Interview with Ellen Mortfield, Executive Director, Eco-Superior Environmental Programs, Thunder Bay, ON
By Sadaf Kazi,
Enterprise Development and Research Assistant,
The NORDIK Institute
What inspired you to lead the Eco-Superior Project?
I was hired 24 years ago in a communications and public relations position and worked my way up to the Executive Director. I grew up on a small farm, and always felt connected to the land and ecosystems, so Eco-Superior has been a great way to share those connections.
What is the motivation behind your social enterprise?
Initially, Eco-Superior was set up as part of a provincial government initiative for Green Communities. The motivation initially was to work on water, waste, and energy goals for the Thunder Bay and area. Since then, we have expanded a lot beyond the initial mandate. We now work on eco-transportation, climate change adaptation, as well as programs on local food.
Who do you hope to impact/reach through the work of your social enterprise? Why?
It is pretty broad, primarily the general public of the Thunder Bay Area. But the people we serve varies by the programs. Some projects have taken us up to Sault Ste. Marie, and the smaller North shore communities. We generally have 25 to 30 different programs.
Do you consider yourself a social entrepreneur?
While we are a non-profit, some of what we do is probably social enterprise. We do some programs, such as radon outreach and radon test kit sales where revenues go back into the program. We have a small retail store, and our home energy assessment program also help support the office and our resource centre. Not all our projects are supported that way, but some are, others are funded through grants and government funding.
Does the term ‘social entrepreneur’ resonate with you? What words or phrases might you connect with more?
Social enterprise would be a more appropriate term for us to use compared to social entrepreneurs, as we are a non-profit organization, not a private enterprise. Also, it is not just me, but our initiative which is guided by our volunteer board of directors, and supported by a staff of 12.
What barriers/challenges have you encountered?
We can certainly relate these to the social enterprise part. Maybe I can give you an example of one of our initiatives that I would call challenging. One of the changes that we are trying to make is to reduce the use of single-use plastic. And a couple of years ago, we started targeting plastic straws in the food industry. One of the barriers that we found in that specific initiative was that alternatives were more expensive. For a lot of the small businesses, it would be too expensive, and they cannot afford to make that change, and for some of the local suppliers, there wasn’t enough demand for them to bring in a bulk purchase of paper straws.
We secured some funding. We also engaged the public to ask their favourite restaurants to make the change from plastic straws to a paper one. So they had the demand from the public and Eco-Superior made that first bulk purchase of paper straws in all different types. Then we sell them to the restaurants for a better price because we are not in this game to make a lot of money. We cover our cost and support the change that we wanted to see. So now we are a retailer of paper straws that continue supporting more businesses to make that change.
That is very interesting.
There were a couple of barriers we tried to address through this project like the cost of the alternative straws and educating the public so that they demand the change from an organization that they patronize. It wasn’t our intention to sell products, but that’s the way it turned out. It was a barrier that had to be addressed and other restaurant supply companies weren’t able to make it happen because it was kind of a vicious circle: there wasn’t enough demand and the price couldn’t come down until there is enough demand. So we had to sort of work on both.
And now we’re trying to continue that work with food businesses, not just restaurants, but school cafeterias, caterers, and mobile food places. We are working with them to make other substitutions, right, or to get rid of more plastic products, such as take out containers or plastic cups–there’s lots of things. We’ve secured some funding from Environment Canada over the next two years to test out some other products and see what other substitutions they can make. We’ll use the same process for them.
How did you confront those challenges and barriers? What resources did you need? What resources does your project need as you move forward?
We use some of our grant money to bring in some of our products for both the businesses and the customers to try to find out what works. And then we were able to engage businesses in substituting those products.
What is your community of support?
We have more than 50 businesses supporting that paper straw initiative, and it’s growing all the time. That’s just in the city of Thunder Bay, though. Also, our next step is to move that into other surrounding communities.
Any community support for your other projects?
We are a member of Green Communities Canada. It is an umbrella organization that provides a lot of information sharing and provides joint programming opportunities. It is kind of a supportive network for similar innovations carried out across Canada. We also work quite closely with municipalities and local governments here, and also BIAs (Business Improvement Areas), Downtown Business Associations and the Chamber of Commerce, School Boards etc. It is pretty varied.
How important is a local face-to-face community of support?
Very important. It is a significant part of what we do in this community. We need to work directly with volunteers or students or staff at workplaces.
Is there something that would have made this process easier for you?
Funding is an ongoing issue. Finding support for existing staff who are already trained and knowledgeable on these issues. Many funding programs are only support new hires, or other funding programs won’t cover any administrative costs, so that makes it difficult. It would be awesome if there was enough funding to keep our existing experienced people on the payroll. There’s all kinds of restrictions for different funding programs so that those can be a barrier.
What do you hope to see social enterprise’s role in your organization in the future?
I’d like to do more social enterprise initiatives. We kind of got into social enterprise a little bit with the paper straw project, but it would be nice if we could see more social enterprise projects and be less dependent on government funding for non-profits.
You would like to be more independent through funding from your initiative rather than the government?
Yes, that would be the reason why we initiate social enterprise ideas here.
What other community initiatives are you involved in?
Primarily environmental issues, but there is a lot of crossover into health issues. For example, another sort of social enterprise venture is in the area of radon testing and home energy assistance. We provide goods, services, and products to homeowners, which gives us the revenue that we put back into other programs. We work quite closely with the District Health Unit on the radon issues, and so we do some outreach and education around that issue. We also sell the radon test kits, here at the office.
Are you aware of any youth social entrepreneurs or those with innovative ideas that need support and resources?
There are few in Thunder Bay that I know of. One of them is Roots to Harvest. I believe their work is based on the social enterprise model. There is another cycling group called Co-operative X that is trying to do social enterprise work as well.
While still being a non-profit, Eco-Superior Environmental Programs have utilized the principle of social enterprise in operations of certain projects, where they fundraise via business initiatives and reinvest the profit to expand the initiative!