“Where Your Vacation Meets Your Values” — voting with your dollar (investing and spending)

Recently, I’ve been reading alot about the growth of the social impact investing space and wanted to address this in the context of social impact spending and how we vote with the dollars we spend as much as those we invest.

JuluchucaSaltIn an article by Stephanie Cohn Rupp of the Threshold Group,  she addresses the size of social impact investing marketplace and key bottlenecks to growth.  Similarly, in an article by Colin Close with InvestCloud, he discusses how impact investing is moving from fringe to mainstream.  The basic idea is to invest your dollars with your values.  Original SRI (Socially Responsible Investing) was mostly values based with churches and other groups putting up “negative” screens and asking investment advisors and portfolio manager to exclude certain investments which did not match with their values such as guns, tobacco, alcohol, gambling, etc.  The market has moved from exclusion to inclusion, from “screening out” to “advocacy”, as many of these same financial advisory groups are advocating for companies they invest in to make “positive” changes related to corporate governance, community engagement and environmental impact.

It all sounds great especially when you read that the returns from ESG/SRI has been as good as or better than the market in most cases. How do they define this? They take one index (basket of stocks) and compare it to another. One that broadly represents the market like the S&P 500 and the iShares MSCI KLD 400 Social ETF. Go look it up, here is how it is described:

  1. Exposure to socially responsible U.S. companies
  2. Access to a broad range of stocks that have been screened for positive environmental, social, and governance characteristics
  3. Use to invest based on your personal values

Now, take a look at the list of top 10 companies. They include Coca-Cola and Pepsico. I don’t know about you, but the sale of sugar water and bottled water is not in alignment with my values. Sure, I guess I could ask for a further screening to exclude these two from the top 10. But, if these are included, who’s making the list and what are their values based on?

Julia with Odin at Playa Viva
Julia with Odin at Playa Viva

When Playa Viva was just building it’s first buildings, we had a special guest,renowned American environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill, who was pondering moving to Playa Viva to live. During our time together Julia taught me what is meant by really living by your values and doing as much as you can, and should do, to save our planet.  I do aspire to many of her choices and the discipline she exercises in the execution of those values. The key to what she taught me was — We make small decisions every day in how we act, what we chose to do, and not do, how we plan ahead, how we make the hard choices in order to live with little to no impact on the earth.  We invest in impact by the daily decisions we make, by the way we spend (not just invest) our dollars.

pv_3We, at Playa Viva, have developed a motto over the years — “Where Your Vacation Meets Your Values.”  We know we are not perfect and much of what we do is aspirational at best. So when you look to make your vacation choice, we hope your vacation investment looks deeply at your vacation decisions. We ask that you engage with your vacation choice, hopefully it is with us, about your values to make sure we are in alignment.   Sure, I cringe every time I look under the bar and find a few cans of Coca-cola products. But they are under the bar, specifically for those customers who just can’t live without their fix. While on top of the counter is always a glass “jarra” full of Aguas Frescas, fresh water/juices, made with locally harvested fruits.

What do you reach for to quench your thirst? Does your vacation meet with your values?


Supply Chain 2.0 – Impact on Local Community

What does GIIRS certification mean to you? Don’t mean to be glib, but click on the link and do the research if you are not familiar with this social and environmental impact assessment system.  For Playa Viva, part of going through GIIRS certification was taking our “game up a notch” when it comes to measuring our impact on the local community, especially when it comes to our supply chain.

Last summer, Monica Oyarzun, lead a project that involved tracking our suppliers and documenting how our own supply chain meets the demands of the social impact investment community. See the slideshow below including photos of various partners in our supply chain including vendors of fruits and vegetables, meats and poultry, cheese and milk as well as various excursion providers.

In addition to the GIIRS process, we are now more closely tracking our impact on suppliers, starting with changes to our accounting system to more closely track expenditures by each vendor. While this adds overhead to our already hard working hospitality team, we hope to plug this data into methodology developed by the Overseas Development Institute to study our impact in our local community and be able to compare to other similar projects globally. The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) is the UK’s leading independent think tank on international development and humanitarian issues.

