“Telling Clean Stories”

Tim O’Shea and CleanFish

Tim O’Shea has spearheaded traveling theater companies as well as major environmental consulting initiatives. Combining his love for storytelling with his passion for environmental sustainability, he co-founded CleanFish, a San Fransisco-based company that “champions responsible artisan producers who are committed to sustainable practices while, at the same time, producing seafood of the highest quality.” Formed largely in response to a 2004 salmon farming crisis, CleanFish is, as Tim says, “a company, an aspiration, and a movement.” Here, Tim outlines his personal and business philosophies and reflects on the power of storytelling in creating change.

Let’s go back and trace the roots of CleanFish.

I often say when I’m talking to young people, “I’m really sorry that we got this wrong.” In the ‘60s and ‘70s we were all out marching the streets, forming the early stages of the environmental movement. What we didn’t know until the ‘90s was that a first world, industrial, and progress-oriented society had a way of doing business and measuring economic benefit that was crossing the ecological footprint. We had reached the point where, in population and resource capacity, we had crossed the ecological footprint of what the planet could restore in any given season, year-round, and so we were officially cutting into natural capital and resource deposits. We were no longer spending interest; we were outspending every single year from that period on. So we weren’t against business; we were against stone-stupid wasteful business. And it’s taken us from that period of time until now to understand the value, the necessity, of developing triple bottom line sensibility. This is not a green “eco” thing; this is the global economy. Deal with it or you’re not going to win.

Now, along the way, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I did a lot of consulting to environmental agencies– both local and national. What concerned me coming up to 2004 was that when these articles came out about farmed salmon practices that were really terrible, the press went to the NGO agencies, and they all came back with a kind of drumbeat answer of “farm bad, wild good.” All over the country, people were walking into restaurants saying, “Is this wild?” “No, it’s farmed.” “Ugh, no, I don’t want that.” Well, it doesn’t take but a few clicks and a little bit of math to realize that is a dead-end strategy. At the voracious rate we were already going through fish, if anyone who cared about the environment went to wild-only fisheries, we would have just hastened the day by decades when we would run out of fish.

What is the purpose of CleanFish?

The main purpose of CleanFish, from its start, was to see if we could go out and find better producers and come back to the marketplace telling their story, telling the story of better practices and better product. More and more producers are saying “I’d like to come that way too. I don’t enjoy selling crap, I would much rather raise a better product, and if you have the market or can help create that market that allows me to afford doing that, I’d be glad to change my practices.” Now, the marketplace can torque toward better practices if we design it to do so. That’s really the main focus of what CleanFish is about: re-focusing and re-articulating the producer-to-consumer connection by bringing not only the products but then the stories of the producers and their practices and why those practices make a better tasting product that you can sample, and taste the difference for yourself.

How did you begin funding CleanFish and building an infrastructure for the organization?

It was the generosity of close friends and family that allowed us to start this. After about three years, came the first emergence out of the Bay Area, including new players like Triple Bottom Line Capital, came in as the early lead investors. They were part of venture funds recognizing what we were doing. That kind of entrepreneurship and understanding of the foodie issues and the artisan issues – we couldn’t be in a better setting than San Francisco for understanding the necessity and the power of it.

How do you think about story and storytelling? What role did your background in theater play as you started CleanFish?

That is my toolset – at the end of the day, I’m a simple Irish storyteller. I’m going out and finding producers – both wild and aquaculture – who are eco-warriors, and I am fortunate to be their champion in the marketplace. People hear their stories and think they would prefer this kind of product, prefer to support guys with these kinds of practices. You can call it marketing or brand building – it’s trying to do all we can to educate people, which comes best through storytelling. You learn faster if you’re learning from and through the heart. We all affect each other, so education through affection, through recognizing that impact, is a core part of how you can move people to take action in accordance with what they are learning. The more people know, the better CleanFish will look. So it’s in my commercial interest to have people know as much about us as possible. I am confident that the more people know, the more they will see that the CleanFish line of products is what they’re looking for. The medium for all of that exchange is storytelling.

I was in a panel discussion once and I brought in one of my fish farmers and one of my hooks-and-lines fishing coop groups, and the next speaker was a chef, the chair of the board of Chefs’ Collaborative. After hearing the producers’ stories of how they do what they do and why, the chef’s comment was, “When people come into my restaurant, they’re as hungry for these stories as they are for the fish.” And I agree: when people find there’s congruence in what they’re tasting and where it came from, the fact that it costs a little bit more – not a lot more – is a price they’re perfectly willing to pay. So stories are an incredibly important medium for CleanFish.

What else does the aspiring social entrepreneur need to have in his/her toolset?

If overwhelmed with the fear of what it takes to enter into the marketplace, it takes trust that what you like, other people will like. We don’t do extensive market research or focus groups. We get to know a producer, we do site visits, check with science issues, but the most important things we do is bring in a fish, cook it up and eat it together, and ask whether we like it. Does the eco story match the taste?

Entrepreneurs are being asked all the time, “Is it scaleable?” I would respond that the kōan of our times is the question to individuals, families, businesspeople, investors: “What’s enough?” We plan on truly global change levels of impact. Still, for say, a producer in the region, if you have a thriving neighborhood business that does well and pays for itself and gives you a salary, does it have to be scaleable and take over the world? What’s the level of impact you feel you can take on? These are all very real points of honest inquiry. We see some new ways of going small to create big change: net working.

What does a good partnership look like for you?

A good partnership is complimentary and has a strong bond of respect that each person brings something the other can’t do. And my partner Dale Sims and I are both grayheads influenced by the ‘60s and ‘70s who hold to the promise that you can do well by doing good. And we’re old enough to want to change the world without caring what the commodity market thinks.

Do you think that fearlessness is a good quality in a younger person?

It’s an interesting line to walk. There’s some utility to fear – you’re mindful of the sharks that are out there and how things can go badly. What’s unusual in a young person is being aware of the fear and still being willing to move – having enough groundedness and mindfulness, enough of an inner sense of spiritual center, that you understand that there are things to be fearful of but you don’t let that stop you.

Where is that spiritual center, that focus, for you?

I’ve been blessed to have really wonderful teachers from different traditions, and to be a part of different communities of contemplative practice. I have an embarrassment of riches of practices and good paths.