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Just days before we were set to post Dean's interview, we learned that the Business for Peace Foundation, based in Oslo, Norway, had announced its 2013 Business for Peace Honorees. Among eighty nominations from fifty countriess leading to five Honorees, Dean was the only American.
The award, commonly known as the "Nobel Prize for Business," is chosen by a panel of Nobel Laureates, including Dr. Muhammed Yunus, creator of the Grameen Bank microloan system. Dean couldn't attend the ceremony in Oslo as he was at his daughter's college graduation, but his award was received by his London friend Lord James Abinger (they were salvage divers together in the 1980's!).
We asked Dean to tell us more about the work that led to this award...
Green America: What does your business do and what is your most popular products?
Dean Cycon: Dean’s Beans is a social justice wolf wrapped in business clothing. After twenty years I still consider myself an activist who is an accidental businessperson. We were one of the first 100-percent Fair Trade organic coffee companies in the USA, having been committed to social, economic and ecological justice since we began in 1993.
What makes Dean's Beans green?
Dean: Our bedrock commitment is to justice, and our mantra is to ask ourselves how everything we do reflects our highest values. Besides the low-hanging fruit of organics and Fair Trade, we pioneered progressive development in the coffeelands as well. (I co-founded the first development group in coffee in 1988, Coffee Kids, and created the development program it still follows today). Our concept of fairness permeates our work here in the States as well. All our employees have 100-percent health care, no co-pays, no premiums, no deductible. I think we are the only company in the country to offer this. We have consciously limited growth so as not to use packaging that we consider detrimental to the environment.
Dean gets a roasting lesson from a real pro, Yulia Tadesse from Oromia Cooperative, Ethiopia.
What did you do before you started your green business?
Dean: I was an indigenous rights and environmental lawyer in the 1970s and ‘80s. After co-creating Coffee Kids, I became disillusioned as to how companies were using charity to mask their behaviors and avoid changing their detrimental practices. I started Dean’s Beans to model how a business could be a vehicle for positive social change at the source communities, as a conscious effort to break the dominant paradigm of profit over all things and to break through the barriers that separate all of us from the impacts of our business practices in the Global South.
What have been some of the biggest challenges of maintaining high standards of social and environmental responsibility?
Dean: Living outside the box can be lonely. I am considered an “outsider” by the mainstream coffee community (I have been told so by some of the bright lights). Challenging assumptions about the need for growth, profit maximization, etc., has led me to turn down major national accounts.
What has been your proudest moment as a green business owner?
Dean: Every time I go to source communities around the world and see the real impact we have had in quantifiable terms, and more importantly in self-esteem building and community solidarity, that’s what makes it worth it. Seeing how some of the folks I have worked with so closely over the years have grown in stature and respect internationally has been a wonderful reward for me.
Celebrating Rwanda's first successful "Men Overcoming Gender Violence Training," with the COOPAC Cooperative.
What advice would you give to other green entrepreneurs just starting out?
Dean: Never, NEVER give up on your passion and your values. I would rather go down swinging than look back and wonder what would have happened if I had only stuck to my dreams. You have plenty of time to sell out later, and plenty of “progressive” role models if you do!
What's the most hopeful sign you've seen recently from the green economy?
Dean: I speak at universities around the country and internationally and am constantly amazed with how educated and interested younger folks are in social entrepreneurship and making the planet and the people healthier. This has helped evolve my work to be more focused on liberating minds as well as liberating communities from unjust trade practices.
Designing an indigenous reforestation program with Pangoa Coop farmers in Peru.
What's the next green step you're working on right now?
Dean: For a decade we have been trying to get Green Mountain to make their Keurig cups recyclable or biodegradable, and we have refused to participate in that program. So we have decided to roll out our own recyclable K-Cup (called the Re-Cup) and try and change that entire industry!
What green product (besides your own!) can you not live without?
Dean: As an old pirate and treasure hunter, I love Eco-Clad, the first biodegradable, non-toxic bottom paint for boats. Copper and toxics laced bottom paints are destroying the oceans. This is a big deal.
Designing the world's first self-funding Women's Health Program with APROS, San Pedro, Guatemala, in 1996.