A Framework for Making Ethical Decisions

While 2020 was full of unfathomable challenges, hardship, and heartache, I believe it also presented us with an unprecedented opportunity to cut ties to old harmful ways, and to consider and adopt new healing ways of being. As we reflect on this past year and set our resolutions for 2021, I thought it could be useful to share how Pott Farms goes about trying to create a better tomorrow for everyone.

Since our inception, Pott Farms has been deliberately building an alternative to the status quo through careful decision-making that is rooted in our mission to be an ethical company. Justice is not a side project for Pott Farms. It's not an add-on to build community connections as a marketing strategy. It's not our social media image that we hide behind as we go about capitalism as usual. Our goals for improving social, economic and environmental justice are baked into the very fabric from which we are building our company.

Our strategy for achieving these goals is to design regenerative processes for all parts of our company. Regenerative systems establish and restore stability. You most often hear the term referred to as an approach to agriculture that uses biodiversity and healthy soils to empower strong ecosystems that do not rely on additional inputs to produce value. But regeneration is not just for agriculture. People can benefit from regenerative systems, from having balance restored and wellbeing maintained. The same is true for communities.

Regenerative systems establish and restore stability.

Permaculture principles[1] are one of the tools we use to guide our design process. The word itself derives from permanent-culture, which implies continuing stability. It is a system that equally values the wellbeing of others, our environment, and ourselves. These three "ethics" are kept in constant balance where the good of one is never sacrificed for the good of the other two.

Permaculture's core values are not new. This framework is simply a way to help achieve these values when used in social design and provides a methodology to creating systems that are:

  • Regenerative
  • Self-sustaining
  • Productive
  • Resilient
  • Fair

Permaculture is a way to think about whole systems that is informed by these three ethics and is a philosophy that can be applied to any decision you need to make. There are 12 principles that can guide your thinking on whether a decision can help you realize these three ethics. Here they are with some examples of how Pott Farms is using each in creating our systems.

12 Permaculture Principles

Observe and interact: This is always our first step. We do our best to fully understand all perspectives of an issue before deciding our course of action. On a macro-scale, our leadership teams' previous careers studying and providing social services to vulnerable populations is the foundational understanding from which we are creating a kind company.

Catch and store energy: Our long view is to have a farm that relies completely on renewable energy sources, and we are starting with relying on the natural growing season and sunshine to produce our hemp. This principle also relates to self-care, which is something we take seriously. Our company culture creates opportunities for interactions that restore our spirits instead of depleting our personal energy.

Obtain a yield: This principle speaks to both material and spiritual gains. One example of this principle at work is our choice to be a for-profit company with a social justice mission. We believe we can simultaneously produce stability for ourselves while also providing it for others. On a practical level, we evaluate every decision in terms of what our returns might be in comparison to what it may cost us to ensure we are not neglecting to take care of ourselves.

Apply self-regulation and accept feedback: We have a culture of co-creating without ego. We create spaces where we encourage everyone to contribute, to learn from their mistakes, and to give and receive feedback in non-judgmental ways.

Use and value renewable resources and services: Our packaging is a good example of how we incorporate this principle. We reject single use plastic and instead use reusable, recyclable, and compostable packaging.

Produce no waste: We like to keep in mind that there is no waste in natural processes. We are developing closed-loop systems where everything that is needed for a process is created, used, and returned to that system. Our composting is one example of this. We compost materials from the land we farm that we then use to enliven the soil to produce healthy plants, that then return to the compost pile after we extract our intended yield.

Design from patterns to details: One pattern found in nature that we try to incorporate into our thinking is the fact that there are no straight lines. We incorporate this notion into our branding (notice the ripped hemp paper that serves as our background?). Our mandala garden also illustrates this and reminds us of this principle.

Our mandala garden also illustrates this and reminds us there are no straight lines in nature..

Integrate rather than segregate: We are designing both our farming and jobs program with this principle in mind. We grow useful cover plants around our main crop instead of monocropping or trying to keep our fields weed-free. Our jobs program will integrate previously marginalized folks into our team, providing supports that help them thrive and achieve stability.

Use small and slow solutions: This has been our overarching approach to building our company. We are prototyping our processes on a small scale (less than an acre) so that we can safely learn in an environment where our mistakes are not big enough to knock us out. This means we might not be the first but we will likely endure.

Use and value diversity: The science is clear that diversity is key to strong systems, both ecologically and in human interactions. The more perspectives or different characteristics increase the likelihood that a viable solution emerges. For example, our plans for the 2021 growing season includes planting a diverse mix of legume seeds to establish our cover plants in our new fields instead of sowing one variety. This diversity will increase the likelihood that something will grow and thrive no matter the specific growing conditions we experience.

Use edges and value the marginal: The edges are said to be the interface between things where the most interesting events take place and are often the most productive elements of a system. Pott Farms currently operates at the edge of the developing hemp industry as we attempt to create a company that addresses the overlapping needs to promote the health of the land, of people, and for ourselves.

Creatively use and respond to change: The key to this design principle for us has been our readiness and willingness to act when faced with change. It requires us to pay attention to a rapidly changing environment, to have a vision for how we want things to be in the future, and to recognize when opportunities arise to further our progress towards that vision. We started off pursuing a medical marijuana license as the means to achieve our goals of environmental and economic justice, but the licensing process was fraught with political and financial barriers. When industrial hemp became legal and Michigan began offering licenses in April 2019, we were one of the first in line. We recognized that we could work towards our same goals with more ease by changing course.

We have an opportunity to create a new reality, one that resolves rather than aggravates the problems we face. As consumers, we can insist that a company's profits flow from ethical decisions. This permaculture way of thinking has the potential to guide us in restoring wellness to many systems that are currently failing us. My hope is that by sharing our experience using the permaculture framework, you are inspired to apply these principles to your own life.

[1] Bill Mollison and David Holmgren are credited with coining the term, and created the handy chart of the three ethics and 12 design principles.