Interview with Milkweed Mercantile founder Alline Anderson


Over at the Dancing Rabbit eco-village, the Milkweed Mercantile is showing how to turn a healthy profit without taking liberties with your environmental principles (as we recently reported). We’ve been lucky enough to chat to founder Alline Anderson – and here’s what she had to say about her business model, her seasonal routines and the concepts of “ecoluxe” and sustainability.

Ecosalon: What do you think are the dangers for anyone setting up an eco-friendly business using the traditional American business model?

Alline: To me, the traditional American business model, where bigger is better, really has no place in the eco-friendly business world. If a business is dependent upon constant growth, where do sustainability, re-use, and thoughtful consumption fit in? Can bigger really be sustainable? And how much is enough? Business leaders must be willing to stand up and say “we’re big enough, we don’t need total world domination, let’s focus on what we do, and do it well.”

Many eco-friendly businesses are crafting an exciting new business paradigm. We’re really excited here at the Mercantile to be creating a life where our work and play are closely intertwined. The café (when it opens) will be a place where the community gathers. We’ll purchase foodstuffs from our neighbors and from around the Midwest, encouraging more organic farming and food production. Additionally, our guests are kindred spirits who are interested in learning about our way of life, and how to encourage eco changes in their home communities. Like a pebble dropped in a pond, we hope the ripple effect reaches those who are ready and searching for what we have to offer.

It has been fascinating to watch “green” businesses become huge and successful only to sell out to big corporations. I find it very disappointing, but cannot begin to understand how overwhelming a large, successful business would be to run. I turn instead to the businesses involved in Co-op America and Social Venture Network. They are incredibly inspirational to me – most are dedicated to the Triple Bottom Line of People, Planet, Profit. If my staff and I can earn a living doing what we love, be respectful and take good care of each other, and contribute in a meaningful way to our community, well, that really feels like success to me.

You’re clearly a passionate advocate for using local, seasonal produce. In what ways can you see the seasons affecting the way the business runs?

Alline: My favorite topic! Here in Missouri there is a definite change of seasons. I’ve been studying wildcrafting  (the practice of harvesting uncultivated plants from their natural, or “wild” habitat), nosing through old Euell Givens and Edna Lewis books. The woods here on the Dancing Rabbit Land Trust are filled with edibles if one knows what to look for. This spring I experimented with violet jelly (tastes just like spring) and salads using the flowers and beautiful heart-shaped violet leaves. Hunting for morel mushrooms is like an accidental treasure hunt. This year, as a novice, I only found a single mushroom, yet the time spent traipsing about in the sun-dappled woods was lovely. We also have maple trees that we tap for syrup, which is a delight to pull out on a dark wintry morning. Summer has its own treats, as does fall. Just yesterday our neighbors brought some small native persimmons to dinner. I had never tasted anything like them – they were absolutely extraordinary. I look forward to working all of these into the Mercantile menu.

The birds here are also seasonal. In the spring the male goldfinches turn a blinding yellow, and the mornings are filled with the songs of randy cardinals, robins, and house wrens. There are bird nests all over the village, and we all keep track of when each batch of chicks fledge. We’re near enough to the Mississippi River that we see a lot of migrating geese, ducks, and swans overhead. It’s fun to be able to drop everything and run outside when we hear that honking sound in the distance, and marvel at the hundreds of birds flying by. One of our B&B rooms is called The Rachel Carson “Sense of Wonder” Room; I hope that we can share our sense of wonder with our guests.

Another goal is to introduce people to the joys of startlingly fresh local produce. Most of us, even if we were blindfolded and placed in a sensory deprivation tank, would be able to tell the difference between a tomato fresh from the garden and one from the grocery store, which was picked while not-quite-ripe and trucked without mercy across the country. Beyond tomatoes, there is a whole world of flavor out there that is waiting. For example, one of my favorite things to do is show friends what Brussels sprouts on the stalk look like – talk about beautiful! Then I have them taste some Brussels sprouts which have been roasted with a dollop of good olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt. We’re looking to change lives, attitudes and maybe even habits. Eating locally is one of the best things we can do for ourselves and for the planet.

In your own words, “sustainability is not about deprivation”. Do you think there is still a lot of prejudiced resistance to the “eco-luxe” concept of living (where top-quality living and eco-friendliness go hand in hand)?

Alline: I’m not sure I embrace the concept of eco-luxe. One can have an incredibly comfortable life and still be sustainable. Size and scale are really important considerations. How sustainable are $500 organic wool sweaters, 10,000 square foot houses (even if they’re powered with renewable energy) and single occupancy Priuses? How much more would each of us enjoy our lives if we could work one less day a week? We might not have as much money, but what really makes us happy? I am not advocating buying the cheapest stuff we can find – I believe it is our responsibility to be thoughtful, informed consumers. I fully support buying Fair Trade, Union, organic, socially-responsible products. But even green products come with a cost other than the price tag. I’d like to encourage people to think about what they are trading to have the newest, coolest, hottest items, green or not.

Designers in home and fashion are now promoting lots of eco fabrics and materials. I love that this is happening – I am excited by the shift from a petroleum-based system to one that utilizes more renewable materials. But I sometimes worry that the point is being missed. For example, if one has a perfectly serviceable kitchen, are you helping the earth or merely your ego by ripping out the floor and replacing it with eco-cool cork or bamboo? I fear that green may be perceived as a trend, only to be discarded when the next thing comes along. I’m hoping that we can help consumers understand the ideas and ethics behind sustainability, to learn to differentiate green from green-washing, and to evaluate the difference from true need and superficial want.

In some circles the idea of sustainability still carries a perception of a “granola eating, Grateful Dead listening, Birkenstock wearing, kumbaya singing” lifestyle. Fortunately that stereotype is quickly becoming outdated and we are all finding more common ground than we’re being led to believe exists. Parents who are concerned about the health of their families become ardent environmentalists, people of faith find correlations between their religions and earth stewardship, folks on a budget see the benefits of a simpler life. We each come to our own truths on our own paths. Which is as it should be – no one here at the Mercantile claims to hold the keys to an ecological life; we’re just enjoying the heck out of finding the answers.

Many thanks for your time, Alline – and we wish the Milkweed Mercantile all the success it deserves! You can learn more about supporting the Milkweed Mercantile here.

Image: Purple milkweed – by tlindenbaum

Mike Sowden

Mike Sowden is a freelance writer based in the north of England, obsessed with travel, storytelling and terrifyingly strong coffee. He has written for online & offline publications including Mashable, Matador Network and the San Francisco Chronicle, and his work has been linked to by Lonely Planet, World Hum and Lifehacker. If all the world is a stage, he keeps tripping over scenery & getting tangled in the curtain - but he's just fine with that.