At first glance, these might seem like quintessential examples of the corporate left-wing. From human rights to environmental conservation and animal protection, each supports a worthy cause in a radical way. But take a closer look, because irrespective of the particular issues these companies take on, their impact is undeniable and their business formula is highly relevant to today.
Most businesses now support a philanthropic cause. But at Patagonia, The Body Shop, CREDO Mobile, Seventh Generation and Equal Exchange, cause transforms into forceful crusade. These game-changing companies give people something worth fighting for.
“Someone needs to be the loud voice out there, banging the gong. We want to be that,” says Eve Bould, Patagonia’s director of communications. “We can’t be taking the traditional corporate stance when we’re trying to give voice and legitimacy to vital environmental issues that deserve attention.”
As Patagonia rightly points out, there is no business to be done on a dead planet. “We believe we have no choice but to take strong positions,” Bould says. Nevertheless, certain people would clearly prefer that activist voices remain muffled, and many have grown incensed by Patagonia’s determination to be a loudspeaker for issues like forestry protection, corporate pollution, marine conservation and species extinction. In response to one of the company’s recent ads, an irate citizen sent this letter:
Greetings from Grants Pass, Oregon. Saw your ad in The Daily Center. I have a suggestion: Why don’t you bastards keep your nose out of our business. And our lives!! Come around here and we will take care of pukes like you! YOU LIE AND YOU WILL BE STOPPED. STAY OUT AND STAY HOME. MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS.
According to Patagonia, for its support of various environmental causes, the company received thousands of similar letters along with boxes of customer’s returned Patagonia gear. One retailer in California reportedly stopped carrying Patagonia merchandise after heavy pressure from a lumber company, while another in Maine cancelled its order after Patagonia supported the creation of a national park in the New England state. But like all the companies featured here, Patagonia never stood down.
Over the past 10 years, Patagonia’s environmental positions have only grown more extreme, articulate and impassioned. At the same time, sales have increased, creativity within the company has flourished (see eco-fabrics line), environmental impact has diminished (see The Footprint Chronicles), and stakeholders have become fiercely loyal to the brand (see The Cleanest Line).
“We’re not out to make everyone like Patagonia,” says Bould. “Our founder, Yvon Chouinard, often says that he’s perfectly happy if half the people hate us, as long as the right people love us.”
What Bould describes amounts to a critical leadership trait that is somewhat lacking in the vanilla world of corporate philanthropy: fearlessness. The companies that fight fearlessly for worthy causes break through barriers and ignite people’s inner fire.
“You have to be vigilant and brave,” the late Dame Anita Roddick, founder of The Body Shop, told me back in 2004 when I interviewed her for my first book. “There are risks involved in taking a stand, but unless more companies do, we have little hope of evolving.”
Like Patagonia, The Body Shop realized early on that one of the most effective ways to get people emotionally invested was to outrage them, so many of the company’s campaigns have called attention to the awful truths about business. The most pivotal of these unfolded during the mid 1990’s, when The Body Shop shed light on the plight of the Niger Delta’s Ogoni people, whose way of life had been been ravaged by social repression and environmental degradation. US corporations, including Shell, were part of the problem. After protests broke out near a Shell refinery, a group of local Ogoni tribespeople, including Ken Saro-Wiwa, were jailed and later executed by the Nigerian government.
The Body Shop’s campaign, called “Make Your Mark,” generated a global outcry about Saro-Wiwa, the Ogoni people, and other human rights defenders. It also attracted unwanted attention to Roddick herself. “I got into some dangerous territory…I remember [certain companies] hiring agents to intimidate me,” Roddick claimed. “They would harass me, play dirty tricks, go though my documents, sift through my trash cans, everything.”
Ultimately, however, The Body Shop and its supporters had the final word. As a result of the Make Your Mark campaign, several human rights protesters were freed from prison, whereas oil companies were plagued by years of negative publicity. And while over three million consumers signed The Body Shop’s human rights petitions, the company estimates that via global publicity, it reached over 1 billion people worldwide with an urgent message.
“Despite the enormous need for it, no other company had ever stood for human rights. No company has ever challenged other powerful multinationals on the basis of of their human rights violations. We did,” Roddick said. “I guess since I’m a loudmouth, I wanted a loudmouth company to speak out for the voiceless.”
As Bould and Roddick make clear, the challenges the world faces now require bold actions and loud voices – not political correctness, temperance or candor. Alongside the public’s mounting intolerance for injustice, there is a heightened sense of urgency for finding answers to looming social and environmental problems, and a great attraction towards companies that can offer such things. The mass change movement is broader in scope and deeper in consequence than most people realize. It is global, classless, unquenchable and tireless. Paul Hawken calls it Blessed Unrest.
By its nature, Blessed Unrest gives rise to High-Purpose Companies. In true High-Purpose Companies, social and environmental solutions are the core reason for being: “If a group of people form a company and they know what they stand for, it’s good to tell people; to tell customers,” explains CREDO Mobile CEO Laura Scher. “[But] CREDO is not a cause-related marketing company. Cause-related marketers select organizations to support and charities to fund because they believe it will increase sales. We started CREDO as an expression of the issues we care about and built the company around the vision that a business can be a force for social change.”
