Photo courtesy of Nora Camps of DUO Strategy and Design Inc.

Sustainable design is often narrowly construed as only the environmentally conscious design of objects. Broader considerations for what design can be should also embrace services, experiences and even behaviors. But it takes a large leap to get people to see examples of sustainable design beyond the typical re-usable shopping bags or vegan burritos.

“Sustainable design” can be applied to a variety of human endeavors when “design thinking” is considered. Designer and Stanford professor David Kelley defines design thinking as “the ability to combine empathy for the context of a problem, creativity in the generation of insights and solutions, and rationality to analyze and fit solutions to the context.” It implies a deeper and richer analysis of contexts and a concerted understanding of temporality and consequences.

Businesses identifying themselves as “sustainable” often focus on easy measurable targets like waste reduction or recycling, but do not see sustainability as a holistic and systematic approach that requires more complex thinking. While “smart growth,” “triple bottom lines” and “environmental stewardship” pepper corporate mission statements, most of this hubris never amounts to much more than corporate window dressing in annual reports. This is where Southbrook Vineyards and Monforte Dairy are quite different.

These two Ontario businesses are using design thinking and sustainable design theories and practices to demonstrate how sustainable design can reach beyond the world of things to positively affect the planet and their bottom lines.

Southbrook Vineyards in Niagara-on-the Lake, Ontario, and Monforte Dairy in Stratford, Ontario, offer two very particular examples for how to design and maintain sustainable businesses using old world methods combined with contemporary design thinking. From applying the principles and practices of biodynamics (in Southbrook’s case) to resisting GMOs and supporting a local closed-loop network of interdependent business partners (in Monforte’s case), both companies show how sustainable farming and innovative business practices can combine to produce higher quality products.

Southbrook Vineyards

Southbrook Vineyards
Photo courtesy of Southbrook Vineyards

Culture is an inherent part of wine production and consumption, but industrial farming methods ignore much of the innate and historical cultural aspects of viticulture. To address this, Southbrook Vineyards uses the old school method of biodynamics to make its wine. Southbrook’s efforts go far beyond conventional norms, and the vineyards’ overall approach to viticulture is centered on maintaining the vitality of the soil itself as the driver of decisions.

Southbrook Vineyards biodynamics
All required resources are produced on the farm.

Biodynamics is “a spiritual-ethical-ecological approach to agriculture, food production and nutrition.” With this approach, the manure produced on the farm, the flowers, the compost and all other byproducts are viewed as integral to a larger system of nourishment, which is focused on preserving the quality of the soil as a living organism. The concept owes it legacy to Austrian scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner, who also gave us the Waldorf education system and evolved many other theories about how people and nature were meant to live in a symbiotic relationship.

Southbrook utilizes the biodynamic “assemblage” approach to planting vines, placing different varieties of vines together alongside other plant species to allow the intermingling of flavours and to relax demands on the soil.

Monforte Dairy

Stratford, Ontario’s Monforte Dairy is another example of an innovative sustainable Canadian business based on strong sustainable design principles. Monforte’s primary sustainability focus is in its adherence to the principle of interdependence. Interdependence describes relationships in which members of a group are mutually dependent on others and these relationships can be extended to include emotional, economic, ecological and even moral forms of reliance.

Monforte’s approach to cheese making was also shaped by several pre-existing historical farming policies. The impact of the Milk Act of 1965 to regulate prices and limit international competition and the resulting Milk Quota created a de facto monopoly for established dairy farms and made starting and running small dairy farms difficult.

However, sheep, goat and buffalo milk were entirely omitted from the Milk Quota, giving Monforte its initial key ingredients as well as the fodder to build its business. Many of Monforte’s artisanal cheeses use non-cow dairy products such as goat’s milk and sheep’s milk, which are exempt from the Quota’s authority. Monforte was able to make its artisanal cheeses using only small local dairy farms as a result of this gap in policy, and in turn support farms that could raise dairy cows too, but in smaller numbers and under better conditions.

Monforte is simply using a page from nature’s design playbook.

Monforte’s founder, Ruth Klahsen, recognized that an interdependent relationship with local farmers would not only give her the best quality raw materials, but it would also allow Monforte to connect with the local community and develop personal ties that would encourage trust and interdependence among all of the partners involved. Additionally, this community of small local farms would also be able to pasture animals, not feed them GMOs and effectively and sincerely care for their animals.  

Interdependence is a design principle seen in nature when species co-develop needs and byproducts to create natural bonds that encourage co-survival. Plankton depend on coral for protection, while coral depend on plankton for energy. Sea anemones provide shelter along with food for clownfish, while clownfish help provide water circulation for the anemones. Monforte is simply using a page from nature’s design playbook.

Both Southbrook Vineyards and Monforte Dairy’s founders seem to have conceived of their businesses as living organisms that exist as part of a much larger system, which is a great application of design thinking – the power of metaphor and narrative. Structured narratives and community-based approaches are not just bottom line strategies intended for greater profits and limitless growth, but significant shifts in industry histories. These richly contextual businesses may even ultimately transform their industries to be more sustainable in the long run. It is unsurprising to me that the ghosts of Steiner’s design theories and timeless design strategies such as borrowing principles from nature would form the blueprints for these two successful and admirable businesses. 

Eric Nay is an architect, designer, artist and a professor at OCAD University. His blog, Made in Canada, profiles examples of Canadian design innovation, including sustainable buildings and design, craft practices and innovative businesses across the country.

Miriam and Christopher are students at the Ontario College of Art & Design.

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