Turning Good Intentions into Good Business

A week at the Club Med – let’s just say I’ve definitely had worse weeks. Many of you would agree that a week at a Pacific beach resort is a pretty good time. Last Saturday, my week at the Club Med in Ixtapa had just ended and my head was full of ideas for fighting poverty here on Mexico’s Costa Grande. No, I hadn’t packed The Bottom Billion for beach reading; in fact, I spent very little time on the beach because I was busy meeting everyone I could at the Opportunity Collaboration conference.

This was Opportunity Collaboration’s third annual ‘convening’ in Ixtapa, and the first time I attended. I wasn’t there as a full delegate bragging on all the great things we’ve accomplished in Juluchuca (next year maybe?). Instead, I was there to get a taste of the latest happenings in the social enterprise sector, and to make sure that everyone else got a taste of the local, (mostly) organic basil margaritas that were on offer especially for the conference.

The basil margaritas were a hit with attendees, and also with the local farmers who grew and supplied the ingredients. They were the culmination of a multi-year collaboration between Playa Viva, I-DEV International, and Opportunity Collaboration and are an early step in the conference’s journey to expand its local impact around Ixtapa. I worked with farmers, the hotel, and the conference for two months to make sure the margaritas were on the menu, so I thought they tasted especially good.

Local sourcing is part of the mission at Playa Viva, but is not yet part of the organizational DNA at a large resort like Club Med. With a push from Opportunity Collaboration, that’s changing. Locally harvested and produced sea salt and bath salts were also centerpieces of local sourcing at the conference and will be part of the hotel’s usual purchases going forward.

These kinds of collaborations are what Opportunity Collaboration is all about. After just one week there, my head is swimming with ideas that will keep me busy for at least the next 51 weeks between now and the next conference: expanding local sourcing throughout Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo (and building a model for other tourist destinations), funding projects in Juluchuca through an innovative online donation site, and building a sustainable salt products industry just down the road from where I’m living now, among many others.

Stay tuned for updates on these and other projects. Oh, and if you want try a basil margarita for yourself come on down to Playa Viva and order one from Johnny, the bartender who invented the local version.

A Simple Salt and Its Complex Journey to Your Plate

If you’ve visited Playa Viva, then you’ve had a chance to try Juluchuca’s local organic sea salt. A small bowl is on the table at every Playa Viva meal and salt crystals adorn the rims of many of the bar’s delicious drinks.

Using local salt means that the extra pinch you toss on the morning huevos rancheros didn’t travel hundreds (or thousands) of miles to land on your plate. But while this arrangement seems so much simpler, it’s still a pretty complex operation to get that salt from the ocean-side salt pools a few miles away to Playa Viva.

Low prices for bulk sea salt have put that complex system at risk. Farmers are switching to plastic-based, non-organic production methods that risk not only their cultural heritage, but also the local ecosystem. An article (in Spanish) in one of the Costa Grande’s local newspapers highlighted this challenge and the damage it could provoke in the salty lagoons near Juluchuca.

The answer is simple, right? – Stop producing sea salt using black plastic sheeting that contaminates the environment, and switch back to centuries-old methods that use sand and clay to form shallow pools to evaporate seawater.

But low-income producers have an equally simple response:  produce as much salt as cheaply as possible in order to earn enough pesos to feed their families.

In reality, neither response is sufficient. Using local salt doesn’t allow Playa Viva to opt out of a complex global food production system. Instead, it just brings the complexity closer to home and makes addressing the risks that much more pertinent.

A longer lasting solution is to work with the salt producers to adapt to the market dynamics they face. That’s why Playa Viva partnered with I-DEV—to help farmers profit from the benefits that organic, artisanally produced sea salt offers consumers. It’s a multi-year process, but we’ve already taken the first steps. During the next harvest season, which starts next February, a select group of salt farmers will rededicate themselves to the artisanal production methods their parents and grandparents used. This will mean more work and higher production costs, but also means they’ll be able to charge higher prices in the local and international markets.

Group members vote for their leaders with carefully placed hash marks.

The group has been meeting weekly for the past month, getting ready for a production season that is only a few months away. They recently elected three of their members to lead them through the next season as they buck a national trend in Mexico and say ‘No’ to plastic-based sea salt production. Members scratched three hash marks each on piece of paper taped to the wall to cast their votes. I was the outside election monitor (first time!), and I can say that we avoided any lengthy legal battles over the group’s leadership.

