Tom Brennan is a co-founder of the Green Garage, where the Detroit Food Academy office is located, and a leader in Detroit's green building scene.
How did you begin the journey to create the Green Garage? What was the foundation?
My background is Civil and Environmental Engineering, and then I went on in, got an MBA, and then went on to pursue career as a managing partner with aAccenture consulting. That gave me kind of the fundamentals in the sciences, and then fundamentals and business. And then I got involved with a startup environmental nonprofit, the Monroe, Michigan, and a spent a week on the board and I'm allergic to boards. So I'm not a very good board member, because I actually like to just do things versus just talk about them.
During this, I learned quite a bit about the environment and sustainability. I became very interested in the problem and I like large, complex problems. So sustainability became something I got very interested. Then I retired early age and then we formed a group in Troy, Michigan of 40 families that began working on sustainability. And every Tuesday for two hours at our kitchen table, we held a group meeting that was attended by 8 to 15 people. And we started to study sustainability in a really deep way. We spent nine months on just water. We were not only studying but also changing our own lives. So, we sold the car, reduced our water usage and energy usage by around 70%, and began composting to reduce our waste. We got into all this, and instead of it being a harder life, for some, it was just more enjoyable. That's when I started riding buses and riding my bike and realized this was a better way to live.
So then you hear in the media that there is, there are people who are saying that the environment and the economy can are in conflict with one another. And I'm one of the people that totally disagree with that. I believe that they're in harmony with each other, and that we just haven't worked on this problem long enough. So there's ways in which you can work on the environment, reduce your economic costs. And so it's just like, you have to look at ways to reduce your waste that reduces your costs and helps with that, but then we haven't got to the triple bottom line, which is just something that I work on, it's a good framework to walk through. I mean, it doesn't support all the detail that you need to get into. But the triple bottom line where you're profitable, take care of the planet and lift up the community around you. And the primary action on the business, the primary business. I mean, I love this space, I just love it. It's so challenging. There are so many new opportunities that you discover it is just like this magnificent adventure. And all this, the more that this positions us for that future. So I love to be involved with people in that problem. And, and kind of just change the way that we're all we're taught to think this. So are there things where you say, oh, by the way, this is more expensive to do it the environment? Well, then, I mean, that can lead to an entire conversation, let's just say that at the end of the day, it is what it is today. That doesn't mean that we can't work on it. And then it's not tomorrow to me.
I love these challenges that are attacking problems that people think are not solvable, and that we can work on them together and come to some good answers. So I just I press on that all the time, like the green garage that we're sitting in right now people would say, when we did this back in 2007. You know, you you know, you can't get anything done with this city of Detroit? Well, you can and we did and it was great. You can't do an environmental rehab on an existing this building at that time. No, we did. You can't do it on a historic building, they won't allow you to do it. We did. So like all these you can't, you can't you can't we just keep pushing through those walls. And so this allows now people you know that on Friday, we have our community lunch, and most people that come in and go okay, this is what living at 10% of the energy waste. And water is what it looks like, this is what it feels like. And so if you experience this, it has changed how people think about stuff. And that's really where we're not trying to be prescriptive, like, Oh, you gotta do it this way. Or we have all these rules about, you know, what you have to do come experience it and then figure out what your you want to do and can do in your own life, giving your understanding your resources and the people that you know, and all that.
What is one of the biggest hurdles you’ve had to over come?
I think the main hurdle that we all overcome is you have to take some of the major frameworks and paradigms that have been given you by society by academics. I mean, you're in the middle of a paradigm at Duke, like, these things have got to change. And so how do we change these?
I am not naive. they were healthy at some time. But they may not be the healthiest and the best thing in the future. So how do we challenge them? How do we be humble and open to like, our view will be imperfect. Also, during the main, we're going to have unintended consequences. But like, all these things, I mean, like, you know, I mean, to me, I think the universities are, are getting there there's not a lot of deep sustainability. So how do we get there? And so I think they need to be challenged the adversities, businesses need to be challenged, our governments need to be challenged. So, there was no director of sustainability for the city of Detroit when we started, and there's, there's one now so like, I mean, all this stuff is changing them. Leadership means you just keep moving on in front of them, and seeing what's there and what can be done.
What is your definition of social entrepreneurship?
Mine definition is the triple bottom line. That's, that's the one I use. It is imperfect. If you look at the research behind it is not really strong. But I have found it to be adequate. Perfect, no.
But we do all of our planning off of a triple bottom line.
I have to operate out of the for profit area. I am not good at the nonprofit area at all. I don't, it doesn't really work with me very well. I always tell my mother allergic to it. But the reason is the economic them helps be test whether what I'm doing is a value to people,
right? So everybody here in the building pays the lease. So at least have to get over that hurdle that's easier than talking to our foundation and trying to figure out what they want to do and bring them in. Yeah, I'm just not really good at that. I don't have the patience for that.
So for me, it's profit based. And so for profit, I think the fundamental question is, again, I challenge thinking, so now this is on the very far left, you know, profits are bad, I don't agree. I think profits can be bad, and they can be good. So you just have to figure out, it's what you do with your profits. And it's how did you come by your profit? So are you paying a fair wage here in the main room coming up somebody else's, you know?
So, and again, I'm not this, we're not perfect. We're just trying to figure it out. But I don't I don't believe profits are bad. But I think you can do a lot of good with profits.
Why did you choose to stay in Detroit?
I was born in Detroit, and my relationship with Detroit, like anyones, is hugely complex.
And as now, as an older adult, as I in my 60s, and all that I just really, for the first time in my life, I just really have fallen in love with to Detroit.
Not because of interest, not because of development, not because of, I can think it's now headed in the right direction for that. My classroom was a rolling classroom, which was the the Woodward bus that I would take back and forth for six years. And, you know, Detroit, just, I just find the most, for me the most authentic in strong, eclectic group of people that that I’ve met.
I think part of it was when you're born in Detroit, and, and that, so, Detroit, though has so such a magnificent and complex and amazing and painful past and like I, you know, there's nothing, it's all in there, you know, it's just all in there.
As I get older, I am able to understand more of it. More of the pain, more of the promise, more of the architecture, and I am educated by the people that can have them long time here. I have lived all my life in and around Detroit. I love how people here engage with reality. It's very educational. It's very healthy. I'm not trying to solve all the problems, but I am very interested in how people here deal with them.