I recently sat down for a phone interview with Tristan Lecomte, founder of Alter Eco Foods and Pur Projet. Named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2010, Tristan is a social entrepreneur, an innovative thinker and a good friend of mine. We felt it would be interesting to share some of our thoughts about CSR and compare our answers, his from the perspective of a founder of social ventures and mine as a founder of commercial ventures that integrate a high level of CSR.Guillaume: Tell us a little bit about your latest venture, Pur Project, and some of the important causes that you support both as an entrepreneur and as a citizen?
Tristan: I assist companies integrating climate projects into the core values of their business. We help them understand how they can give back to the ecosystem to balance environmental concerns and economics. On a personal level, I believe education is very important. Some years ago, I was able to help a friend of mine create a school in Kathmandu, Nepal. Half of the students from more affluent families pay tuition fees while the other half of the students are comprised of local children who do not have access to proper schooling and they attend for free. We wanted to make the school self-sustained, with fees paid by those who could afford them and pass along the benefits to the other poorer students in the area. My friend has set up a couple of these schools and all they require is a one-time investment of $40k so they can get up and running; after that, they are completely self-sustained. It’s a brilliant idea I was happy to which I was happy to contribute.
Guillaume: For TOTSY, fighting climate change is an extremely important mission. It can be complex to understand, as is the notion of carbon offsetting. But planting trees is very meaningful and it’s a concrete idea that most people understand, which is why we decided to work with Pur Projet to plant a tree for every family that makes a purchase on TOTSY. We also buy green electricity for the office. When you work with Con-Ed in New York City you have the option to buy wind power from wind farms from Green Mountain Energy. It’s not 100% of TOTSY’s electricity use but we buy carbon offsets for the remaining portion. We also buy green products, organic food, we ban plastic single use cutlery and cup, and we buy carbon offsets from Terrapass. We also work with UPS and USPS on green initiatives that offset some of the carbon used for their planes and packaging materials. Unfortunately, I think the public is still very skeptical about whether climate change is even happening.
Guillaume: Are there other, lesser-known causes that you think need to generate more attention from the mainstream media?
Tristan: Definitely. Agroforestry is a cause that if very close to my heart. Agroforestry is the practice of planting various trees among crops. It brings more nourishment to the soil,reduces soil exhaustion, diversifies income for farmers and sometimes can double or triple a farmer’s revenue. There’s also no mainstream movement to promote ecoforestry, which is really a philosophy that encourages people to be connected to their ecosystem. Today, people are disconnected, and the way we live cannot be supported by earth. If we continue to live the way we do, we will need 3.7 earths to sustain our needs and resources. We are essentially living on credit.
Toms Shoes was founded by Blake Mycoskie on the basis that compassion and giving could make difference. After a trip to Argentina, during which Mycoksie witnessed abject poverty (and a large number of shoeless children), he set out to build a company that not only sold Argentine alpargata-designed shoes, but one that would donate one shoe for every one sold. The company has since given away more than one million shoes in more than 50 countries, and it has rewritten the book on corporate social responsibility.
The Toms Shoes model has been described as “a self-feeding loop,” or one that enables an organization to use its proceeds to make charitable gifts. “If I would’ve taken half a million dollars and just bought shoes to give to the kids, I would’ve been able to give the shoes once. It never would’ve been as far-reaching and sustainable as Toms Shoes is now,” Mycoskie explained to Success Magazine in 2009. The model has also enabled the company to generate enough of a following that it can organize community events, including “volunteer-led campus clubs, and the One Day without Shoes event…” according to Policymic.com.
The Kennebunk, Maine-based Tom’s of Maine — a producer of deodorants, soaps and toothpastes — creates products that feature no artificial colors, flavors, fragrances or preservatives. Not one Tom’s product has been tested on animals, for which the company has been endorsed by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and The Coalition for Consumer Information on Cosmetics’ Leaping Bunny Program. However, Tom’s represents much more than what goes into its products and its far-reaching CSR initiatives.
In 2006, Tom’s was acquired by Colgate-Palmolive, which drew skepticism to the company’s future potential to maintain its socially responsible policies. Despite its decision to sell, Tom’s hasn’t sold-out. In addition to Patagonia and Stonyfield Farm, Tom’s is among a small group of companies determined to make as much of a difference as it does a profit.
The company’s website features a 614-word explanation of its goals as a business and as a member of the global community. In the statement, Tom’s cites a respect for nature and environmentalism, a safe work environment for employees, product safety, diversity and, of course, financial success. These pillars of Tom’s CSR philosophy are evident in the work it does with its neighboring community.
As someone whose business is dedicated to helping moms and their families, I was pretty horrified when I came across this statistic the other day: “Women comprise 71 percent of servers, yet a year-round, full-time female server is paid just 68 percent of what her male counterpart is paid ($17,000 vs. $25,000).”
The numbers, based on data provided by the National Organization for Women via the Restaurant Opportunities Center, are even worse for women of color. African American women servers are paid only 60 percent of what male servers are paid. Over the course of her lifetime, a black woman in the service industry will make roughly $400,000 less than her white male counterparts.
This trend isn’t limited to the service industry. Overall, women’s earnings were 77 percent of men’s in 2011, according to Census statistics released September 12, 2012 (based on the median earnings of all full-time, year-round workers). Men’s average earnings in 2011 were $48,202 and women’s were $37,118, a difference of $11,084. Black women earned 69.5 percent, and Hispanic women 60.5 percent, compared to the earnings of white male counterparts.
During the holiday season, we witnessed countless businesses dedicating resources and manpower to giving back to the global community. Companies donated books to children, served warm meals to the hungry, and provided shelter for people visiting hospitalized relatives in distant cities, among many other noble initiatives. However, corporate social responsibility (CSR) extends beyond the holiday season, and, for many organizations, is a ubiquitous part of their organizational ethos. For the next five weeks, I’ll be using this space to spotlight a few of the brands whose CSR projects are truly admirable.
At Totsy, we view CSR as an alignment of our personal and professional values. We believe that businesses with strong ethics outperform rival businesses because consumers would rather be compelled to do the right thing than simply save a few bucks, and employees want to work for a company that stands for something more important than revenue. Perhaps no other brand has embodied this philosophy better than outdoor gear retailer Patagonia.
The Reno, Nevada-based retailer is well-known for its commitment to humane working conditions, reducing its carbon footprint, efficient water usage, revolutionizing the sourcing system for salmon, and donating 1% of annual sales to various charitable endeavors. Ironically, the massive retail chain has also historically shown a commitment to reducing consumerism — even going so far as to take out an advertisement in The New York Times urging consumers NOT to buy a Patagonia jacket. These initiatives are the brain-child of Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, who penned a book, The Responsible Company: What We’ve Learned from Patagonia’s First 40 Years, which goes into great detail about the company’s CSR practices and ideology, and what businesses can do to get started themselves. Not bad for a company that tripled profits from 2008-2011.
Hershey’s is moving to independently sourced rainforest-friendly cocoa - at least for its its Bliss line of chocolate - but it took two years of Facebook campaigning, 50,000 signatures on a Change.org petition, 100,000 letters from concerned customers, and finally threat of a Super Bowl ad to finally pressure the chocolate giant to change its practices.
McDonald’s is phasing out gestation crates and pink slime after similar consumer activism campaigns was too loud and too persistent to ignore.
Social media cynics doubt the value of hitting the “Like” button on Facebook, but these are clear signs that the collective value of the consumer voice has hit an unprecedented pitch, albeit in the form of clicks and tweets.