So what do hash marks on a crumpled paper in rural Mexico have to do with you? Whether you’re eating salt that’s been flown, trucked, and shipped around the world, or savoring that simplest spice from right down the beach, complexity is infused in the food you consume. These artisanal salt farmers are learning how global markets have influenced how they produce their salt, and are opting for a return to traditional methods of production instead.

Watch for kitchen and bath salt products from ‘Sal Mar Azteca’ next year. Or, if you can’t wait to get your hands on some you can order Playa Viva’s ‘Sal Viva,’ an artisanal sea salt produced right up the beach from the eco-resort.

Sweet Coco, These are Good!

Abundant plant life surrounds Playa Viva and the neighboring community of Juluchuca. Right now, during the rainy season, the leaves are green, flowers are blooming, and coconuts are falling. In at least one way Juluchuca is a lot like how you would imagine a tropical paradise to be—there are palm trees everywhere you look. With so many, someone is always harvesting and each day trucks pass through town with their beds full of coconuts to be processed and/or sold.

These coconuts are an important source of income for the landowners, farmers, and workers who harvest them, but selling fresh, unprocessed coconuts can be a gamble in a commodity market.

With the support of the Guerrero state government, one group of young entrepreneurs in Juluchuca is taking their local coconuts and turning them into coconut candy (dulces de coco). About 20 local residents are participating in a year-long program through which they are learning how to make candy from coconuts and other local fruits. Once they’ve got the basics of candy-making down, program instructors will also teach them how to start their own businesses to market their locally produced treats and develop brands that they can sell in nearby tourist centers.

The participants just finished the first four-month stretch of the year-long program and celebrated a couple weeks ago with a graduation ceremony (and after-party). They invited me to attend and the ceremony was a great chance for the students to share what they’d learned and show their excitement about the next phases of the project.

In between plates of chicharron, guacamole, and tacos I got to taste test some of the new candy and it tasted great—not too sweet, slightly crunchy texture, and a delicious essence of coconut throughout.  In fact, I’m munching on a piece as I write this.

Programs like this one are vital to helping Juluchucans turn their natural resources into sustainable livelihoods. One of my roles in Juluchuca is to help connect these efforts with the nearby tourist market so the benefits that visitors bring to Ixtapa/Zihuatanejo can extend beyond the high-rise hotels and into nearby communities. Places like Playa Viva already ‘get it’ and have long engaged and integrated with their communities to spur local economic development.

So what’s next for Juluchuca’s latest batch of candy-makers? As they start their businesses, we’ll start to connect them with selling opportunities outside Juluchuca. Judging by the taste of these candies, finding buyers shouldn’t be too hard!

Precious Treasures of Playa Viva

Treasures abound at Playa Viva.  The garden is overflowing with jewels from the land with lettuce, carrots, beats and tomatoes. So many tomatoes. The staff doesn’t know what to do with them. What do we do with all these tomatoes?

And then, David surprised us all with his unannounced arrival at Playa Viva. All I knew of David was that he has been instrumental in providing me the opportunity to intern here at Playa Viva. After a couple of days doing work with the team and catching up on life at Playa Viva, he offered me the opportunity to go to the town Pátzcuaro with him to gather needed supplies for the hotel. Seems that after a full season at Playa Viva, it was time to replenish the famous pottery plates. Oh, yes, and about the excess tomatoes, David had decided we need mason jars for canning tomato sauce. I didn’t realize how hard it would be to find such a simple item here in Mexico. For the first time since my arrival, I stepped out the wild, natural setting of the beaches of Mexico and headed  for the mountains of Mexico for a completely different cultural experience.

The four-hour care ride to Pátzcuaro was anything but boring. I watched the landscape turn from coastal forest and coconut groves into cactus desert hills and then a low mountain forest followed by a full pine forest of green lush hills and fertile valleys. I learned of the many strategies David has for expanding Playa Viva. One of the primary attributes behind the ideas in both creating the resort and expanding, is the attention to detail he exemplifies throughout the property. Attention to detail in service, architectural and the design elements that stress local craftsmanship and organics above mass production items.

