What a long strange trip it’s been: How the Social Venture Network changed business in America

Ben Cohen, of Ben & Jerry’s renown, is asking me for money, and he’s not selling ice cream. I give him a dollar bill, he stamps it in red ink — NOT TO BE USED FOR BRIBING POLITICIANS — and returns it to me. It’s part of his new crusade to get corporate money out of politics.

“Corporations are not people, and money is not free speech,” Cohen declares.

The 61-year-old ice-cream mogul sold Ben & Jerry’s to Unilever in 2000.  (He’s on the left, without his trademark beard, next to his longtime pal Jerry Greenfield.) The T-shirt says: “Stamp Money Out of Politics.” These days,  as “Head Stamper” at StampStampede, Cohen is working for an amendment to the US Constitution to get money out of politics.

It sounds improbable but no more improbable than this: That a gathering of about 70 people, including Ben and his partner Jerry Greenfield, at the rustic Gold Lake Mountain Resort not far from Boulder, Colorado, Colorado back in 1987 could spawn a movement that has changed the way millions of Americans think about and do business. The Gold Lake get-together led to the creation of the Social Venture Network (SVN), a group of business people, investors and philanthropists, many of them shaped by the political and cultural movements of the 1960s, who believe that business can change the world for the better. About 700 SVN members, friends and family gathered last week in New York for a 25th anniversary dinner and celebration–a time to assess how far their movement to remake business has come, and how far it needs to go.

The dinner was a star-studded affair, at least for those of us who pay attention to businesses that aim to build a more just and sustainable economy. On hand along with Ben and Jerry were Eileen Fisher of the eponymous clothing company, Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm, Drew and Myra Goodman of Earthbound Organic, George Siemon of dairy co-op Organic Valley, Jeffrey Hollender, formerly of Seventh Generation, Chip Conley, founder of Joie de Vivre Hotels, Roger Brown and Linda Mason of Bright Horizons, Amy Domini of Domini Social Investments, all of whom were named to the SVN “Hall of Fame.” Spotted in the crowd of 700 or so were Gifford Pinchot III, president of of Bainbridge Graduate Institute, my friends Seth Goldman of Honest Tea and author Mark Albion (More Than Money: Questions Every MBA Needs to Answer), Danny Kennedy of Sungevity–the closest thing to a power elite of the sustainable business movement.

None of them, to be sure, run FORTUNE 500 companies. But the movement birthed by SVN powered the field of corporate social responsibility, opened up new possibilities for entrepreneurs, raised expectations that big companies now need to meet and helped shape the way companies ranging from Google (“Don’t be Evil”) to Walmart do what they do. [click to continue…]

Barack, Paul Newman and me

Magazines love lists. FORTUNE has its 500 biggest companies, Forbes has its 400 richest people, Cosmopolitan has 75 Crazy-Hot Sex Moves and Ethisphere has the 100 Most Influential People in Business Ethics in 2008. President Obama (No. 14), the late Paul Newman (No. 91) and I (No. 39) all made the Ethisphere list because we were judged by the magazine to have “greatly influenced the business ethics realm over the past year.”

Others on the list included CEOs Lee Scott of Wal-Mart (6), Dave Steiner of Waste Management (11), Jeff Immelt of GE (16), Anne Mulcahy of Xerox (22), Neville Isdell (40) who’s just stepped down at Coca-Cola, Eric Schmidt of Google (41) and Howard Schultz of Starbucks (63). Tom Friedman (20) and Paul Krugman (31) of The Times made the list, as did social-investment leaders Peter Kinder of KLD Research (67), Joe Keefe of Pax World (69), Barbara Krumsiek of Calvert (92) and Amy Domini of the Domini Social Invements (93). Of course I’m flattered to be in such good company.

The name to watch on the list is, of course, Obama. He will have more influence on business than anyone in the year ahead, and he seems likely to use it. He has been in office for less a week and has already made two decisions that will have significant impact.

On his first day in office, Obama issued a presidential memorandum on transparency that directs federal agencies to be more open and to invite participation from citizens. It says, among other things:

Information maintained by the Federal Government is a national asset. My Administration will take appropriate action, consistent with law and policy, to disclose information rapidly in forms that the public can readily find and use. Executive departments and agencies should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public.

This won’t affect business directly, but it sets an example that big companies will feel pressure to follow. Right now, I’m working on a story about lobbying by a big Washington trade association and finding that companies won’t tell their own shareholders what they spend on the association and its lobbying. That’s not right, and it probably won’t last.

Second, Obama is going to direct federal regulators today to let California and 13 other states set stricter fuel economy and emissions standards for cars, according to The Times. This is a big deal, and it comes over the opposition of the auto industry. I’m not persuaded that higher CAFÉ standards are the best way to raise the fuel efficiency of the U.S automobile fleet—I’d prefer a revenue-neutral gasoline tax, with the monies raised used to lower payroll taxes—but Obama’s decision is a strong and swift signal to business that companies had better get ready for tougher environmental rules.

The most important thing Obama and the new SEC can do to improve business ethics is to force reforms in corporate governance, giving shareholders the right to nominate directors for boards and giving them more influence over executive pay.

As Carl Icahn wrote last week in The Wall Street Journal:

Faltering companies are now soaking up hundreds of billions of tax dollars, and they are not substantially changing their management structures as a price for taking this money.

How does it serve the economy when we subsidize managements that got their companies into trouble? Where is the accountability? More importantly, where are the results?

The CEOs on Ethisphere’s list, or at least the ones I know, run their businesses for the benefit of shareholders, as well as for the good of the broader society. But many other do not, and right now there is no way shareholders can get rid of overpaid, self-aggrandizing CEOs.

I’m thinking in particular of Merill Lynche’s former CEO, John Thain, who even as he was preparing to lay off thousands of people, spent $1.22 million of company money to refurbish his office. As CNBC’s Charles Gasparino reported:

Big ticket items Thain purchased include: $87,000 for an area rug in Thain’s conference room and another area rug for $44,000; a “mahogany pedestal table” for $25,000; a “19th Century Credenza” in Thain’s office for $68,000; a sofa for $15,000; four pairs of curtains for $28,000; a pair of guest chairs for $87,000; a “George IV Desk” for $18,000; six wall sconces for $2,700; six chairs in his private dining room for $37,000; a mirror in his private dining room for $5,000; a chandelier in the private dining room for $13,000; fabric for a “Roman Shade” for $11,000; a “custom coffee table” for $16,000; something called a “commode on legs” for $35,000; a “Regency Chairs” for $24,000; “40 yards of fabric for wall panels,” for $5,000 and a “parchment waste can” for $1,400.

I would have put Thain on the Ethisphere list. If we’re lucky, his behavior will influence business ethics—for the better—in 2009.