Charity, or corporate social responsibility, isn’t the same as the example companies I’ll share here.
Yes, giving back can make a social impact, but giving back doesn’t mean that impact is part of a company’s DNA.
There’s a significant difference.
Companies’ charity is typically wholly independent from the core business operation. Walmart, Starbucks, McDonald’s, and Amazon all engage in plenty of charity but neglect in many ways to appropriately remedy the inherent negative impacts of their business models.
What’s the impact of McDonald’s selling another burger? Well, given the poor quality of the ingredients and perhaps the less-than-living wage the workers earned to provide that burger, their impact is probably quite negative.
In contrast, the companies shared below strive to make positive social and environmental impacts an outcome of their business model.
I’ve discussed this at length elsewhere. However, this difference is crucial to differentiating truly sustainable or responsible businesses from those that aren’t.
If you’d like to dive deeper into that topic, I highly recommend reading the following:
However, here are nine companies with social impact built into their DNA. With each example, I’ll explain how these businesses make doing good, well, doing business.
Dean’s Bean’s mission is to sell ‘specialty coffee as a vehicle for positive change.’
The founder, Dean Cycon, began his career in coffee by co-founding a nonprofit organization called Coffee Kids. Dean later questioned, if the industry of coffee itself, was more fair and equitable, might there be less need for charity?
He then turned his attention to business and sought to create direct relationships with coffee farmers and their cooperatives around the globe.
Dean wanted to show that a coffee business could be ethical and profitable. He is someone I label as a “Standard Bearing” social entrepreneur.
His earliest experiences in the coffee industry and coffee-growing communities worldwide quickly revealed how unfairly growers are treated. I highly recommend reading his book: Javatrekker: Dispatches from the World of Fair Trade Coffee for more detail.
Through Dean’s Beans, Dean wanted to set an example for how the relationship with the coffee-growing communities of the world can and should be different.
This is why Dean’s Beans has always been Fair Trade and bought strictly organic coffee. Fair Trade more likely ensures farmers are paid a fair price for their coffee. Because coffee is a traded commodity, the price per pound can increase or decrease depending on the global market and geopolitical conditions.
What’s decided on the trading floor in New York City affects coffee-growing communities immensely. When prices go too low, farmers are forced to sell their coffee for less than it costs them to produce it. At a minimum, farmers go into debt. At a maximum, their communities starve.
Fair Trade prices were created to avoid that and allow farmers (ideally) to have additional money to reinvest back into their businesses and communities.
Dean’s Beans also participates in a profit-sharing model with their farmers, earning them more money to invest in their businesses and communities at their discretion.
By building a business around empowering and fairly treating coffee growers, Dean’s Beans helps empower their communities.
Dean’s Beans recently celebrated its 30th anniversary, and Cycon felt it was the right time to retire. His last act as company CEO was to sell Dean’s Beans to his employees, making it a worker-owned co-op.
TS Designs is a large-volume business-to-business screen printer. The company was launched in 1977 by Tom Sineath, now retired. He was followed by Eric Henry a couple of years later.
Based in Burlington, North Carolina, the company has been making domestic, high-quality t-shirts from day one.
The company suffered a massive blow in 1993 when the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was passed. TS Designs’ customers saw Mexico’s lower markup and labor costs as an opportunity to boost their profit margins. And on many of them went.
However, instead of throwing in the towel, the passionate team at TS Designs decided to commit further to their “Triple Bottom Line” values. That means their business focused on producing positive outcomes along three standards; people, planet, and profits.
So, despite the waves of globalization moving forward, TS Designs continued to make apparel in the U.S.A. Eric Henry believes this was for the best. Business remained transparent, and quality was in check.
Henry has remained a staunch advocate for increasing transparency in business. Without transparency, Henry believes, everybody loses. Environmental measures are cut, workers are exploited and abused, and products are made with speed and scale in mind, not quality.
TS Designs prints QR codes on the tags of their t-shirts so any customer can track their t-shirt journey from ‘dirt to shirt’, as Eric Henry says.
By building a transparent, localized supply chain, Henry and TS Designs ensure that everyone is treated ethically along the supply chain and no environmental corners are cut.