For all I knew, we were going to some industrialized factory to get the tableware for Playa Viva. It wasn’t until we veered off to the side of the road and arrived at a little family owned artisan pottery shop that I experienced David’s attention to detail first hand. We must have spent at least three hours as I watched him carefully pick out hand-painted plates, bowls and delicately decorated salsa cups for the kitchen and dining area. My contribution was choosing a few coffee mugs, patience and a plenty of positive input. This first stop proved that David really knows his stuff and where to go to get the best of it. It wasn’t until later that I realized how long it must have taken David to find this one artisan to begin with, he must have spent hours looking at hundreds of road side shops before settling on the craft of this one family.

Handmade, quality wool blankets were another object of our search in Pátzcuaro. I gave my two senses as to which colors to choose, but David seemed to be on the right path. Nude, grey, light brown and creamy whites – all natural colors – no artificial colors – simple native patterns and natural colors were the theme in David’s selections. These blankets are authentic to Mexico and to this area, and delicately handmade. We then took a walk through the local outdoor markets in search of place mats and those ever elusive mason jars. I watched as elderly, native Mexican men and women peddled their wares, crafts, baked goods, fruit and delicious tacos on the sides of the streets.  We sampled coconut honey macaroons, fruits I’d never seen before, grilled corn, hot chocolate and a little local Mezcal (we purchased a few bottles from local distillers).

Throughout the day David received phone call after phone calls, while focusing on the vendors and finding the perfect items to take back to Playa Viva and still maintained enough energy for the 4 hour car ride back! David would strike up conversation with anyone about anything. From the taco guy to the old woman selling hand-woven baskets, he never brushed anyone off or got tired of striking up conversation. This was something a lot of people especially Americans, don’t take the time to do anymore. With the rush of society, good and random conversations with strangers get pushed aside.

As we were about to leave, we were walking by a tortilla shop that was pressing freshly minted tortillas when suddenly David spotted one more hardware store that might hold promise of the final item on our list – those darned mason jars. He was more excited than I, as he bought out the entire collection of just over a dozen jars. The search was over. The list was now complete.

Precision is an important attribute to Playa Viva’s style. Everything from the plates to the Mezcal is authentic Mexican and local. As I observed David putting his all into the choices he makes for his hotel, I can’t help but care for the place in the same way that he does. It adds a feel that most resorts are lacking; true, genuine, personally chosen materials that just contribute an extra bit of happiness and tranquility for the guests, and are underlying the five-star reviews that guest later post on sites like TripAdvisor.

In the kitchen, Olga is filling the last of the mason jars with an oven baked tomato sauce. The jar lid pops into place, confirming the seal and Olga lets out a familiar chuckle.  Gloria carries the new blankets off to beds ready to be made warm for the night.  Minerva separates out the pottery destined for the boutique and those reserved for guests.

Blinded by the fluorescent orange ball of solar energy, I recall key moments from our trip as I gaze into the sundown. The salty breeze heavily coats my skin and enriches my senses. A black bird fades in slow motion towards the sun as it sinks into the distant abyss. Is it China that is sharing this “sol” now? The timing is perfect as the humpback whales wave in and out of the soft, clear Pacific waters. The palm leaves wisp in the air, breezing towards the Southern hemisphere. A misty fog froths above a shallow meter upon each wave; the sky now reflects a spongy ginger luminosity. Twilight begins. The “luna” arises over my shoulder, slowly creeping higher and higher above the distant mountains in a crescent shape. Guests gather around the bar for a taste of Johnny’s salty, organic basil margaritas. They ponder the new additions to the bar, odd-shaped bottles. Ah, Mezcal, the taste, one smokey, the other with a tinge of vanilla and the third, is that a hint of citrus? What a perfect end to an enriching experience.

Playa Viva Enters Sal Viva for TIES Innovation Leadership in Sustainable Tourism Awards

Playa Viva Enters Sal Viva for TIES Innovation Leadership in Sustainable Tourism Awards. Below is our application entry.

Las Salinas – the salt flats – are 5 km from Playa Viva near the Pacific Coast of Mexico, about 45 minutes south of the resort of Zihuatanejo/Ixtapa.  120 families are members of a salt harvesting co-op.  Of these, eighty are actively harvesting salt. Of those, less than half are using traditional means to harvest the salt.  Playa Viva is a sustainable boutique hotel located nearby.  Playa Viva has been working in this area for the last for years with the goal to go beyond green (doing less damage) and sustainable (net neutral) to be a truly “regenerative” resort, improving the biodiversity and resilience of the ecology and community.

