07/11/2011 06:58 pm ET Updated Sep 10, 2011

Building a Humane Economy

"Why the light bulb?" a young entrepreneur once asked Thomas Edison. "I find out what the world needs, then I proceed to invent."

And our 2011 world has a lot of needs. One of them, though, is particularly ripe for a new brand of capitalism.

See, we wouldn't tolerate someone ripping our dog's teeth out (baby pigs); stuffing him in a cramped wire cage (egg-laying chickens); or searing the tip of his nose off with a hot blade (broiler chickens). But sixty billion animals suffer from that type of cruel and inhumane treatment behind the walls of warehouses called factory farms. And 99 percent of all animals eaten or used to produce milk or eggs are factory farmed.

All of this violence fuels a $140 billion-plus a year industry. An industry so entrenched that it feels bizarrely invisible. We're not only being fed meat by this violent system; we're also being fed lies... But not everyone took the blue pill (see: The Matrix):

• 18% of college students are vegetarian
• There are more vegetarians in college than Catholics
• There are more vegetarians than students enrolled in any major, except for business
• 76% of American say that animal welfare is more important than low meat prices

Compassion now has a market. And we're seeing even wider cracks in the system of factory farming, including this week's historic agreement between the Humane Society of the United States and the egg industry. As an entrepreneur, there are a lot of reasons to care about all this, but here's one to remember: selflessness is profitable.

This isn't a story about being a martyr; it's a story about thriving.


Tal Ronnen didn't just use his culinary skills to launch another steak house; he helped build a booming line of animal-friendly food products. Donna Oakes didn't just use her fashion sense to start another clothing company; she's using it to bring world-class (and ethical) designers to the marketplace. Greg Dollarhyde doesn't only see consumer demand for animal products; he sees a band of conscious consumers waiting in line at his hip West Coast restaurant chain.

Sacrificing yourself to the beast of conventional wisdom is a 21st century race to a better spot in the unemployment line. Enjoy the wait -- the economy still isn't looking that good.

Billions of dollars and one hundred years later, Edison's answer captures how some entrepreneurs are responding to the needs of so many animals -- and the values of so many consumers. The system of factory farming craves your ignorance -- but it also fears your creativity. And that is a big fact.