Zita Cobb and Fogo Island Inn: Economic nutrition
On October 6, I stayed at the Fogo Island Inn, by invitation of Newfoundland & Labrador Tourism. Its Innkeeper, Zita Cobb, was born on Fogo Island and left to make a living. After a very successful career in the tech sector, she returned in 2001, determined to help her remote island, home-community prosper.
Cobb resolved to build an inn — and help transform the island into a geotouristic destination. Now she is a sought-after speaker inspiring international entrepreneurs to apply social economics and environmental innovations as core business-development strategies.
She is also president of Shorefast Foundation, an organization she founded dedicated to the revitalization of Fogo Island and nearby Change Islands. All surpluses from Shorefast’s social enterprises are directly returned to these island communities by way of the Shorefast Foundation, a registered Canadian charity.
It would have been easy for her to ignore her roots. Such entrepreneurial philanthropism is not unknown — but it’s rare. Because Fogo Island plus Newfoundland and Labrador resemble the reality of Quebec’s Outaouais region (unemployment, youth leaving for jobs, dwindling natural resources, spectacular nature), I invited Cobb to discuss the Shorefast Foundation and “economic nutrition.”
KF: Zita, at 43, why return and invest in your home community?
ZC: Realizing the importance of a meaningful relationship with place to my own well-being, and seeing that many things happening in the world were contributing to the deterioration of the fabric of place. I hoped that fortifying my own home could help similar places in the world.
It was and continues to be important not to allow the sum of the knowledge in our community or culture to be lost. This knowledge needed to find continued relevance, and we needed to build on knowledge that comes from lived experience over the years.
KF: Your Shorefast Foundation website (shorefast.org/) explains: “We exist in relationship to the whole: the whole planet, the whole of humanity, the whole of existence. It is our job to find ways to belong to the whole while upholding the specificity of people and place.” You mention “social businesses.” What do you mean?
ZC: I believe all businesses should be social businesses, by which I mean just what you’ve said – that they should exist in relationship to the whole and in service to people and place. We try to bring together not-for-profit work and for-profit business, believing that all businesses should be “not-just-for-profit.” Fogo Island Inn demonstrates this, where any surplus generated goes to Shorefast Foundation to be invested back into the community.
Most importantly, social business means that the people who own and/or operate the business use a lens of wholeness in all decision making. They consider the business’s impact on the whole of life (natural and human.) The primary reason for a social business to exist is to serve a social purpose.
KF: While at the Inn, Melanie Coates, the Inn’s Director of Marketing & Business Development, mentioned the term “economic nutrition”. What is this?
ZC: Economic nutrition is about radical transparency. It enables purchasers to put their money towards the things that they value. Modelled after the food labels we are all accustomed to reading, our economic nutrition labels simply show how much of the purchase price of any particular item goes towards production processes, including labour, materials, or operations. We also show the geographical impact of the purchase by noting which places benefit most significantly from the purchase. Shorefast has pioneered this practice of economic nutrition labelling, and economic nutrition labels reinforce, at that key moment of purchase, the very direct link between economic decisions and our social realities.
KF: Why is staying at Fogo Island Inn so expensive?
ZC: We believe in “right pricing” which respects the sacred capital of Fogo Island: the natural and cultural assets of this place. We set our pricing so that as a social business and as an Inn that is a community asset, we are investing in nature and culture – in other words, our financial capital is used to support and enrich our sacred capital, as well as pay for the operation of the business.
Some examples, which help determine our pricing, are that we pay our staff more than minimum wage, and focus on internal advancement; we source locally; we minimize our impact on the environment, including installing solar panels and a primary sewage treatment system; because we believe “tipping” is uncomfortable for guests and hosts, pricing includes a 15% contribution to a staff bonus pool; pricing includes everything guests need to have a full experience of the nature and culture of this place: all meals, time with local hosts, use of bicycles, use of all facilities such as hot tubs and sauna, etc. Our goal is to avoid financial transactions.
KF: What tangible economic benefits is Fogo deriving as a direct result of Shorefast?
ZC: Of course, employment has increased materially. Probably at least 25-30% of the households on Fogo Island now receive direct employment-related income from our activities. Our projects have re-energized a craft artisan community, helped create a new market for our fish that didn’t exist before, helped artists open studios and sell their art. Farmers and growers now have a market to sell their produce locally, and woodworkers are compensated to practice their craft. The GDP impact, using typical multipliers for hospitality for the Inn alone in 2017 show that our GDP impact rests around $35 million Canadian.
KF: Thank-you, Zita. I appreciate you sharing insights into your important vision of sustainable tourism.