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…]

Is investing in poor women good business?

A health educator at her work station in Bangladesh

One lesson of the Apple in China scandal is that factory monitoring is a necessary but insufficient way to improve the lives of workers in poor countries. Apple inspected its suppliers’ factories, but conditions remain harsh. While strengthening inspections and sanctions, smart brands and retailers are finding ways to help workers in their supply chains gain more control over their work and lives.

A program run by BSR (Business for Social Responsibility) called the HERproject, which gives women working in export factories access to health information, is an example of what could–and should–be done. Teaching young women about health, including reproductive health and family planning, is, by itself, a good thing. It also delivers a not-so-subtle message to factory owners that it might be good for their business to take better care of workers, instead of exploiting them until they are used up.

Many factory owners “see their workers as cogs in a machine” and act accordingly, says Racheal Yeager, who leads the HERproject for BSR. “That’s why there are high rates of turnover and high rates of absenteeism.”

“What we’re trying to do is change the mindset of the factory management,” she says. [click to continue…]

BSR’s Aron Cramer: Leaders need to listen to weak signals

Aron Cramer

Today, I’m pleased to publish the second in a series of guest posts about redefining leadership from Aron Cramer, the president and CEO of BSR. BSR (formerly Business for Social Responsibility) works with its 250 member companies to promote a more just and sustainable world, through research, consulting and industry collaborations. Aron, who’s a longtime colleague and friend, has worked all over the world on business issues ranging from labor rights in global supply chains to Internet freedoms in China to the meaning of “sustainable consumption.” Here, he writes about the importance of listening to and learning from voices at the margins.

When I was researching my book Sustainable Excellence, Nike CEO Mark Parker told me that he manages by the principle that “there are a lot of smart people in the world, and most of them don’t work for me.” And while Parker is duly proud of the people he does have at Nike, he points to a central truth: Valuable insight and knowledge is now held in more hands than at any other time in human history.

As we consider how leadership is changing, it is clear that today’s most effective leaders have the ability—and willingness—to listen to weak voices they would have considered irrelevant to their business a generation ago. Indeed, these leaders are able to see across multiple disciplines, perspectives, and geographies.

Historically, leadership used to be exercised by people (usually men) who  had a corner on information, and who would speak with unshakeable authority. They were expected to have all the answers. Today, those who lead do so through their ability to find  all the answers. As Stewart Brand famously said, “information wants to be free.” In a world which is drowning in data, no own can monopolize knowledge; but smart leaders can win by listening to voices that others ignore and by mining the data  for fresh insights. [click to continue…]

Aron Cramer: Business needs to step up

Aron Cramer

Today, I’m pleased to publish the first in a series of guest posts from Aron Cramer, the president and CEO of BSR. BSR (formerly Business for Social Responsibility) works with its 250 member companies to promote a more just and sustainable world, through research, consulting and industry collaborations. Aron, who’s a longtime colleague and friend, has worked all over the world on business issues ranging from labor rights in global supply chains to Internet freedoms in China to the meaning of “sustainable consumption.” Here, looking ahead to BSR’s 2011 conference in San Francisco, he writes about the need for business leaders to step outside the boundaries of their companies to re-energize the sustainability agenda.

Most years, people are reluctant to see summer fade into fall. But the summer of 2011 was a bit of a bummer, bringing hurricanes and earthquakes in the American Northeast; ongoing political stagnation in the United States, Europe, and Japan; and signs that the world’s mature economies are stuck in neutral—and may remain that way for some time. Leaving this summer behind feels like a relief.

It’s up to business to turn things around. That’s why BSR has made redefining leadership as the theme of the BSR Conference 2011.

We view this opportunity as having four dimensions, which we outlined in our most recent annual report. In this series of blog posts, I want to elaborate on each one, beginning with the need for business leaders to invest in the infrastructure required for sustainability. [click to continue…]

Don’t wash your jeans!

You learn something every day in this business. During a recent visit to the San Francisco headquarters of Levi Strauss & Co., the $4-billion a year clothing company best known for its Levi’s jeans, I was talking with Michael Kobori, the company’s director of sustainability, about the company’s its effort to measure the carbon and water  footprints of its products, when he told me this:

Denim aficionados don’t wash their jeans.