Adre is an equity-centered real estate development firm. Launched in 2020 by Anyeley Hallová, Adre exists to create social and economic benefits for those historically excluded from real estate (BIPOC communities).
According to Hallová, the company aims to ‘create social and economic benefits for [BIPOC communities] through the creation of affordable homes, mixed-use developments, and facilities for mission-driven organizations.’
Anyeley and her team of industry experts have been on the leading edge of sustainable development in multiple ways. For example, they’ve become involved with various Mass Timber projects.
Mass timber as a construction methodology offers excellent durability and strength just like concrete and steel, yet produces far lower carbon emissions.
As BIPOC communities have been and will continue to be first and most affected by the effects of climate change, Adre sees their involvement in development and construction broadly to have two responsibilities:
- Increase accessibility and equity for the Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.
- Do development in the most “sustainable” way possible.
This was at the core of what I believed was Adre’s way of “doing real estate development differently.” I recommend watching or listening to my interview with Anyeley for more.
Navajo Power is a Public Benefit Corporation co-founded by Brett Isaac, a member of the Navajo Nation, and his friend Dan Rosen. They aim to develop various economic opportunities for tribal communities by advancing clean, renewable energy projects.
In 2019, Brett witnessed the devastation of his community when the Navajo Generating Station, which was operating on tribal territory, suddenly closed its doors. Even when the plant was fully functional, the Navajo received little long-lasting benefit as they lacked representation in key leadership positions.
Outside CEOs and Executives of these plants were focused on building companies versus a resilient, thriving community.
This is why localization matters. And Brett Isaac knows this. It’s not enough for a company to come into a community (that isn’t their own) and offer jobs. As we know, not all jobs are created equal.
And as we’ve seen before, such as with the automotive industry in Detroit, if a company isn’t invested in a community or part of a community, jobs will go away when business interests are threatened.
This is why Brett and his Navajo Power team are working to secure a different fate for the Navajo community. This way, tribal communities could have complete autonomy over the sustainability of their land and ensure long-term economic stability.
Navajo Power works hard to ensure that tribal communities are empowered with the ‘necessary combination of technical expertise, cultural and linguistic aptitude, and access to capital’ needed to develop utility-scale clean energy projects.
Veja is a French-based sneaker company launched in 2004 by Sebastien Kopp and Francois-Ghislain Morillion, who dreamed of deconstructing and reimagining a symbolic piece of apparel: the sneaker.
The company sources Fair Trade and organic raw materials; high-quality recycled materials, sustainably sourced leather, organic cotton, and more.
Being considered by many to be the first truly sustainable sneaker brand globally, this company puts transparency and sustainability first. This is emblematic in one of their widely used slogans, ‘Transparency is the Future.’
The owners have built direct relationships with producers, combining a handful of more eco-friendly materials to make the best pair of sneakers possible. For example, the rubber for the soles comes from the Amazon Rainforest, whereas the laces and canvas are made from a blend of Peruvian and Brazilian organic cotton.
At the Veja Project, you can see precisely how Veja procures these various materials; rubber and cotton; you can even see their positions on advertising (which is not to do any of it). Veja is also constantly innovating its materials to minimize the environmental impact. They’ve developed a vegan alternative to leather called C.W.LIt’s made of organic cotton canvas coated with ricinus oil (castor oil) and cornstarch for maximum suppleness, smoothness, and durability.
Everytable is a food company with one primary mission: to make nutritious and affordable food more accessible. The idea first came to co-founder and CEO Sam Polk in 2013 when he was approached by some of his South Los Angeles customers who told him they desperately needed a place to buy healthy, affordable meals on the go.
Hence the name ‘Everytable,’ which reflects his mission to bring good-for-you food to every table in the country, regardless of income.
By making healthy, affordable meals accessible everywhere, Everytable is trying to counterbalance the growth and expansion of low-quality fast food by redefining the food landscape.
Instead of burgers and fries, they sell fresh, made-from-scratch food at “fast food” prices anyone can afford. This is most apparent in Everytable’s unique pricing model. They set their prices according to the areas they serve. In high-income, affluent neighborhoods, prices are set to produce a higher profit margin than in lower-income neighborhoods where access to nutritious food is severely lacking.
