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Akhila Vijayaraghavan headshot

Sweet Beginnings: Creating a Buzz with Honey and Green Jobs

You don't often think of airports and honeybees together in the same context. And you never think of airports, honeybees and ex-convicts together, but that is exactly what Sweet Beginnings is doing. Sweet Beginnings LLC makes raw honey and honey infused personal care products.

They have an all natural urban apiary in the North Lawndale neighborhood in Chicago. Sweet Beginnings is a wholly owned subsidiary of the North Lawndale Employment Network (NLEN). NLEN in collaboration with Sweet Beginnings offers a full-time transitional job for people who have served time.

The core aims of the company gelled with the Chicago Department of Aviation's efforts to make its main airport (O'Hare) more environmentally friendly. The apiary is located just outside the runway protection zone, which means federal regulations prevent development. The land is over-grown with wild-plants, weeds and native vegetation which makes it a rich source of pollen. This undisturbed piece of chemical-free land is foraging heaven for bees and enables them to produce 150 pounds of honey a hive.

They company has about 40 honey producing beehives. Urban honey is often better tasting than rural honey because urban bees have access to a variety of different pollen types.  Urban gardens have various species of flowers growing in small spaces which gives a varied flavour to the honey that is produced. It also means that bees have to travel a smaller distance for a greater bounty.

Beekeeping is a very important part of urban wildlife conservation. Bees the world over are facing severe stress due to climate change, use of antibiotics and disease; sometimes leading to collapse of entire colonies. Colony collapse does not only directly affect honey production, it also affects food and agriculture at large. Bees are the major type of pollinator in ecosystems that contain flowering plants.  According to a UNEP report released last year, "of some 100 crop species which provide 90% of food worldwide, 71 of these are bee-pollinated." Ecosystem services like pollination are said to contribute$14bn to the US economy alone and drop in pollinators would have an adverse effect on already fluctuating food prices.

According to Grist, Sweet Beginnings is targeting three problems with one, eco-friendly solution. Not only are they boosting the numbers of urban bees, they are also helping people and productively using empty land near airports. The company was established by to help fight the many problems facing North Lawndale residents. The community struggles with common problems of inner city neighbourhoods that include crime, drugs and poverty.

Their mission therefore is to help these people by transforming vacant, neglected land into apiaries. The company operates as a paid training program for residents with criminal backgrounds. Both state legislation and private company policies make it very difficult for formerly convicted individuals to find work, keeping them in a vicious cycle of crime.

Since 2007, about 200 former inmates have worked at Sweet Beginnings. The recurring crime rate, or recidivism rate, for Sweet Beginnings employees is 4% which is much lower than the national average of 65%. This initiative has given many people a chance at a new life without crime. The company brings in about $100,000 a year in sales and it projects sales of $2 million in five years. It sells its products at 13 Whole Foods stores, in boutiques and farmers' markets. They also plan on launching kiosks at the O'Hare and Midway airports. So the next time you travel to Chicago, look out for them.

Images: Top - Urban bee foraging for pollen. Photo Courtesy: Akhila VIjayaraghavan ©. Bottom - Sweet Beginnings team members pose with some of their products. Photo Courtesy: Sweet Beginnings.


Akhila Vijayaraghavan headshotAkhila Vijayaraghavan

Akhila is the Founding Director of GreenDen Consultancy which is dedicated to offering business analysis, reporting and marketing solutions powered by sustainability and social responsibility. Based in the US, Europe, and India, the GreenDen's consultants share the best practices and innovation from around the globe to achieve real results. She has previously written about CSR and ethical consumption for Justmeans and hopes to put a fresh spin on things for this column. As an IEMA certified CSR practitioner, she hopes to highlight a new way of doing business. She believes that consumers have the immense power to change 'business as usual' through their choices. She is a Graduate in Molecular Biology from the University of Glasgow, UK and in Environmental Management and Law. In her free-time she is a voracious reader and enjoys photography, yoga, travelling and the great outdoors. She can be contacted via Twitter @aksvi and also http://www.thegreenden.net

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