Can you Save The World as you Spend? A Look at Social Entrepreneurship

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DnA marked the holiday season with a look at values-based capitalism, with advice on holiday gifts that support a good cause (below), interviews with social entrepreneurs Scott Martin and Jeff Denby, and a…

DnA marked the holiday season with a look at values-based capitalism, with advice on holiday gifts  that support a good cause (below), interviews with social entrepreneurs Scott Martin and Jeff Denby, and a look at how you sort out the “good” from the “sounds good” now that social entrepreneurship is a booming trend.

If you walk the aisles of Whole Foods this holiday season you’ll find stands dedicated to “gifts that give back” — everything from soaps wrapped in earthy packaging that promise to fight poverty to hand crafted bracelets that support community development in Kenya.

Yet it was recently reported in the Los Angeles Times that Whole Foods — along with other large supermarkets — had been buying some produce from a supplier in Mexico that severely mistreats its workers. That was just one example of mixed messaging coming from a company that taps hard into our desire to buy products we can feel good about.

Social entrepreneurship — the idea of making a positive impact on the world through capitalism — is a booming trend these days, so much so it is taught in business school, large chains are endeavoring to embrace the language and promises of Warby Parker or Toms Shoes, and we are bombarded everywhere with marketing and labels attesting to the inherent good of a product.

But what does all this really mean? How can we verify the claims of all these companies? How much of it is good marketing? And what do you do when you like one aspect of a company (say, its organic products or its philanthropic activities) but not another (its poor treatment of workers or the philosophy of the owner, for example)?

These questions are discussed on this DnA, which focused on the holiday season and how to give gifts that give back.

In the first half of the show we heard from Scotty Claus aka Scott Martin about his Living Christmas Company, which rents out live trees, grown locally, in place of the usual cut ones.

Then we talked about why social entrepreneurship is so appealing, values-based goods and services that make great gifts, and we looked at one issue that some social entrepreneurs are trying to confront: the supply chain, and how we can make or purchase goods that have been made without abusing workers in the process.

Jeff Denby, co-owner of PACT, a San Francisco-based apparel company, talked about how his company makes “clothes we wear every single day with beautiful non-GMO organic cotton” manufactured “in a completely transparent supply chain. . . certified to the highest level of social and environmental accountability” and then “cut and sown in the world’s Fair Trade-certified garment factory.”

We heard from Jeff about how he achieves this and how he transmits his company’s principles to his customers.

And we heard other perspectives on the topic from Rick Cohen, national correspondent for Nonprofit Quarterly Magazine; Sasha Strauss, branding consultant with his firm Innovation Protocol; and Nelson Lichtenstein, Professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and director of the Center for the Study of Work, Labor and Democracy.

Among takeaways from the show:

Jeff Denby — A CEO should aim for the highest standards of production and keep customers apprised of factory standards through social media. It is possible for one company to make a difference.

Nelson Lichtenstein — Companies may believe their goods are being made in ideal factories but those factories often subcontract to less savory ones. To make a real difference to the supply chain big, powerful companies have to change their practices.

Sasha Strauss –Be cautious of third party labels that have been bought, among them the Good Housekeeping seal of approval and LEED certifications.

Rick Cohen — Do your own research and heed third-party endorsements that are not bought, such as those relating to the environment from the Sierra Club or the AFL-CIO for labor issues.

Jeff Denby wears Teysha handmade boots.
Jeff Denby wears Teysha handmade boots. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Gifts that Give Back

Finally, the point of this segment was to talk about social entrepreneurship in the context of the holiday season and how to choose gifts that do some kind of social good. We went to our guests for their recommendations and this is what they suggested:

Nelson Lichtenstein — get your loved ones jewelry (not electronics) from Costco; the company pays workers reasonably well, it’s partially unionized, and jewelry is still handcrafted.

Jeff Denby — buy a product that has a story attached, in his case Teysha handmade boots from a Coop in Guatemala complete with tags signed by the artisans who had made the boots.

Rick Cohen — buy products generated by a nonprofit so as to support the sector of the economy that is not even looking for profit.

Sasha Strauss — don’t make your choice about your personal interest, make it about what your loved ones care most about and find the profit or nonprofit making company that aligns with those goals and gift them that “relationship.”

Jeff Denby Discusses Social Entrepreneurship at DIEM

DnA got to know Jeff Denby when he came to West Hollywood to speak with Frances at DIEM, an all-day design forum hosted by the West Hollywood Design District.

In front of a highly engaged audience, Jeff explained his company philosophy, the logistics of maintaining a “completely transparent supply chain,” and fielded questions ranging from why he chooses not to manufacture locally to what to think about the implications of Bain Capital buying Toms. Check out the dialogue in the video below.