Everytable offers salads, bowls, and wraps at its current eight locations, typically all made with fresh organic ingredients.
Greyston Bakery made its mission straightforward, reflected its slogan: ‘Eat Brownies, Change Lives.’
Aeronautical engineer-turned-Buddhist-monk-turned-entrepreneur Bernie Glassman founded the company in 1982. Since launching, their goal has been to ‘unlock the power of human potential through inclusive employment.’
As a young adult, Bernie began noticing the poverty and unemployment afflicting his neighborhood in Yonkers, New York. So, he set out to change the narrative and decided that the best way for him to do that was to create job opportunities in struggling communities.
The bakery became notable for its ‘Open Hiring’ policy. Open Hiring means anyone applying for a job isn’t subject to background checks or nerve-wracking interviews. Greyston doesn’t even at resumes.
I love this quote from their “Open Hiring Jobs” page, “We don’t hire people to bake brownies. We bake brownies to hire people.”
The growing bakery created The Greyston Center for Open Hiring, which offers employees support, training, and services by expert instructors. This initiative showcases Greyston Bakery’s mission of transparency, inclusiveness, and staying socially accountable. Greyston takes this further by offering workforce development and transitional employment programs for previously incarcerated individuals.
Tony’s Chocolonely was founded by Teun van de Keuken, a Dutch journalist who decided to create the company after learning about the magnitude of illegal child labor on cocoa farms.
Teun was so shocked and taken aback that, in 2003, he turned himself over to the police pleading he should be held accountable for enabling such egregious labor practices by knowingly purchasing chocolate that was likely produced by child labor.
The public prosecutor saw no case and declined to prosecute him.
Having been denied the legal recourse he hoped for, Teun led by example. He began manufacturing 100% Fair Trade, exploitation-free chocolate bars to, like perhaps our examples of Dean’s Beans, Veja, and TS Designs, set a new standard for the industry.
This was back in 2005. Since then, the company has enjoyed unprecedented success as one of the first-ever chocolate makers to be ‘crazy about chocolate, serious about people.’
Perhaps the thing about Tony’s Chocolonely that shows how committed they are to bringing out real change is their readiness to deal with each crisis head-on. Current CEO, Douglas Lamont, is committed to keeping the company 100% transparent about its evolution of operations and short-term setbacks and how the team has responded to each one.
They’ve come up with a five-ingredient recipe to make exploitation-free cocoa. This way, they know exactly where their cocoa beans are coming from and how they are harvested.
The company also focuses on providing farmers with affordable healthcare, a sense of personal enrichment, and, most importantly, a living income. For example, in 2014, the company introduced a premium that pays farmers 25% more than Fairtrade.
For more on Tony’s Chocolonely, I suggest listening to my interview with former Chief Evangelist, Ynzo van Zanten.
The name may have changed nearly three decades later, but the brand’s mission remains to make reusable, sustainable period products that work for everyone.
Aisle is what I like to call in the world of sustainable business, a “Provider.” Founders Suzanne Siemens and Madeleine Shaw saw a lack in the reusable feminine hygiene products market and determined to be the ones to fix that.
The products produced by Aisle, including washable pads and period underwear, are designed to be leak-proof, convenient, and zero-waste. They’re also made of soft, comfortable, and more sustainable materials.
In 2012, Aisle collaborated with Transformation Textiles to create reliable, user-friendly period underwear using textile scraps from various garment factories. Several years later, they launched their first Boxer Brief, designed for transmasculine customers. Then, in 2021, the company won the Clean50 award, which recognizes the efforts carried out by Canada’s Sustainability Heroes.
From day one as Lunapads until now, as Aisle, this company has sought to reduce the environmental waste created by conventional feminine hygiene products and break social taboos around period care, making the right products and information more accessible to all who could benefit from them.
Learn more about Aisle’s founding story in my interview with Madeleine Shaw about the topic of social entrepreneurship here:
These are just a few businesses (and business leaders) committed to using their businesses as a force for good.
For more examples, consider checking out our additional lists of example companies and the entrepreneurs who lead them:
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Co-Founder & CEO, Grow Ensemble
I’m Cory Ames. I’m a writer, podcaster, social entrepreneur, and the Founder of Grow Ensemble.