I'm not a fortune teller, and I don't have a crystal ball. But I can see the future.
It looks like this: In the coming years, the most successful businesses will have cause at their core.
"Woah. Stop the press," you are probably thinking, "What does that even mean?"
Cause at the core of business is not a complicated notion. In fact, it's already happening. Having "cause" is a set of guiding values and actions that are embedded into brand architecture. Cause is a way of engaging in the marketplace with the recognition that the surrounding social and ecological landscapes deeply affect business. Cause is standing up for something. Cause is the enemy of greed, but the brother of profit.
Before you dismiss this article as hippie propaganda, hear me out. In my last post, I argued that capitalism could save the world. And I stand firmly by that statement. But many readers were left with the question of how, exactly, capitalism would save the world. Fair enough.
But before I give you some concrete examples capitalism and cause as successful waltz partners, it's important to recognize what true "cause" is not. Placing cause at the core of business is not cause marketing. This gimmicky endeavor that started in 1970s was a quick-grab for positive public opinion by partnering a for-profit corporation with a non-profit organization. And although cause marketing has certainly helped finance the important work of numerous NGOs, it's too one-offish to be deemed truly sustainable. Cause is also not CSR (corporate social responsibility). When cause is truly at the core of business, the idea of ghettoizing "good" to some "CSR department" is just downright outlandish. True cause is deeply woven into the very core of business.
And when cause is at the core of business, two important things happen: Business grows, and the great social and ecological setting improves.
But let's look at some case studies.
Warby Parker is a perfect example of a business that has cause at the core. The NYC-based eyewear company has a "buy a pair, give a pair" model that has enabled thousands of individuals to access low-cost eye treatment and corrective lenses. But they go further than simply airdropping hipster reading-glasses into rural regions of India. In recognizing that "charity" can lead to a culture of dependence, they support NGOs (such as VisionSpring) that train low-income women to sell affordable glasses in their communities. The intention is not simply to aid, but to build local economies. Oh yeah, and they are one of the only carbon-neutral eyewear brands in the world.
Co-founder of Warby Parker, Neil Blumenthal, states that, "It's not just about increasing profits, it's about how we can be active problem solvers." And in this case, the company is making fashionable eyewear, but also addressing barriers to affordable glasses in a developing nation.
This double implication of profit and cause is the future of all successful businesses.
When it comes to household and personal care goods, Seventh Generation is a company that has built cause into its very framework. Founded in 1988, the Vermont-born business is setting the new standard of respectful cleaning products. For the past six years, Seventh Generation has been a member of Whole Planet Foundation, whose mission is poverty alleviation through microcredit in developing communities. Seventh Generation has been making money while doing good for nearly twenty-five years.
Companies with "cause at the core" are not as rare as you might think. There are thousands of enterprises across North America who have "doing good" woven into their business models. Many of these businesses have been certified by a third-party monitoring organization called B Lab. The certification procedure to qualify as a "B Corporation" is a similar process to the way Fair Trade USA certifies equitably produced coffee, or USGBC certifies LEED buildings.
To qualify, each business must meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, as well as meeting a variety of standards for higher accountability. One of the reasons I feel compelled to sing the praises of B Corporations is because they've succinctly summarized the future of commerce in their "Declaration of Interdependence": "We envision a new sector of the economy which harnesses the power of private enterprise to create public benefit."
The companies who have qualified as B Corporations are using the power of business to address social and environmental challenges. They have put cause at the core.
And to their declaration, I offer up a verbose response: "Praise!"
Ask anyone with a shred of a conscience, and they'll tell you that they want a cleaner and more equitable world. With the rise of social media, consumers are becoming increasingly more intelligent and aware of the implications of their purchases. We are shopping not only for value, but with values. That's a major culture shift.
In the future, I see a day when the Coca-Colas, the Nikes and the Apples of the world will think beyond the traditional corporate foundations, the ghettoized CSR departments and the star-studded annual gala to truly embedding cause at the core of everything they do and who they are. A day when Nike will go from "just doing it" to also "being it." Because one thing is for sure, the brightest organizations of the future will respond to today's most important consumer demands by readjusting their values and actions to capitalize on the sea change towards doing good.
That's right, "capitalize." Because when cause is at the core of capitalism, major environmental and social shifts will begin to take place. And nobody needs a crystal ball to predict what the future of business success will look like: "cause at the core."
It's doing good, because it's good for business.
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