What she did
In 2013, Danielle Vogel opened a grocery store in Washington, DC with climate sustainability as her bottom line. In doing so, she may have set a new standard for corporate social responsibility and personal accountability that members of the Business Roundtable may be hard-pressed to emulate.
Danielle Vogel had spent 10 years in the nation’s capital working on climate change issues. As an attorney working for Senator Joe Lieberman in 2010, she helped craft the American Power Act, legislation that promoted a cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It “failed big time,” according to Vogel. Frustrated by the lack of will in Congress to take action on this vital problem, she decided she needed to switch direction.
“I had to find a way to continue making progress while large-scale legislative change was impossible,” she recalled thinking at the time. So, naturally, she started Glen’s Garden Market, a grocery store in DC that made climate change progress its mission.
“Never has there been a grocery store founded specifically to make climate change progress.”
– Danielle Vogel, founder, Glen’s Garden Market in Washington, DC
The grocery business is, almost literally, a part of Vogel’s DNA. Her maternal grandfather started the grocery chain, Pathmark. Her paternal great-grandfather started Shopwell, and her father started Food Emporium, which focused more on premium quality foods and a more upscale market. All three chains were regular stops for millions of grocery shoppers in the northeast for most of the last century.
With this heritage, Vogel pivoted from drafting legislation to market research and designing her store for the opening of Glen’s Garden Market on Earth Day, 2013. Her bottom line: “making progress one bite at a time.”
Vogel makes sure that every decision in creating Glen’s Garden Market centers on what its impact would be on the world’s climate. All of the wood on the walls and in the bar was reclaimed from old fencing for cattle, and the electricity used to power the store has always come from carbon-free alternative energies, despite their additional expense. After originally committing to wind power when the store first opened, she has since switched to solar as alternative energy sources have become more accessible.
Of her commitment to these other more costly energy sources, Vogel says, “I consciously made a decision against my business interests because it is consistent with our value set.” What she did, in fact, is redefine the notion of “business interests” by incorporating environmental costs into her calculations and making it the centerpiece of company culture. She was seven years ahead of the Business Roundtable, an association of CEOs from major corporations that dramatically updated its statement of purpose in August to explicitly state support for sustainability.
With only a handful of exceptions, Vogel stocks her stores with locally produced goods specifically to reduce emissions from long-haul transportation and refrigeration. Those exceptions highlight the lengths to which Vogel will go in order to stick to her principles.
“We used to have a rule that, if we had to make an exception to all local sourcing, I had to personally put the product on the shelf. I wanted to feel every compromise,” Vogel explained with a wry laugh. “The first time we did it was 72 hours after we opened.”
What was the product that she put on the shelf just three days in? Orange juice, not exactly the kind of product to originate within the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, which defines the local boundaries for the store. Vogel had come up against a reality of the grocery business – that her store wouldn’t last long if no one would do their grocery shop there. Some products, irrespective of their cost, bring people in the door more than others.
More recently, Vogel added bananas and avocados to her produce section for the same reason – they bring customers in the door. They were the first non-indigenous items to break the local-produce-only barrier. This time, she did far more than just put the bananas on the shelf herself. Vogel worked with a student at George Washington University, who for his capstone project, calculated the incremental transportation emissions impact of bringing those items to the store. She took that number to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to find out how many trees she would need to plant in order to offset the environmental cost.
Through a contribution to the Foundation, Glen’s planted 5000 trees along the banks of the Chesapeake Bay in order to offset the store’s produce-related carbon emissions and to reduce non-point-source pollution flowing into the water.
Despite her unrelenting commitment to environmental stewardship, profit remains the end goal of her business plan. She says the store barely made it through 2017, surviving on “grit, sheer force of might and personal funding.” She also cut her payroll by a quarter of a million dollars by not filling senior positions as her original brain trust left to switch careers or pursue other opportunities. Of course, this means that she now does five jobs instead of one. That’s where the grit comes in, such is the life of an entrepreneur.
But this year, for the first time in seven years of operation, she cautiously expects the store to turn a modest profit.
And she’s not done. After several years on the speaking circuit, including a TED talk, Vogel started a podcast to carry the message of Glen’s Garden Market to a wider audience. On Everyday Enviro, she talks with friends, colleagues, and supporters about eating, drinking, and shopping sustainably, and offers her listeners simple ways they can minimize their carbon footprint.
Since starting her business, she has helped to launch 89 local food producers by giving them their first retail shelf space and investing in them at critical times in their growth. She has also started an annual business pitch competition for local food start-ups.
Vogel is quite literally building a supportive culture around her store and its commitment to environmental sustainability. She’s proving that such relentless commitment to mission makes for good business.
Reflecting on her lessons learned, she offered these words of wisdom: “Any little bit counts. You’re not necessarily going to make every single decision through the lens of being climate change motivated. It’s frankly an absolutely crazy way to try to do business. But the incremental pieces really do add up.”
Danielle Vogel, interviews with George Linzer, Dec 27, 2016 and Oct 7, 2019
Melissa Kvidahl Reilly, “Danielle Vogel brings purpose to Glen’s Garden Market”, New Hope Network, Sep 2, 2018, https://www.newhope.com/people-and-company-profiles/danielle-vogel-brings-purpose-glen-s-garden-market, accessed Jan 10, 2019
Perry Stein, “A grocer raised its prices so it could increase workers’ wages. Are customers willing to pay?”, Washington Post, Dec 2, 2016, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/a-grocer-raised-its-prices-so-it-could-increase-workers-wages-are-customers-willing-to-pay/2016/12/02/afa59c50-addc-11e6-a31b-4b6397e625d0_story.html, accessed Jan 6, 2017
Small Businesses for Good, The Atlantic Small Business Forum, Dec 1, 2016, https://youtu.be/IyfVSh4wGok?list=PLwj46yNDLyTUNDZTfJH4MnMQlfoc1uMV6, accessed January 6, 2017
Lily Oswald, “Change Makers: Danielle Vogel, Leveraging the past to Create a More Sustainable Future”, Maria’s Farm Country Kitchen, Mar 2, 2015, http://www.mariasfarmcountrykitchen.com/change-makers-danielle-vogel/, accessed Jan 6, 2017
Making Progress One Bite at a Time: Danielle Vogel at TEDxGCDS, TEDx Youth, Apr 6, 2014, https://youtu.be/jHqY5ReITqA, accessed January 6, 2017
Tim Carman, “The Market Trying Hard Not to Sell Out”, Washington Post, Apr 16, 2013, https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/food/the-market-trying-hard-not-to-sell-out/2013/04/15/77007b26-9b21-11e2-9a79-eb5280c81c63_story.html, accessed Jan 6, 2017