Like all High-Purpose Companies, CREDO offers people something of irreplaceable value: a direct mechanism for instigating change. By making ordinary phone calls, CREDO’s customers have thus far channeled $60 million towards extraordinary nonprofit groups.
“Our customers have spoken out millions of times on issues concerning the environment, equal pay, gender equality, and women’s right to choice,” says Scher. Not surprisingly, CREDO has also experienced its share of backlash. “Over the years we’ve received hate mail, death threats and bomb threats for our support of pro-choice organizations. We’ve even evacuated our office. But we continue to support choice groups.”
CREDO, which is Planned Parenthood’s largest corporate donor, was also one of the few companies openly opposed the Iraq invasion, pre-war. Rather than preach patriotism the way other US companies did, CREDO called for restraint: “We organized customer marches, held Congressional meetings, and were active against the US invasion across the country,” says Scher. “We did so in deference and respect, but called for our elected officials to behave in a manner consistent with our country’s values.”
As CREDO demonstrates, brave brands rarely take easy positions. They avoid the middle ground because doing so would defeat their purpose. In the same way, brave brand leaders tend to be inspired protagonists. Such individuals know that to be serious about corporate responsibility is to step out of line with their industry peers, which is why they are constantly shaking things up.
In his must-read blog, Seventh Generation founder and President Jeffrey Hollender plays the consummate inspired protagonist, frequently running his competition through the ringer. On The Clorox Company’s launch of a new-and improved Formula 401, he recently had this to say:
Clorox brags about helping people lead “healthier lives,” even as it deploys its scientists and marketing mavens to develop a chemical-laden product that is just this side of legal…Clorox can still claim that it’s a responsible company, if you define “responsible” as reluctantly complying with the letter of the law. But an authentically good company is one where all of its works live up to its (good) words. Selling natural-based products (Green Works™) with the one hand while contributing to indoor-air pollution with the other shows that Clorox is neither completely good nor completely bad. It’s just a poseur.
As with the previous examples, Hollender’s emphatic post demonstrates the importance of standing for something concrete and unwavering. Seventh Generation stands for human health and environmental integrity. The company fights for these things on a regular basis – through everything it says, does and especially sells. But as Hollender points out, not all companies use the same approach. Clorox, it would seem, stands for human health and environmental integrity only partially.
Half-hearted approaches to corporate responsibility are prevalent in many industries, and only serve to bait protagonist leaders on. Take the coffee industry, for instance: “Many large corporations claim to be committed to Fair Trade when they’re only offering 5, 10 or 20 percent Fair Trade product. They are trying to sell to everyone, and therefore can’t take a strong stance in any portion of the market,” says Equal Exchange ‘Answer Man’ Rodney North. In contrast with larger corporations, 100 percent of Equal Exchange’s line of coffees, teas and chocolates are organic and Fair Trade certified. “We take the position that small farmers are the heart of Fair Trade. We get push-back from the agri-business crowd, and also from others in the Fair Trade category, but that only makes us think that we’re on to something.”
Since its inception in 1986, Equal Exchange has plunged full-force into the task of challenging industry convention and changing a broken food system. As North explains, what started as a political statement has steadily grown into a thriving business. “We launched our company by challenging the US government’s embargo on Nicaragua. (See http://www.equalexchange.coop/story). As the US was by far the number one market for Nicaraguan exports, this had devastating consequences for Nicaraguan farmers and farm workers,” explains North. “To challenge the embargo and to launch our fledging company, we introduced “Café Nica: the Forbidden Coffee.” We got around the embargo by exploiting a loophole. In 1988 the Bush administration closed the loophole and would have bankrupted Equal Exchange, but we fought a PR and legislative battle and – just barely – came out victorious and with a stronger following than we would have without it.”
Like all brave brands, Equal Exchange never wastes time or money trying to woo everyone. “Of course not all customers are equally excited by our work. Some simply like the taste of our dark chocolate, or want an affordable organic coffee,” says North. “But a healthy number do care deeply about what we’re trying to do.”
By taking an unwavering stance and a targeted approach, Equal Exchange has literally incited a religious following. The company has established partnerships with eleven faith-based organizations, through which it generates about 20 percent of its annual revenues. “We are sometimes asked to address congregations from the pulpit, and are regularly endorsed by the local priest, pastor or rabbi,” says North. “When people tell one another “this is the coffee Jesus would drink,” that’s about as enthusiastic as it gets.”
If brand enthusiasm is the goal of any worthy corporate initiative, then Patagonia, The Body Shop, CREDO Mobile, Seventh Generation and Equal Exchange should give marketers pause. Brave brands like these demonstrate an important business truth: unless a company’s social and environmental positions present a worthy fight and cause some backlash, then they are probably not worth taking (let alone promoting) in the first place.
Nobody cares when companies say they are “committed to behaving in a socially and environmentally responsible manner” because nearly every company in the world says the same thing. To be truly meaningful to people, to win people’s hearts and loyalty, more businesses need to answer the pressing question: “So what?”