You are a social entrepreneur. You are the eco-hero. You want to have 'impact' and the main question is: 'how'? While I will be revisiting this topic in the future from many different angles, I thought it best to start with three well-known companies that I like, and have a solid focus on sustainability. Why are they so well-known? And what is the one lesson we can draw from them?
A couple of years ago sustainability might have been a good way into the market. Green, zero-waste, vegetarian, and Fairtrade products were a way to stand out and to build a brand – today it is essential. The ancient yet longstanding belief that the earth contains resources that are up for grabs is over.
Sustainability has shifted from 'something good to do' to being 'crucial'.
This is why as time passes, we will be reminded more and more of this reality by either future generations that are stepping up (i.e., Greta Thunberg & Extinction Rebellion) or simply by the impact of the climate crisis itself. At first, a focus on sustainability was swimming against the current but as time moves forward the tide shifts and you will be swimming along with it.
Let’s have a look at some companies that already do.
1. Patagonia Inc – Outdoor Clothing
An American clothing company well-known for its Outdoor Clothing that lasts. It was founded in 1973 by rock climber Yvon Choulnard. These days Patagonia is present in almost all the lists for most sustainable clothing companies. Committed to products that do not break, transparency about how the clothing is made, and a 'Worn Wear' section that is focussing on repairing, sharing, and recycling the gear makes Patagonia a famous sustainable brand.
2. Tony’s Chocolonely – Chocolate
A Dutch chocolate producer well known for its Fairtrade practices. Founded in 2005 by Teun (Tony in English) van de Keuken, he named the company Choco’lonely’ since he felt that at that time, he was the only person who actually cared about eradicating (child) slavery. The company buys directly from the farmers in West Africa circumventing the giant companies that exploit the farmers. The company provides their farmers with a premium price of an additional 20% on top of what the local governments set as the base price. In 2020, the company was named the most sustainable brand in the Netherlands for the third time by the Sustainable Brand Index.
3. Triodos Bank
The Greek 'tri-hodos' translates to 'three roads', and refers to the sustainability principles of people, planet, profit. Founded in 1980 it is a company that focuses on 'ethical banking'. It finances companies that add cultural value, and benefit both people and the environment. It only lends money to businesses and charities judged to be of social or ecological benefit. Examples are Fairtrade initiatives, organic farms, cultural and arts initiatives, renewable energy projects, and social enterprises. It is a bank that has a solid score on eerlijkebankwijzer.nl, a website that evaluates banks on a variety of sustainability benchmarks.
Building a movement
These three companies are unique in the way they operate, the sector that they operate in, and the impact that their operation has. However, the one thing that they do have in common is that they are supporting or building a movement – in small or big ways.
First of all, we have the small steps. Triodos Bank actively connects with its customers. For example, they asked customers who their favorite changemakers are and compiled an inspiring 2021 list to connect with on social media. During the pandemic, they provided insights from leading economists on how small businesses could best cope and be sustainable during the corona crisis. In addition, they illustrated how the crisis revealed the shortcomings of our socioeconomic system, presenting a vision for a complete reset of our economy. The bank also has direct engagement with other movements. Last year they for example joined Extinction Rebellion events where they shared their knowledge and vision on citizen assemblies for the climate.
Secondly, we have the medium steps of building a dedicated movement. Tony’s Chocoloneley’s changed their slogan from "on our way to 100% slave-free" to "together we make chocolate 100% slave-free" – and they mean it. The company informs a wide audience, inspires people to take action, and offers them the tools to increase public pressure on key players in the cocoa sector. Supporters can get Tony’s toolbox with materials, video’s and information to carry out awareness missions, and receive rewards by doing so. Next to their own movement, the company supports awareness campaigns with respect to basic human and children rights. Their activism continues by setting up a petition to make 100% slave-free (chocolate) the law.
Finally, we have the big steps of the global activism of Patagonia. The company itself takes strong stances on a variety of issues. They have innovative maternity leave policies where women get 16 weeks of paid maternity leave, men get 12 weeks, and every family is given access to an on-site child care center. They took their ads from Facebook & Instagram in order to protest the way in which these platforms were spreading hateful lies and dangerous propaganda. But most impressively is perhaps their support for a worldwide sustainability movement. The second tab on Patagonia’s website is Activism, stating: “from supporting youth fighting against oil drilling to suing the president, we take action on the most pressing environmental issues facing our world." Patagonia set up a platform called Action Works that allows you to search for issues that you are passionate about like biodiversity, climate, communities, land, or water, and connects you to groups that work on those issues. Next to that Patagonia supports grassroots environmental groups, by allowing them to apply for funding.
Simply put, the one thing these companies have in common is that they are actively building a movement – and are being a part of it.
Join the movement
Building a movement helps you in a number of ways. It forces you to set up a vision that is crystal-clear. If not, activists will start to ask questions, become disorganized, or even act in ways you did not intend. A movement also holds you accountable: people will speak up if they do not agree with your actions, and since they are often volunteers, they dwindle in numbers if you do not deliver on your promises - your actions will need to speak louder than your words.
A movement is a mirror that reflects in a painfully honest way what you are actually about.
This is why a movement when done right, shatters greenwashing, provides you with a solid credibility, and therefore is the best form of advertisement you will ever get. New research questions the effectiveness of online advertisement in a number of ways. So why bother when we intuitively already know that word of mouth is the best way forward.
Tony Chocolonely is the market leader in The Netherlands, almost everyone knows the company and their chocolate, and in 2018 they generated revenues of over € 55 million (a 22% increase) while not spending a single Euro on advertising!
In a world that is facing societal issues like climate change and economic inequality, or seems to exacerbate a highly polarised, segregated, and individualistic society – we yearn for two things in life: a sense of purpose and a sense of belonging.
“Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?” is what Steve Jobs said to the Pepsi executive John Scully. A day later he resigned and started working for Apple. While not the best example in terms of sustainability, Jobs hit the nail on the head. People want a sense of purpose and in this day and age sustainability is on top of the list.
“Loneliness isn’t the physical absence of other people it’s the sense that you’re not sharing anything that matters with anyone else.” is what author Johann Hari said. This is why a movement can be extra empowering since people feel that they not only have a purpose but are connected, belong, and therefore simply feel alive.
The companies that I talked about present a new way forward and while they are not perfect, they not only build a movement but are a part of it. You can do the same! And once you’re part of this new direction people will get to know your company not only through yourself, your movement but even through other companies as well. It will therefore not only be a movement of people but a movement of companies – and that is what I call impact.
Did you get anything out of this blog, do you have a question about anything I wrote about, or are you critical of some of the things I said? Please share this with me via Instagram DM on my account or leave a reply here. I look forward to hearing from you.
Hi there, thank you for reading!
My name is Serf Doesborgh and my mission is to provide Social Entrepreneurs & Eco Heroes with new perspectives, introduce interesting change makers, and share great initiatives. I hope to provide you with the tools and knowledge you can work with and inspire you to continue your path towards a better future with curiosity and confidence.
I am always hungry for knowledge, looking for different perspectives, and open to a good discussion. Up for a chat? Just say "hi"! I love getting to know you and moving forward together!