Archives for category: Think

I am often reminded how big of a hypocrite I am.   With absolute certainty I can say that all the clothes, including lady garments, I’m wearing today were made in deplorable human-rights violating factories and child labor was probably used at one point during the manufacturing process.  And while my words speak against such facilities, my actions say that I condone the violation of fundamental human rights.

Ugh, doesn’t sit too well.

So what options are there to buy socially and ethically responsible clothing?

First, there are always second hand stores like SalVal, Goodwill, and the numerous independent thrift stores, in which the despicable origin of the clothing is redeemed through the act of recycling.  I try and try again to shop at these stores but I just can’t do it.  I don’t like the clothes, I hate how disorganized everything is, and I usually don’t have the patience or creativity to sort through racks and racks to find cool stuff.  (Hey, that’s a business idea – personal thrift store shopper.)

Then, there are the “social enterprise” companies that slap an Ed Hardy-esque graphic on a t-shirt and give the proceeds to charity.  Sure, they use American Apparel t-shirts so everything is OK, but American Apparel is not picture perfect with sexual harassment lawsuits and sexist advertisements. Wherever you stand on the issue, clothing companies that give proceeds to charities without regard to their vendors are simply band-aids and are not fundamentally changing anything; not to mention the business model is less than exciting.

There’s also the vertically integrated companies that buy their materials through direct trade, pay living wages, and are deeply invested in their community of operation.  Companies like Oliberté and People Tree are doing great things and producing high-quality clothing. However, the trade off is a price point that is out of reach for the vast majority of people.  As much as I want to support these types of companies, my budget can’t support a wardrobe of cotton dresses and shirts at 70 bucks a piece.

I know I’m not alone.  The dilemma between upholding values and personal finances is extremely challenging.  The counter argument, of course, concerns consumerism and the frivolity of the fashion industry but we’re not going there today because at the end of the day everyone needs clothes.  So how can fashion companies make socially and ethically responsible clothing at a price point that the masses can afford? Or, more specifically, how can a social enterprise make humanely-made underwear at a price that competes with Hanes? Not, is it possible, but HOW can it be done.

This question is slowly becoming a deep-seated obsession of mine and is a critical question to answer in order to achieve fundamental change in manufacturing.  In order for a social enterprise of this impact, cross-sector collaboration is a core catalyst in order to share business risk and raise the funds needed to support such a venture.  Sounds like a task not for the faint of heart.

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A couple of weekends ago I traveled to Vancouver, B.C. for a weekend excursion with some friends.  I had never been before so I really didn’t know what to expect.  We had the good fortune of visiting just days after the riots because we saw the heart of the city.  For blocks, vandalized windows were boarded up with plywood marked with thousands of messages apologizing for the damages
and expressing their love for their city.  Apparently, the day before we arrived there was a massive community cleanup. I assume most of the messages were from community members part of the cleanup, but we also saw artists and passer-bys take a moment to contribute to the collective community art throughout the weekend.  There was also a kindness flag project during the weekend calling on community members to create and hang up flags around downtown to promote peace and kindness.  Seeing the community band together was so amazing and humbling! But what totally blew me away was some people had written on a police car and posted post-it notes on it, and instead of the police stopping it, they condoned and promoted it by putting the car on display for community members to continue posting their thoughts.  I don’t know about you, but I find that remarkable.

My weekend in Vancouver had me thinking a lot about the power of community.  With community, a lot of good can happen.  So, I wonder about social ventures that are founded by people not part of the community the venture intends to serve.  We talk a lot
about sustainability referring to the business model and the environment, but what about the sustainability of the “roots” or “soul” of a venture particularly if the venture was not grown out of that community.  If the venture does not invest in the local human capital or nurture community spirit, the venture is merely exercising their ego and privilege of circumstance.  A community when brought together and encouraged can create or overcome anything as demonstrated as simply in Vancouver to as paramount as the Tunisian revolution.  The role of social enterprise should be to create the space to unleash the power of community to creating lasting social change.

The Wall Street Journal recently wrote an article “Tech Boom Hits New York.” The article highlights an up and coming e-commerce, fashion eyewear company, Warby Parker.  The company is attracting investors left and right, in fact, they are turning away investors.  What’s interesting about the article is that it does not mention once a critical component of Warby Parker’s business model – “for every pair of glasses sold, we provide one to someone in need.”

Warby Parker’s success is an excellent example of how profit and social impact aren’t mutually exclusive; but, where’s the plug for social enterprise? Is it necessary?

Social enterprise is nothing new, and over the decades, acronyms, catchy phrases, and terminology have shaped the concept of social enterprise to become a unique sector.  Vocabulary has its role, but has it stifled the potential of social enterprise to impact mainstream business by segregating itself? I think WSJ’s article on Warby Parker points to an underlying sentiment in the traditional business world; it’s great if you do something good for the world but it’s still the bottom line that matters.   If the goal of social enterprise is to change the way business is done, maybe it’s time to ditch the semantics and work on creating killer business models.

There are a myriad of definitions and opinions on what social enterprise is and isn’t depending on what circle you run in.  I’ve heard if a non-profit uses sophisticated metrics to measure its impact, then it is a social enterprise.  I’ve heard if a company has a philanthropic branch or if a non-profit has a revenue generating arm, then they are a social enterprise.  I personally believe that  those definitions of social enterprise are superficial and probably do more harm than good.  I’ve heard social enterprise only pertains to microfinance and green companies are not social enterprises.   I think those opinions are either too exclusive  or not inclusive enough. The working definition I maintain is: a social enterprise is an enterprise that works to solve social, ecological, and economic problems through market solutions.  Social enterprises come in many different sizes and flavors.  They can be a for-profit entity or a non-profit entity. They can focus on a particular function(s) of an enterprise like human resources, supply chain, product management, etc.  (more on that later). The overall goal of social enterprise is to do the most good and be financially sustainable entity while doing it.

SE Toolbelt, a free open-content community resource center for social entrepreneurs, has some good information on social enterprise if you’re interested in learning more basic background information on social enterprise.