For creating a civil rights group for the 21st Century. During the 11-day span between the Michael Brown and Eric Garner grand jury decisions late last year—both cases in which a white police officer killed an unarmed black man and was not criminally charged—more than 130,000 outraged citizens signed up with ColorOfChange.org. That cemented the organization, which uses Internet tools to advocate for the rights of black people, at the center of one of our era’s defining cultural movements. Rather than providing Rev. Jesse Jackson–style spokesmanship, ColorOfChange.org launches what it calls campaigns—petitions, images to share on social media, or boycotts—that users can partake in. Causes span everything including education and media accountability. One of its biggest recent wins was over New York City’s controversial “stop-and-frisk” policing policy: To increase public scrutiny of the program, the group started CopWatch.org to monitor police misconduct. Stop-and-frisk was ruled unconstitutional in 2013 and, in 2014, began being significantly reformed by new mayor Bill de Blasio. Cop Watch NYC is still active.
For making a material stand. The chipmaker successfully reached a goal in 2014 that it laid out for itself in 2012: to only manufacture conflict-free microprocessors, which means they contain no tungsten, gold, tin, or tantalum sourced from smelters getting their minerals from mines that are involved in the armed conflict and human rights abuses found in and around the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). When Intel began its quest, the company discovered that many of its suppliers didn’t even know what smelters they used. After years of research, Intel now knows all of the smelters in its microprocessor supply chain, and has verified that they’re conflict-free with third-party audits and direct observation. Because the company is such a large buyer of certain minerals, like tungsten, the pressure it exerts on smelters to be conflict-free can ripple throughout many industries. Intel’s next big goal is to have a completely conflict-free supply chain for all of its products.
For spreading its mayo widely. Last year, Hampton Creek made this list when it rolled out Just Mayo, a mayonnaise product that’s the first of many planned plant-based “egg” products, in Whole Foods. In the year since, the company has started selling Just Mayo in stores as diverse as Safeway, Dollar Tree, Walmart, and Target, bringing its vegan products to stores that are often lacking in quality egg-free options. (A second Hampton Creek product, Just Cookies, is only used in food service for now). “Our philosophy is that good things should be available to everybody,” says CEO Josh Tetrick. In February, 2014, Hampton Creek raised $23 million to grow the company even further. Li Ka-shing, often referred to as the wealthiest man in Asia, led the funding round—signaling Hampton Creek’s potential in the Asian market, where egg products are linked to avian influenza and other concerns.
For making it even easier to go solar. Mosaic is a crowdfunding platform that enables accredited investors and anyone with $25 to spend to finance solar projects (so long as, for now, they live in New York or California). And the company has recently made it simpler for community solar projects to raise money. Mosaic Places, a feature launched this past summer, allows users to nominate local organizations, like schools, libraries, places of worship, and businesses, as rooftop solar candidates. For every 50 people that support a page, Mosaic donates $100 toward a solar project. Homeowners that go solar through a Mosaic Places link get a $500 credit on their Mosaic account, which can either be put toward a Mosaic Places campaign or taken out as cash. Over 300,000 Mosaic Places throughout the U.S. are already live on the site, supported by over a dozen nonprofits.
For keeping watch over our global treasures. Planet Labs makes inexpensive, breadbox-size satellites with off-the-shelf parts, which it estimates are 95% cheaper than traditional satellites. Then it throws them into space, so that they can monitor Earth’s most precious places. In January of 2014, the company sent up what it called “Flock 1”—28 satellites with resolution high enough that they can zoom in as close as the tops of trees, so that, in partnership with many NGOs, they can monitor things like illegal fishing and deforestation. At the TED conference in March 2014, Planet Labs cofounder and CEO Will Marshall announced his intentions to have a network of mini satellites taking photos of every place on the planet, every day. If he succeeds, no forest fire, illegal logging operation, drought, or wayward airplane will ever go unnoticed again.
For making a better brew. Toms, the famed “one for one” shoe retailer that donates one pair of shoes for every pair sold, has started selling eyewear and offering items from other socially responsible retailers on its website in recent years. Now Toms and its one-for-one model are moving into the coffee sector. Toms Roasting Co. gives enough clean water for a week (140 liters) to a person in one of the five countries where Toms gets its beans—Rwanda, Honduras, Guatemala, Peru, Malawi—for every bag of coffee sold. The water, distributed through the organization Water for People, goes to schools, health clinics, and communities. This venture is Toms’ first real foray out of the fashion sector, but it probably won’t be the last. The company recently announced that it’s selling 50% of itself to private equity firm Bain Capital—a controversial move designed to help the company grow quickly.
For sharing the wealth. Afghanistan’s largest private employer and leading telecommunications company, Roshan, is also a certified B Corporation, which means that it has met rigorous standards for its ethical business practices and its work on social and economic development. In 2014, Roshan began entering the telecom market in other countries, including Burundi, Uganda, and Tanzania. The company, which is majority owned by the Aga Khan Fund for Economic Development, brings telemedicine, e-learning, and mobile money initiatives wherever it goes. In Afghanistan, that meant creating a helpline for teachers, installing solar-powered e-learning centers throughout rural parts of the country, building playgrounds, offering a telemedicine solution to link hospitals to specialists and other resources, and more. In East Africa, Roshan plans to build up the mobile infrastructure where it doesn’t exist, strengthen it where it’s weak, and above all, keep a commitment to social responsibility front and center.
For proving that big business can move at the speed of startups. As part of a quest to commercialize cheap and efficient fuel cell technology, GE has launched GE Fuel Cells, an internal startup that has its own milestone-based funding and board of directors. At the same time, the agile startup has the resources, brainpower, and credibility of a large company to fall back on. GE says that its natural gas-powered solid-oxide fuel-cell technology can get up to 65% efficiency, which is higher than anything else available today. One of GE Fuel Cells’ biggest markets will be in resilience—that is, cities and big businesses that want a reliable off-grid source of power in case of natural disaster. