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 organic food the answer?

Well, that depends on the question.

Of all the things I write about – energy, the greening of business, the politics and policy of climate change, geoengineering – food is by far the most emotional. With near-religious fervor, people debate the merits or demerits of, broadly speaking, two ways to produce food.

The first can be described, depending upon who’s talking, as big, fast, modern, conventional, industrial, intensive, chemical, genetically-modified, processed and global. It’s the system that delivers most of the food that most Americans eat.

The second is described as organic, sustainable, local, small-scale, family-owned, natural, agro-ecological and slow. It’s driving the growth of farmer’s markets and community-supported agriculture, as well as Whole Foods, and it’s increasingly being taken seriously by big companies like Walmart, Safeway and Kroger’s.

As shoppers and as eaters, most of us partake from both worlds. But make no mistake about it- the advocates of conventional food and those pushing reform are deeply polarized, as I’ve seen first-hand lately. [click to continue…]

The surprising roots of Earthbound Farm

goodman_revDrew and Myra Goodman never planned to become farmers. Two kids from New York City,  they graduated from the same high school and made their way to northern California, where Drew went to UC-Santa Cruz, Myra to Berkeley. (She majored in “The Political Economy of Industrial Societies.”  Ah, Berkeley. ) Grad school was next on her agenda—Myra anticipated a career in international relations—but she and Drew decided to take a year off to live in a 600-square-foot home in rural Carmel Valley. “A romantic adventure,” she called it.

But, as John Lennon once wrote, “life is what gets in the way when you are making other plans.” Drew and Myra grew raspberries on a two-and-half acre plot, selling them first at a roadside stand, then to restaurants in nearby Carmel. They didn’t know much about farming, but because they didn’t like the smell of the chemical fertilizers and pesticides, they tried organic farming, guided by Rodale’s Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. They grew salad greens, too, and while they made only $9,800 in their first year, 1984, they decided that grad school could wait. And then wait some more.

earthboundfarmA quarter century later, their Earthbound Farm is America’s largest grower of organic produce. Drew and Myra were the first to sell the pre-washed bagged salads that are now on supermarket shelves everywhere, and they dominate that market. Today, Earthbound processes and markets more than 100 varieties of salads, vegetables and fruit, gathered from about 150 farmers who tend 35,000 organically-farmed acres from British Columbia to Mexico. Earthbound Farm products are available in 75% of supermarkets across the country, and the firm makes store brands for chains like Costco, Safeway and Trader Joe’s. Annual revenues top $400 million.

Talk about organic growth!

“We’ve been sprinting nonstop,” says Drew, just to keep up. Things eased up a bit lately after he  [click to continue…]