in the right direction as far as its supply chain goes, but maybe it can once again pull off the -- well, you know -- by bringing back more domestic jobs and ensuring better working conditions for its suppliers' workers across the globe.

On the corporate governance level, several years ago many people would have said that changing the way corporate managements behave through shareholder action and voting was "impossible." If you don't like corporate managements' behavior, then sell your shares; managements can take your money, but why would they listen to a word you say?

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that investors' say-on-pay votes are already bearing fruit. Beazer Homes (NYSE: BZH  ) and Jacobs Engineering Group both suffered embarrassing defeats on say-on-pay last year, and both companies have now unveiled executive pay packages that are better aligned with performance this year and have been supported by a majority of investors. It's no time to give up; we've just gotten started.

Buying and selling the dream
When I sat down and spoke with EARTH University's president, Dr. Jose Zaglul, he said, "We as human beings have the capacity to understand the problem and make the change. ... We told the environmental team we appreciated their advice, but we were going to try to make [the banana plantation] sustainable."

Not only did EARTH University try, but it succeeded. Its banana plantation also contributes a commercial element to the university; its arrangement with Whole Foods has given it a stable, honest partner through which it can sell bananas at fair prices, and a portion of the money Whole Foods customers spend on EARTH-branded bananas goes back to the school.

Speaking of dreams, EARTH University provides agricultural and sustainability education to students from more than 25 countries. About 71% of them are from rural communities. These young men and women can go back to their home countries with a hands-on education and the power to help their fellow citizens' hopes for better lives and robust, responsible economies become reality.

Dr. Zaglul was quick to point out: "It's not about selling a banana. It's about selling a dream." As investors, consumers, and human beings, we should all dream big and do what we can, big or small, to buy into the dreams for positive change.

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Check back at Fool.com every Wednesday and Friday for Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.

Alyce Lomax owns shares of Whole Foods Market. The Motley Fool owns shares of Whole Foods Market and Apple. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Whole Foods Market and Apple, as well as creating a bull call spread position in Apple. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.


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Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On March 01, 2012, at 6:23 PM, DJDynamicNC wrote:

    "About 71% of them are from rural communities. These young men and women can go back to their home countries with a hands-on education and the power to help their fellow citizens' hopes for better lives and robust, responsible economies become reality."

    This was the critical point, I think. The biggest gains to be had today are in developing countries and in particular in the rural agricultural sector. The reason people are lining up for jobs at Foxconn (which has literally worked its employees to death) is because archaic farming technology and techniques make peasant life even WORSE.

    Addressing that agricultural knowledge disparity is a great way to generate big gains in quality of life as well as sustainability.

  • Report this Comment On March 02, 2012, at 3:21 PM, TMFLomax wrote:

    DJDynamicNC, thanks as always for your comment, and this is an excellent point. I was told that there is definitely a need to give rural workers other options rather than crowding into cities, where there may be dangerous or difficult jobs, or jobs that they are not qualified to do, or not enough jobs... etc. Expanding opportunities in rural areas that allow people to stay is a huge deal with a lot of positive ramifications if you think about the big picture. Plus, of course, with burgeoning populations we all need to eat. It's about true sustainability on many levels, I think.

    Alyce

  • Report this Comment On March 02, 2012, at 4:13 PM, DJDynamicNC wrote:

    I think city overcrowding is largely a function of underdeveloped infrastructure (which is itself a function of underdeveloped economies). A city with sufficient infrastructure can handle huge crowds with far greater efficiency and far lower environmental impact than rural life, which makes moving most people into cities a net positive in the long run.

    But the transition period is difficult - as cities improve and offer jobs (ala Foxconn) that are improvements over undeveloped rural life, the population can explode far beyond what already-insufficient infrastructure can bear, making improvements even more difficult to make. So a program like this can pull double duty, in making rural life more sustainable and attractive while also building a firmer economic base for the attendant cities to draw from for infrastructure development.

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