A journey on the ground

In the summer of 2016, Emerald Brand's CEO Ralph Bianculli Snr embarked on a roadtrip through the US for a CSR reality check of the country. Here is what he saw.


My journey started off as a question: How can I really understand the impact we are having on our planet? I am no scientist and cannot spend many hours a day breaking down the problems that exist in our world of consumption, so I decided to take a trip to see things for myself at ground level. Being a motorcycle enthusiast, I decided to travel the entire United States and talk to as many people as possible.

The first reaction from my colleagues and family was: “You’re nuts! At 56 years old, how are you going to ride over 4,000 miles on a motorcycle?” Well, that was all I needed to hear. Off I went, dragging along some great friends who found my mission intriguing.

Launch day was exciting. Travelling light was very important, but I also had to tell the story of the Emerald mission throughout the country, so naturally I took along some Emerald products.

My first lesson

As the journey began I quickly realised how many tractor trailers were on the roads throughout the country and it was here that I came upon my first lesson: we need to have a more efficient and cleaner way to move the goods we consume every day. This is a no-brainer, but you don’t always realise how many products are travelling every day on major highways. 

It is definitely time to rethink our transportation systems, which are a tragic result of the incredible increase in imports, and the decrease in local commodity manufacturing in the US. This change has dramatically increased shipping containers moving from ports all over the country. We need to revitalise manufacturing, so we can service regions of our country with finished goods in a local manner. 

As we continued, travelling outside the urban areas of so many cities, there was always one common denominator: there were a huge amount of empty manufacturing plants. I met many people along this journey, young and old alike, and quickly learned what the stats on domestic migration have already indicated: people are moving to larger urban cities looking for a better life. The rural areas in which they and many generations before them lived are being abandoned. 

I witnessed vacant farmlands, For Sale signs, boarded-up streets, crumbling roads and bridges everywhere. And trends to move away from the heartland of the US are very visible. Local farmers are struggling with cost and challenges from agricultural imports and fracking is quickly replacing what once was prevailing cropland. It was obvious – we have abandoned the bread basket. 

The youth of our generation is not seeing a future in farming or manufacturing because their parents and neighbours continue losing their jobs in small businesses, in manufacturing and in agriculture. This common thread was echoed in every small city I visited.

I certainly understand we need to re-educate and prepare for the new economies, but I found myself asking: “What exactly is the plan?” How have we come this far, where we have allowed millions of US jobs and thousands of small towns to be wiped out? 

My best lesson

As our journey continued, I so desperately wanted to see a shining light of hope, and I think I found it when we finally reached the plateaus of the four corners, where Arizona, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico all converge.

I sat there, discerning a way to better understand what is it that we are missing in our everyday life that blinds us of all of this beauty right at our feet.

While roaming a small Native American kiosk of handmade goods, I found my answer. It didn’t come from Google or Siri, from any textbooks I read at school, or from listening to the news networks. It came from an 80-year-old Navajo man. 

I explained to him what my company is doing, and how we have attempted to inspire the young generations to respect nature and learn how to consume things that have a real positive impact on our planet. I tried to explain our technology to use renewable agriculture to avoid deforestation and petroleum-based plastics, and to bring the land back to use in a positive way. At one point, I thought I was somewhat confusing him with all this “renewable” language, but I was wrong. 

He already knew what we have been blind to for so many generations – blinded by consumption, by inexpensive options to keep us happy. And this is what he said: "Son, nature is a living spirit. We have messed with it for too long, and it will fight back in ways we will never understand.”

Wow – my journey is over! Now the real work begins.