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…]

They said it at Brainstorm Green

Here are some highlights of FORTUNE’s Brainstorm Green conference, which wrapped up yesterday. I’m co-chair of the event, which brought about 300 corporate leaders, environmentalists, investors and academics to Laguna Niguel, CA, for three whirlwind days of talk about how business can help solve the world’s big environmental problems:

Alan Mulally at FORTUNE Brainstorm Green

The trouble with electric cars:  Batteries remain heavy and very expensive, adding about $12,000 to $15,000 to the cost of a Ford Focus that would otherwise be priced at about $22,000, said Ford’s CEO, Alan Mulally. During a q-and-a with the audience, he said:

…a battery for a hybrid vehicle is around a 2 kilowatt hour battery, weighs around 100 pounds, maybe around $2,000.  And as you move to a plug-in hybrid size, say around 8 to 10 kilowatt hours, then that weight moves up to around 300 pounds and the cost is around $7,000 to $8,000.  And then when you move into an all-electric vehicle the battery size moves up to around 23 kilowatt hours, it weighs around 600 to 700 pounds — some people actually are taking our seats to be able to carry the battery around, not us — and also they’re around $12,000 to $15,000….So, you can see why the economics are what they are.

Of course, drivers who pay $39,200 for a Focus EV will save a lot of money on fuel during the life of the car, depending on gas prices and how much they drive. That’s a reminder of another dilemma facing potential electric-car buyers.  Ford says its Focus can go up to 76 miles on a full charge, so it’s ideal for people (like me) who don’t drive much. But the less you drive, the longer it takes to recover the higher up-front costs of the car in the form of lower operating costs.

Even so, sales of hybrids and electrics were the fastest-growing segment in the U.S. auto market in the first quarter. They accounted for less than 5% of vehicles sold but Mulally said their share will grow as battery prices come down.

“We see this as continually growing,” he said. “This is a long-term journey.” [click to continue…]

Expo West: Beyond chocolate and chia

Today’s guest post comes from the aptly-named Catherine Greener, the CEO of co-founder of consulting firm Clear Green Advisors. Cat, as she’s known, is one of the sharpest people in the world of environmental consulting. A native of Detroit who is trained as a industrial engineer, she’s an expert in manufacturing, among other things, and began her career as a maintenance supervisor for Pontiac Motors. Cat knows how things get done, and she knows business, too–she has an MBA from Michigan and has advised Procter & Gamble, FedEx, Shell, Nissan and Ingersoll Rand, among others. She filed this report after a trip to Natural Products Expo West, a giant trade show held every year in Anaheim, CA.

Back at my desk in Boulder after three days at Natural Products Expo West, the largest convention of people in the natural, organic and supplements industries, I am tired and I have a list of people to email or call. But I am filled with an optimism that is rare after attending a trade show.

At Expo West, as it’s known, about 50,000 or so vendors, retailers, buyers and product seekers convened in Anaheim to learn about emerging ideas and and exciting new products in these high growth businesses, which encompass everything from raw organic energy bars to shampoo made from beer. I took the opportunity to listen to legends like Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm, meet authors including Paul Greenberg (Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food) and enjoy a beer with Adam Lowry, Co-founder of Method, one of the leaders of a new wave of young entrepreneurs.

Expo West overwhelms the senses. The vast convention center is filled with organic chocolate that will stop you in your tracks, essential oils, raw vitamin drinks, gluten-free grilled cheese sandwiches— and something even for the eyes—the chance to be photographed with Fabio.

I attend Expo West to see trends. This year’s product trends were easy to spot: raw, GMO-free, gluten-free (and delicious) and Chia, which is not just for “pets” anymore, but is being added to foods for its health benefits (Omega-3’s and fiber).

But for me, at least, the most interesting trend at this year’s Expo West had nothing to do with products; it had to do with the companies that were exhibiting–the emergence of the Benefit Corporation, or “B-Corp”.

King Arthur Flour proudly displayed their B-Corp logo next to their other 3rd-party certifications.  Why should this matter? Shouldn’t only the quality of the product matter to the shopper? “Consumers are interested in the type of company that you are, just as much as the kind and quality of the product that you make,” explains Tom Payne, Director of Marketing, at King Arthur Flour.

I may be going out on a limb, but it feels like a movement is growing here. Companies that are good for the world want to “occupy your cart, refrigerator or cupboard.” And shoppers seem ready to listen.

Consumers want to know more–not just about what they are buying, but who they are buying from. They want to know if there is “pink slime” in their kid’s lunch, or if their cans have BPA in the liner, and, if so, why a company felt the need to use it there. If a company can assumer its customers that it is providing them with the most natural and healthy product possible, and that it cares about the community and the planet, and that it embraces a new way of doing business, it can build a powerful brand around transparency, authenticity and trust.

I look forward to Expo West 2013. As for trends, I think we are going to see even more Certified B Corps. It’s the right marketplace. It’s the right message.

Biotech crops are winning over farmers

Bill Gates with farmers in India

The debate over biotech crops has become predictable.

In his 2012 annual letter from the Gates Foundation, Bill Gates, who has a near-religious faith in technology and innovation, argues that an “extremely important revolution” in plant science, i.e., genetically-engineered crops, can help farmers in poor countries by giving them access to new varieties of crops that will better resist disease and adapt to climate change.

Days later, the Center for Food Safety, a Washington watchdog group and persistent critic of Big Ag, pushed back, saying that biotech crops had failed to deliver on their promise to alleviate hunger, and that Gates would do better to support low-cost “agroecological techniques” that don’t depend on patented, genetically-engineered seeds.

The conflicting claims and supporting data are hard to sift through. Will disease-resistant biotech cassava answer the prayers of Christina Mwinjipe, a farmer in Tanzania, whose crops are threatened by diseases, as Gates writes? Or will patented genetically engineered crops prove disastrous for the 1.4 billion farmers in  the global south who now save seeds from one season to the next, as Andrew Kimbrell, executive director for the Center for Food Safety, argues?

The voices of farmers are rarely heard in these debates. (They’re probably working too hard.) But data released this week indicates  farmers, through their actions, are voting for biotech crops.

Last year, farmers planted an additional 12 million hectares of biotech crops, an increase of 8 percent over 2010, according to the annual biotech crop report of the ISAAA (International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications).

Most of that growth — 8.2 million hectares — came from the developing world, lead by Brazil and  India, the report says. The growth rate for biotech crops in developing countries was 11 percent, twice as fast and twice as large as industrial countries at 5 percent or 3.8 million hectares.

“Unprecedented adoption rates are testimony to overwhelming trust and confidence in biotech crops by millions of farmers worldwide,” said Clive James, the report’s author, in a statement. It must be said that James is an unabashed supporter of biotech crops but as best I can tell, his numbers haven’t been challenged. [click to continue…]

Big brands take climate action but…

Led by Unilever, Astra Zeneca and Nike, consumer brands are taking climate change more seriously than ever, says a new report from Climate Counts, a nonprofit that rates some of the world’s largest companies on their climate impact.

Big companies are reporting emissions, committing to targets and becoming more vocal in the policy arena, according to the report.

“There’s evidence to suggest we have reached a remarkable tipping point,” says Mike Bellamente, project director of Climate Counts. “Global corporations are increasingly acknowledging climate change as reality and are adopting measures to reduce their emissions and environmental impact.”

This is the fifth report from Climate Counts, which is the brainchild of Stonyfield Farms CE-Yo Gary Hirshberg. The ratings are intended to make consumers more aware of leaders and laggards on climate — the term of art for this is “rank ’em and spank ’em — as well as to spur companies to do better. or whatever reason, companies are improving: Bellamente told me over the phone the other day that the average score for the 136 companies rated this year is up by an impressive 54% from the initial set of ratings. [click to continue…]

Best books on corporate sustainability?

Judging by the number of books about business and the environment piling up on my shelves, the corporate sustainability movement is alive and well.

One of the best is Business Lessons from a Radical Industrialist by Ray Anderson, the founder and chairman of the commercial carpet company Interface.

I’ve been provided with two signed copes of the paperback edition to give away. I’m expecting a signed copy of Howard Schultz’s book, which I’m also going to give to a blog reader. More on that, in a moment.

But first, a few thoughts about Ray and his book. Ray is a terrific guy who has had a great influence on business people across America, by tirelessly promoting the idea that a truly sustainable approach to business  is good for business. (See my 2009 interview, Ray Anderson, Radical Industrialist.) “Take nothing from the earth that cannot be replaced by the earth” is how he puts it. [click to continue…]

GMOS and organics: Why can’t they get along?

Today I’m at the Atlantic Food Summit, a jam-packed gathering of Washington policy-makers, ag experts, consultants, lobbyists, foodies and chefs (Alice Waters! Sam Kass!) who have gathered to talk about sustainable agriculture, feeding the global poor, the obesity crisis, farm subsidies, school lunches and the White House garden.

What I’m struck by is the not just the discussion about what all agree is the big issue — how to feed a global population that will grow to 9 billion by 2050 — but persistent confusion about underlying facts, evidence and science.

Maybe it’s because food is such an emotional topic. Maybe it’s because it’s complicated. Maybe because it’s local, with no one-size-fits-all solution Or maybe it’s because partisans have reason to sow misunderstanding.

Particularly around the issue of genetically-modified organisms, which may–or may not be- the key to driving agricultural productivity, there’s confusion as well as disagreement. It surfaced during a panel on sustainable agriculture that featured, among others, Gary Hirshberg, the ce-YO of Stonyfield Farm, and Nina Federoff, a molecular biologist and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. [click to continue…]

Honest Tea CEO: Small isn’t beautiful

Seth Goldman, the president and Tea-e-0 of Honest Tea, made it official today:. The Coca-Cola Co. will exercise its option to buy all of Honest Tea, the Bethesda, Md., maker of organic, healthy beverages.

Coke bought 40% of the firm for a reported $43 million in 2008, a controversial move at the time for the upstart company that positioned itself as a challenger to the conventional way of doing business in the beverage industry.

Seth broke the news in a letter to his shareholders last night, in a blog post this morning and in an interview today with me at the State of Green Business Forum 2011 in Washington, arguing that his mission to “democratize organics” will be supported by Coke..

In an unusual twist to the deal–one that amounts to a vote of confidence in Seth’s leadership–Coca-Cola will allow him to repurchase most of his own equity stake in the company. His name will remain on the bottle, along with that of his co-founder, Yale prof Barry Nalebuff, and the company will continue to operate out of its offices in downtown Bethesda, a short bike ride away from Seth’s home. [Disclosure: I’ve known Seth for years and we attend synagogue together.]

“This is absolutely still my baby,” he said. [click to continue…]

Why acai? Ask the Sambazon guys

Jeremy and Ryan Black, with acai

Sometimes, for an entrepreneur, not knowing what you are getting into is a blessing.

If brothers Jeremy and Ryan Black had known what they were up against back in 2000 when they started Sambazon, a company that makes juices, sorbet and smoothie packs from tiny purple berries that grow in the Amazon forests of Brazil, they might not have bothered.

Few Americans then had heard of acai, or knew how to pronounce it. (It’s ah-sigh-ee.) The little berries from tall skinny palm trees can be harvested only once a year, they must be frozen right away to retain freshness and then shipped to the U.S. It’s a cash business, so importers must pay farmers long before the products are sold. And who, for goodness sakes, would sell them?

Harvesting acai

Nor did Jeremy or Ryan know much about the food business. Jeremy, the older bro, who’s now 37, was a financial planner. Ryan, who’s 35, was pursuing a professional football career as a defensive back, hoping to get to the NFL, after a season in the European football league.

All they knew was one thing. “Acai is amazing,” says Jeremy. And they had an idea that if they could figure out how to turn acai into a real business, they could not only do well for themselves but do some good for farmers in the Amazon. Says Ryan: “If this berry became a household word, it could be a really strong force for sustainability in the Amazon.”

It’s taken the Sambazon guys a decade, but things are looking up these days for their company. The No. 1 producer of organic acai, Sambazon doesn’t disclose sales–they were reported at $25 million in 2008–but the company says it is profitable. It employs about 150 people, half of them based in Brazil. You can find its products not only at smoothie bars and Whole Foods, but at mainstream retailers like Safeway and Giant. And the investors in the privately-held company include savvy food guys like Steve Demos, who founded White Wave and put Silk soy milk on supermarket shelves, and Gary Hirshberg, the CE-Yo of Stonyfield Farms. They also secured investments from Root Capital, a nonprofit social investment fund that’s intended to support sustainable livelihoods in the developing world, and from the EcoEnterprises fund run by The Nature Conservancy. [click to continue…]

The high cost of cheap food

hamburger-and-fries-l“We have very, very expensive food in this country.”

“It’s just that the prices are cheap.”

So said Paul Hawken, the environmentalist, entrepreneur and author, in a speech that began Cooking for Solutions, a conference on food and the environment, accompanied by lots of marvelous eating and drinking, this week at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, CA.

The American industrial food system, he said, is bad for the planet, bad for farmworkers and bad for consumers.  “How did we make destroying our land, our children and our health a big business?” Hawken asked.

This was not an upbeat way to start the two-day event, but it’s hard to argue with his analysis. Big Ag produces lots of food–particularly grain and meat–at very cheap prices. According to USDA (cited by Bryan Walsh in this terrific article in TIME), Americans spend less than 10% of their incomes on food, down from 18% in 1966. Farm price supports, cheap fossil fuels and vast amounts of water all drive down the price of food.

And the true social and environmental costs? Let’s tally them. They include millions of tons of fertilizer that runs into rivers and the Gulf of Mexico, created an oxygen-starved dead zone that kills of sea life. Hog and chicken waste that contaminate waterways and the Chesapeake Bay. Overuse of antibiotics on animals that helps create antibiotic-resistant bacteria. If you care about animals, there’s the horror of confined animal feeding operations, or CAFOs. We’ve got food safety risks. Tons of global warming pollution. And, oh yeah, an epidemic of obesity, which, again according to TIME, adds $147 billion (that’s billion with a B) a year to our medical bills.

Ugh. And so, for the rest of day, scientists, activists, academics and a sprinkling of farmers and food company executives such as Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm and Margaret Wittenberg of Whole Foods Market talked about how to make our food system more sustainable.

Here are a just a few highlights: [click to continue…]