As part utilizing the regenerative method of development, Playa Viva developed a “History of Place” that included archeological records showing that salt from this area was given as tribute to Aztec kings.

Traditionally, the salt is harvested by the creation of handmade drying ponds, “eras”, which are reformed each year after raining season.  However, in recent years, many of these artisanal salt farmers have turned to less costly and time consuming means of harvesting their salt. These families are turning to plastic, black plastic, to line the drying ponds.  As a result, the plastic leaches into the salt and contaminates this pure, delicious and healthy mineral and food.  Likewise, the plastic is left after the rainy season and results in further contamination of the lagoon further harming the attempts of traditional harvesting to keep their product clean and sustainable.

Playa Viva has submitted the salt for quality testing. The results from the lab were astounding.  The salt is extremely high in minerals missing in our bodies and food as a result of soil erosion and modern farming techniques.  The salt is naturally high in iodine and low in sodium.

This lagoon salt is formed by rains washing over the Sierra Madre Mountains delivering valuable minerals to the lagoon. During rainy season, the lagoon water rise, eventually the sand bar that separates the lagoon from the ocean breaks through and salt water fuses with the mineral rich water.  As the rains fade, the heat evaporates the water, minerals and salt settle on the floor of the lagoon. The farmers then hand form clay drying ponds. They scrape this mineral rich solid from the lagoon and wash it with the remaining brine from the lagoon creating.. The resulting super-saturate brine is then poured into handmade drying ponds which absorb the calcium and minerals from the “eras”.  What remains at the end of 5-7 days is a white, crystalline flake of healthy mineral salt.

This salt is completely undervalued and sold for pennies a pound with the largest buyer being the locals who use this salt to make Queso Fresco – Fresh Cheese.  Since traditional salt farmers only earn barely enough to pay for the means of production, many are moving to cheaper plastic methods or just giving up harvesting salt.

Playa Viva’s innovation in supporting sustainable tourism is derived from leveraging its role as a tourism operator in the Juluchuca community, specifically working to identify opportunities where it can add value through access to resources – intellectual, financial and social capital – to improve the economic and environmental conditions of the members of its community. The goal of this endeavor is to create a higher value for the salt, providing a living wage for the 120 peasant farmer families that are part of the co-op and to bring a true market price to this undervalued product.  By focusing on improving market price, the goal was to have the local community realize the true commercial value of their local resources, rediscover the inherent value in the traditional means of harvest, understand the importance of not contaminating their natural resources and provide a mechanism towards achieving pride in their heritage – after all this is the Salt of Aztec Kings.

As a result, Playa Viva created the brand name “Sal Viva – the Salt of Life” as a brand extension to Playa Viva.  Each guest that stays at Playa Viva is provided with a sample package of the salt to take home. Sal Viva is the ONLY salt served. Sal Viva in larger gift packages is also sold on site.

Additionally, Playa Viva has started importing Sal Viva for sale in the US. Currently, it is on sale via online partner – CharitiesUSA.com.

Playa Viva has been working with top chef’s in restaurants starting in Los Angeles including famed Mexican restaurant Loteria Grill and owner Jimmy Shaw who added a new menu item using Sal Viva. Most recently Joseph Gillard of Napa Valley Grille in LA has been added to the chef’s using Sal Viva.

Sal Viva is part of Playa Viva’s general PR and marketing strategy.

As a result of Playa Viva’s efforts, the members of the co-op have already started branding their own salt, now using sacks that are printed with the name of the co-op and location of the salt.  This sense of pride in brand is new and is creating the sense of product differentiation. The price of “organic” salt, as it is now being called – that is salt made using traditional means and not plastic – is already obtaining a premium price, whereas it was once priced the same as non “organic” salt.

Playa Viva has leveraged its innovative strategy for creating a model for sustainable tourism across a variety of activities including the development of Sal Viva, Canasta Viva (a CSA – Community Supported Organic Agriculture – project with local farmers), Pack For a Purpose (non-profit to bring supplies to the local schools), mangrove and coastal forest restoration (Playa Viva Reserve) and the Tortuga Viva (turtle sanctuary for preserving marine turtles).  Sal Viva is just one initiative within an innovative strategy for leveraging tourism for building more resilient communities and ecosystems.