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The Street Meets Sustainability, Green Home Profiles: One Earth Designs

Posted on July 3, 2015 by Jeanne Roberts There have been 0 comments

What do you get when you pull together a B Corp mindset and a space-age technology for Tibetan nomads?

You get the SolSource solar cooker, or grill, an innovation from One Earth Designs (OED).

This sleek, streamlined, parabolic-dish cooking device had its start in the Tibetan highlands. There, Catlin Powers and a few like-minded people decided to build cooking units that would eliminate the almost lethal levels of smoke inside Tibetan dwellings. At times, these levels – and the buildup of carbon monoxide – were so high they would have sent Westerners to the nearest hospital.

But not just any cooking unit. The parabolic dish solar cooker, replicated on a giant scale in utility-grade solar energy, is cutting-edge. There is no danger of imminent obsolescence, as is the case with so many of today’s expensive electronics.

And not just your average business model. OED’s SolSource enterprise is based on sustainability, an extension of environmentalism which suggests that not only Nature, but also humans (and their disparate cultures and shared heritage), must be preserved for the future.

The B Corp model is also the kinder and gentler world after corporatism falls on its ugly face. As Powers, OED’s co-founder and CEO, notes elsewhere:

“The cost of progress need not include the cost to human health or species persistence. In fact, real progress moves forward on both fronts; earth’s inhabitants and earth’s ecologies. This model is what informs the decisions of our team each and every day. “

One Earth Designs, the first B Corp in China, ventured out into the world as a non-profit in 2009. It was not your typical startup. The team was comprised “almost entirely” of Tibetan nomads, led by Powers and Scot Frank, an engineer working with Tibetan youngsters to improve living conditions via sustainable methodologies.

For a while, all worked out of the same tent, but in order to gain access to much-needed Internet and phone hubs, the 15-member team moved to a 250-square-foot apartment in the nearby provincial capital. All slept on the floor, in sleeping bags and the like. The nearest shower was two miles distant.

“We really got to know each other well.” Powers adds with a chuckle. Bear in mind this is a Harvard-educated, full-fledged Ph.D. (Science) who also understands the concept of cross-market arbitrage.

The team grew organically as interested individuals, committed to OED’s business model, joined in one capacity or other. Archie, a superb engineer who had become something of a local legend, was pulled out of retirement. Reluctantly no doubt, since he was living on an island in the South China Sea and teaching windsurfing.

In 2013, OED took the Kickstarter leap of faith. Around this time, the team also relocated to Southern China, vetting hundreds of factories to find one with a good sense of social and environmental responsibility.

“It’s never been about the money. But in order to continue to make and market the solar cookers, we knew we had to do more than break even.”

That arrangement continues to this day, with the newest team members in Norway helping to address the rising European demand for SolSource cookers. The company now consists of 37 individuals.

The SolSource unit itself sells for $549. Peripherals like a grill pan and cover are equally affordable. If you are an indigenous tribesperson living in Tibet, however, the cost is an even easier burden to take on. There, where people may not see a single coin for a year or more (because commerce is based on barter), the cost of the unit may be tied to the cost of getting fuel – and then discounted so that savings are readily evident.

“In Haiti, for example, we identify how much people are spending per month for fuel, and then we try to ‘peg’ payments so that people are paying just a little bit less.”

So what does the team take as payment if there is no money?

“We’ve taken barter,” Powers explains. “Including caterpillar fungus, which has actually allowed us to show a profit. But barley and yak butter are also acceptable.”

Today, the price you pay for SolSource – in dollars, pounds, and the like – actually helps fund selling the “world’s most efficient” solar cooker in developing countries. There, people facing serious indoor air pollution and/or fuel scarcity are seeing their lives enormously improved.

Fortunately, improvements won’t stop at eliminating cooking smoke or making fuel optional. According to Powers, SolSource will roll out another design phase this fall. Incorporating a solar energy storage battery, SolSource 2.0 – for lack of a better name – will launch via another Kickstarter campaign, this one designed to offset the cost of setting up the battery production line. The battery itself will likely become available in the spring or summer of 2016.

No one is going to “make out like a bandit”, however, even though this seems to be the typical Wall Street IPO model. Because OED is not your typical company. It is not about CEOs and CFOs, golden parachutes, or government bailouts. Many of the employees are volunteer: others draw only a small salary. Profits are reinvested to drive down the cost of R&D or manufacturing. Traditional titles are maintained to give the business a public face, but internally the team operates in a very ‘lateral’ fashion (Power’s word), and each member is held accountable for his or her particular function.

“It has to do with beliefs.” Powers emphasizes.

One of those beliefs is togetherness. In order to keep both the team and team-member families together, the company adopted Asana, a Google virtual-office application. Their profit model also mimics Apple. The SolSource solar cooker sells for a single price, or MSRP, coupled with a variety of payment methods and structures that make the unit affordable in both emerging and developed markets.

Retailers in developing nations, however, still have trouble finding the money to pay for an entire shipping container – the smallest amount available. In such cases, Powers and her team have been experimenting working with foundations, local investors, and local non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, to fund shipments and create payment schedules that allow payments over time as the individual units are sold.

If that isn't a definition for altruism, we don’t know what is.


This post was posted in Blog and Green Library, Politically Green, The Air We Breathe, Your Green Business and was tagged with carbon monoxide, cooking smoke, indoor air pollution, One Earth Designs, parabolic dish, Sol Source, solar cooker, solar energy storage, sustainability

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