With a philosophy of “Food with Integrity”, Steve Ells, the founder and chairman of fast-food chain Chipotle Mexican Grill believes that it’s really important that people know where their food is coming from.

Ells is a certified chef trying to defy the definition of fast food for the many consumers visiting its 870 restaurants. Chipotle buys no pork from factory farms and 100% of the chicken they serve is grown on a vegetarian diet, free-ranged with no antibiotics.

Steve’s main supplier is Joel Salatin, owner of family-owned Polyface Farms, who prides himself on sustainable farming practices that fundamentally challenge the existing food system. More details are available in ABC’s coverage of the story.

The ABC journalists’ skeptical demeanor is representative of those who struggle to understand why any business person would want to run a business that defies conventional wisdom in a well-established industry. Is it not suicide, or at least an oxymoron, to combine the ideology of fast food with sustainability?

The journalist asked about the exorbitant costs expected from the operation of a restaurant like Chipotle as if to suggest that it would be impossible to compete with the likes of McDonald's. But this misses the bigger point. Chipotle’s strategy is a really good example of how sustainability can be a differentiator in the $1 billion dollar fast food industry. For the first time, consumers can align their quest for convenience and relatively low-cost food with health, well-being and environmental sustainability.

The video ends with the journalist asking Ells whether he is more excited about the business model than the consumer. An interesting question indeed. Many of the businesses I’ve had the pleasure of visiting that embed sustainability in this way recognize that the market typically isn’t there waiting for the company to provide what this product or service. Otherwise all the reactionary unsustainable companies would have changed by now. Social entrepreneurs and the visionaries need to play a role in creating, or at least redefining, the market. A huge part of this involves educating the consumer on 1) the dangers socially and ecologically of the existing fast food industry and 2) the opportunity associated with having best of both worlds.

To the question: “Do you think consumers will appreciate it more? Steve responds:

“Well I think they will appreciate it more. Again, I think this is a journey. You can’t just flip a switch and have 100% free ranging chicken and pork…this is something that is going to take time.”

Unlike traditional entrepreneurs who build businesses based on existing market demands and trends, social entrepreneurs adopting sustainability need to play an active role in building a market for their products and services - perhaps an illustration of the difference between those who follow and those who lead.

Logo graphic taken from Chipotle Mexican Grill reproduced under Creative Commons