Now, I’ve been wearing jeans since my teen years in the 1960s. Working out of a home office, I probably wear jeans, oh, 320 out of 365 days a year. But this came as news to me.

Michael explained that true jeans lovers buy a tight pair of unwashed jeans, wear them for a while, and very occasionally–maybe once or twice a year–get in the bathtub wearing the jeans, let the water soak into them, then hang them to dry. That way, they mold to your body. What’s more, you save water, detergent, energy and your jeans last longer by avoiding the wear and tear of wash and dry cycles.

Who knew?

Michael and I got onto the subject of fabric care because we were talking about Levi Strauss’s environmental impact. Back in 2007, the company did a life cycle assessment (LCA) of a pair of 501 jeans and a pair of Docker’s khakis. (Dockers is owned by Levi Strauss.) The company’s experts found that, by far, the biggest impact of the product was in the cotton grown to make the jeans–growing cotton requires lots of water and pesticides–and in the washing and drying of jeans once they get into the hands of the consumer.

“Fifty-eight percent of all energy consumed during the life cycle of a pair of jeans comes during the time a consumer washes and dries them at home,” Michael wrote in the Huffington Post.

He told me: “If consumer use and cotton are the two biggest impacts, that’s what we need to focus on.” [click to continue…]

Sustainable consumption: Opportunity or oxymoron?

Imagine that you’re the chief sustainability officer of a FORTUNE 500 company. During a meeting with your CEO, you say: “We need to talk to consumers about using less.”

Improbable? Sure.

Impossible? Perhaps not.

An important conversation to start? Absolutely.

So, at least, says Aron Cramer, the CEO of Business for Social Responsibility (BSR), a nonprofit association of companies, whose mission is to promote a just and sustainable world.

“The American model of consumption cannot be extended to the entire world, and won’t be, because the planet simply can’t support it,” Aron told me, when we spoke by phone the other day. Yet billions of people around the world want to improve their standard of living. Figuring out how they can enjoy a better life, without destroying the environment, “is the mother of all innovation challenges,” Aron says,

Last month, BSR published a 26-page report called The New Frontier in Sustainability: The Business Opportunity in Tackling Sustainable Consumption [PDF, free download). It’s an attempt to get business leaders to think about what sustainable consumption might look like.

The topic “has been the third rail of sustainability politics,” Aron told me, but he added, with his usual optimism, that “more companies are ready to have this discussion.”

If nothing else, the report makes clear the urgency of the issue. Citing a WWF report [PDF], it says:

By recent estimates, our global footprint now exceeds the world’s capacity to regenerate by about 30 percent, and if our current demands continue, by 2030 we will need the equivalent of two planets to maintain our lifestyles.

And yet:

…countless people have insufficient access to basic needs like food, clean water, and adequate shelter, and they also lack access to the resources they need to improve their lives. In 2006, the 1.2 billion people in the OECD countries had an average annual income per capita of US$30,580, while the 5.4 billion people in the rest of the world earned an average of US$3,130. Of those, 19 percent suffer from hunger, 28 percent are drinking polluted water, and 29 percent are illiterate.7 More than 2 billion people continue to rely on less than US$2 per day to meet their needs.

The question is, what business opportunities, if any,  await companies that figure out how to give poor and middle class people what they want in a sustainable way? [click to continue…]

Hyatt (still) should be ashamed

Business for Social Responsibility (“The Business of a Better World”) does valuable work with business around social and environmental issues. It’s helped organize efforts to get global companies to take responsibility for the rights of workers in their supply chains, particularly in poor countries.

So what will BSR do about its 2009 conference, the premiere event on the corporate-responsibility circuit, now scheduled for the Hyatt Regency Embarcadero in San Francisco?

hyattYou’ve heard about Hyatt’s labor problems by now, haven’t you? Last month, Hyatt laid off 98 housekeepers at three Boston hotels, replacing them with lower-paid workers from an outsourcing firm called Hospitality Staffing Solutions of Georgia, which provides 4,500 workers to hotels in more than 30 cities.

The Hyatt workers were paid $14 to $16 an hour, according to The Times, while the replacements will make $8 an hour. Workers who lost their jobs say they were told to train their replacements for “vacation relief,” then abruptly informed that they were being canned. Hyatt denies that it misled anyone.

[click to continue…]