Business as Usual

An Interview with Jason Robinson
By Raffi Wineburg
Photos by Noriko Nasu-Tidball

In freshly creased grey dress pants and a baby blue polo, Jason Robinson is dressed for business. If it’s true that, as Jason says, he’s in “terrible shape” then I would have liked to see him in good shape. At 43, he’s being modest. Even so, his business attire does little to hide a slightly older version of a former trained firefighter, coast guard volunteer and all around athlete. His clean-shaven face remains remarkably youthful; his black hair is neatly styled, his smile frequent, genuine. We’re doing a written story, but Jason looks ready for TV.

1_2_2385873118Jason is the founder and CEO of Sustainability TV, a web based broadcaster/social media network. It’s a for-profit social enterprise business. Many for-profits pursue a single bottom line: profit. Being a social enterprise, Jason has a triple bottom line: he accounts for Sustainability TV’s ecological impact, social influence and financial performance.
Sustainability TV began as an idea. In the late 1990’s, Jason was working as a financial advisor. Each day, countless business plans came across his desk. He began to analyze these different companies, looking for trends in business and patterns in funding. Technology was changing rapidly. A new conversation was forming around sustainability.

“I started to imagine what’s coming down the pipe, and thinking ahead of that. And I thought how I could create something, but also incorporate values, morals and integrity. Something that isn’t focused on car crashes and focus-grouped to sell sensationalism, but focused on trying to draw out the positive meaningful, substantive stories,” said Jason.

So after nearly a decade of planning and research, in 2007 Jason went live with Sustainability TV. The ‘sustainability’ in the title is somewhat understated—at least in how Vancouverites understand the word. Sustainability in Vancouver means bike-lanes, urban gardens, and new city-mandated compost bins. But sustainability isn’t just about ‘going green.’ In its broadest sense, sustainability is also about resilience, innovation and the capacity to endure.

Working with this broad definition, Sustainability TV produces an enormous range of content. You can watch former Miss Canada Tara Teng deliver a 2 minute monologue about human trafficking. Or there’s a 4 part series about intentional communities and eco-villages. Lest We Forget, a 25 minute mini-documentary features a group of Canadian veterans gathering on Remembrance Day.  There are videos about science, finance, sports, farming and public health.
“The vision isn’t about beating people up with a green stick,” Jason says in one of his videos. “We really want to focus on inspiring and empowering communities. Good Stories, about good people, doing  really good things. That’s the intention of Sustainability Television.”

Changing the World

1_2_3923335444Any way you look at it, Jason is an enigma. There’s a moment of cognitive dissonance for me when he first speaks—the businessman image conflicting with an unexpected set of stated interests. For one, Jason claims to be entirely unmotivated by money. He’s fixated on a set of values whose origin he can’t quite explain. These values are neither political nor religious; Jason claims to be completely a-political, and although he mentions a deep interest in religion, will only go as far to say that there’s a “spiritual component” to his work.

He’s given up a successful career in the finance industry, says he works 16 hours a day 7 days a week—paying himself for half or even less of that time—and is single on account of the time demands of his business. It seems funny to some people how much money Jason “doesn’t make,” and some have even suggested he’s living a missionary life. To that, he replied, in true utilitarian fashion: “I don’t judge my success as a human being, or as a man, by how much money I make, but rather by my utility to society.”

Jason is no missionary; Sustainability TV is not bent on advocacy. There’s no agenda or call to action foisted on viewers. It’s simple, really: find amazing, uplifting stories, and tell them.

“It’s easy to say something negative,” says Jason. “Instead of junk in junk out, how about excellence in and excellence out. That’s what I’m trying to do with the media…trying to help focus on the positive things in our society.”
It’s not just the variety in content which is large, but his vision for change.

“I’m trying to find what unites us as human beings. To solve the problems of our world, we have to look at those commonalities. Not what divides us, but what unites us.”1_2_1126588813

Jason’s scope is global; he wants to change the world. But despite his self proclaimed disinterest in money, he can’t get past its necessity.

“We live in a capitalist society. Money makes the world go round,” he says. “The real opportunity here is to change investment and how investment decisions are made. We want to be able to show that we can make a profit and do good at the same time. If you can have a social conscience, you can have a triple bottom line, and you can make a profit, then by investing in those types of businesses,” he pauses now pronouncing each word in a staccato succession, “You. Can. Change. The world.”

Enduring Alone

If sustainability is resilience, then Jason is enormously sustainable. In the 7 years since starting Sustainability TV, Jason describes its growth as “incremental.” At its outset in 2007, things were looking really good. Then came the global market meltdown, and “fascinatingly,” says Jason, “the whole [world] went to hell in a hand basket.”
Considering that he’s pursuing a triple bottom line, he’s doing well, in at least two of three. But Jason is a bit stuck on the third. Sustainability TV, like a lot of industries after the global meltdown, isn’t making big money. It’s not getting proper investment. He can’t keep employees so his content suffers. He’s not seeing the change he envisioned. Without money, there’s no change. Without change, there’s no money. Something has got to give. But it won’t be Jason.

“It’s not about quick. We have to get out of our mind that were going to make quick money, if you are thinking that way you are still thinking old single bottom line thinking,” said Jason. “If it’s all about money, something has to give in the process. Your morals or integrity, or people feel like they have to sell themselves…Yes [Social Enterprise Business] may take longer. But it’s the only way to make it last.”

1_2_2769275217He continues: “I’m not building a straw house, or a wood house, but a brick house. We’re building something that I hope will long outlive me, and will be able to create and empower and inspire communities long after I’m dead and gone.”

So Jason is enduring. He’s building his brick house alone: a solitary stone mason. Brick by brick he lays the foundation for a project whose scope is unfathomably large. He buys the bricks himself working odd jobs to pay for them.
In the face of seemingly insurmountable problems—materialistic culture, political corruption, a deteriorating ozone—some people choose to remain passively accepting rather than actively persistent. Almost half of our society chooses not to vote—a fact that reflects a number of troubling issues. But perhaps most problematic, it speaks to a society where individuals can’t imagine impacting the larger systems around them.

That’s not the world Jason lives in. His is a world where change is possible. He tells me, one hundred percent confident, that I, as an individual, can change the world.1_3_1317894012

I don’t know if anyone has told me that before. To be honest, I’ve never thought about changing the world. It’s a compelling thing to hear from someone who is so ardently confident in its veracity.

I guess that’s the point.

To learn more about Sustainability TV: