I stopped eating red meat and chicken when I was 13 solely because I wanted to sit at the vegetarian table at the hippie summer camp I attended. I never picked up the meat-eating habit again, and gradually became glad I had not as the benefits of a vegetarian diet on our imperiled climate became increasingly known.
While not fully vegan, I’ve become increasingly so in the last few years, largely thanks to a close friend who launched a vegan food business (I’d always suspected I’d have an easier time eating vegan if someone else would shoulder the cooking). That friend, Hannah Levbarg, went vegan (as did her husband) after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and learned about the benefits of a whole-food plant-based diet. Shortly thereafter, in 2018, a study from Oxford University researchers provided extensive data showing the positive environmental impact people could have by eschewing meat and dairy.
“It made a lot of headlines, and we just looked at each other and said, ‘well, we should have done this 10 years ago, or at the beginning of our lives, but at least we’ve done it now,’” she says.
An accomplished cook, Levbarg immediately saw a gap in the Santa Fe vegan restaurant sector and began hatching the idea for her business Liberty Gourmand (libertygourmand.com), participating in the 2019 BizMIX cohort, while continuing to work full time in real estate. She launched in earnest six months ago, and now offers pop-up vegan breakfasts, pre-fixe gourmet suppers and a standing pantry where people can order vegan cheeses, burgers, desserts and more.
“I never would have wanted to start a restaurant or food business before this, much as I love cooking,” Levbarg says, “but the pressing nature of what we’re facing really kind of…forced my hand with regard to feeling that I don’t have any ethical option but to try to throw everything I personally can at getting as many animals off as many plates as possible.”
Personal and global concerns also spurred Ron Edwards, whose business, Focus Advertising Specialties, recently launched the product EMERGENCY-P, a unisex portable urinal, from its Environmentally Sane Solutions division (environmentallysanesolutions.com). A Marine veteran, Edwards also was diagnosed with MS, in 2006 and, by 2017 was having a difficult time with mobility and sometimes reaching a bathroom in time. The product, Edwards says, is made from both biodegradable and recyclable materials. Initially, Edwards says he was thinking of his peers—other veterans with mobility issues who might need a bathroom alternative—but the product’s broader appeal soon became evident. The environment was never far from his mind, particularly water, he says. As far back as 1992, when he was living in Tucson, Arizona, Edwards was thinking about how much water could be saved if people flushed toilets less frequently.
Bee Wild Outside founder Alexandra Merlino also brought longstanding environmental concerns coupled with her own skin cancer diagnosis to her quest to create an eco-friendly mineral sunscreen with zero-waste packaging (beewildoutside.com). A self-described “solutions-based entrepreneur,” Merlino says “the environment and conservation has always been close to me. And it’s becoming more and more important.”
As executive director of the nonprofit Partnership for Responsible Business, Merlino also works to “identify businesses that are interested in being stewards and vocal advocates,” she says. “The business voice is so important in conservation issues.”
Bee Wild Outside (launching soon) placed first in one of benefit corporation Santa Fe Innovates’ idea pitch competitions last year. Santa Fe Innovates founder Jon Mertz says he’s seen an increasing focus on sustainability from startups over the last several years— one likely to grow under the newly formed Center for Responsible Entrepreneurship, a collaboration between Santa Fe Innovates, University of New Mexico’s Anderson School of Management and the City of Santa Fe.
“Generationally, there’s definitely more desire to see businesses start up and otherwise be a force for good, whether that’s in some social issues or environmental issues,” Mertz says. Sometimes, those business ideas grow out of personal experiences by the entrepreneurs, he notes, but “then I think there’s…awareness of what’s happening to our climate” and regardless of which generation, people are “waking up to the fact that…if we want to leave a better legacy, we need to start doing something more positive to our planet.”
Glenn Schiffbauer, executive director for the Santa Fe Green Chamber of Commerce, says that rising awareness is reflected across a gamut of businesses initiatives, from uptake of the chamber’s water conservation program, to the rising interest in companies adopting benefit corporation status to what he anticipates as an increase in renewable energy companies as the state transitions away from reliance on oil and gas.
A decade ago, he says, “there was a much louder climate denier voice. They kind of went away quietly, because now you see the wildfires…and the flooding, and the intensity of storms and the rivers drying up.” That’s changed the conversation, he adds, from people “talking about how we’re going to see climate change,” to “people realizing the climate has already changed.”
Economic & Community Development Director Rich Brown says he anticipates “Santa Fe in the near future will be a leader in the focus around sustainability and how it ties into economic development,” largely “because we understand that we’re an outdoor city, we understand that water is of importance to us, and we understand that we have a social responsibility.”
That connection between the outdoors and the environment also drives much of the work of the state’s Outdoor Recreation Division, which next month will host its Adventure Pitch competition at the Outdoor Economics Conference in Taos for startups whose “core offering” includes outdoor recreation, environment and/or health and wellness (Merlino was a finalist in last year’s pitch). In a statement provided to SFR, ORD Deputy Director Alyssa Renwick described conservation as one of the department’s “core values,” noting that “building the outdoor recreation economy of New Mexico requires first protecting the very places and spaces the industry relies upon…We see businesses responding to climate change and working to protect the environment in the state in a variety of ways” from “changing business practices towards furthering sustainability to advocating for protections and conservation policies within the state.”