Rubbing Elbows with Socially Conscious Entrepreneurs – National Consumers League

By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director

As our financial infrastructure implodes and home foreclosures pile up, the reputation of the Wall Street and the business community has never been worse. What an interesting time, then, for a conference that brings together entrepreneurs and companies who are in business for goals that go far beyond making profit. I recently attended the Social Venture Network’s (SVN) fall gathering in San Diego. The National Consumers League has been a passionate advocate of corporate social responsibility. The League’s President Emeritus, Linda Golodner, sits on the International Standards Organization’s committee that is formulating guidelines for companies who strive to be socially responsible. We at NCL see as part of our mission pushing companies to adopt socially responsible practices – e.g., treating workers fairly, minimizing environmental impacts, giving back to the communities where they do business, abiding by and even exceeding health and safety laws, and making safe products.

SVN has been around since 1987. The founders say that a book by economist and former Labor Secretary, Robert Reich, Tales of a New America (1987), inspired  them to bring together business leaders committed to social change and to merging social values with their business goals. Familiar brands like Ben and Jerry’s and the Calvert Social Investment Fund were early SVN backers.

Today SVN’s membership includes hundreds of business who share a dedication to innovative social enterprises. They speak in a language that was new to me – “the triple bottom line– people, planet, profits.

Here are a few of the interesting people I met at SVN:

  • Sarah Bratnober from Organic Farms, whose dairy products I’ve bought for years from my local grocery. The company serves small farmers and rural communities by combining two alternative business models—the family farm and the cooperative. Their 1,296 member farmers represent approximately 10 percent of the organic farming community in America.
  • Joel Mendelsohn, CEO of New Leaf Paper, started a company that leads the industry in the development and distribution of environmentally superior printing and office papers. New Leaf uses ultra-high post-consumer waste content, chlorine free bleaching, and non-wood fibers, to minimize the environmental impact of consumer and business paper consumption. They got a coveted 2008 Social Capitalist award from Fast Money Magazine
  • Adi Bemak, whose media education foundation produces independent films, showed “Consuming Children”  a documentary that shows an avalanche of food, clothing, and toy advertising to children starting at a infancy. The United States is the only industrialized country, apart from New Zealand, to allow corporate advertising aimed at children – and the film documents the violent games and toys marketed to young boys and the sexily-clothed dolls marketed to girls as young as five and six.
  • Greg Christian, who calls himself “Chicago’s Conscious Caterer,” specializes in green, local, sustainable, and organic cuisine. Christian also founded the Organic School Project (OSP), a pilot program within Chicago Public Schools that seeks to transform Chicago-area children into healthier, more mindful eaters. He told me he uses only local and organic produce when possible, buys his dairy products from farms in Wisconsin, and purchases meat from farms in the Mid-west that are free of growth hormones. Christian also practices water conservation, offers re-usable living botanical centerpieces, provides invitations printed on recycled paper, uses biodegradable service ware and eco-friendly cleaning supplies and donates un-served foods to local food banks.

Listening to the stories about how these socially-conscious entrepreneurs got started – how they aligned their business goals with making a positive contribution to the community (and, by the way, created thousands of jobs in the process) – was inspiring and very much in line with NCL’s  mission to encourage business to align profits with a social mission. SVN has for years brought together socially-conscious business owners and start-ups.  In the current environment, when the reputation of business has hit rock-bottom, I wish that more of America could see these men and women who think about the “triple bottom line”  The excitement, the commitment, the energy, the ingenuity, and the hard work –  was nothing short of inspiring.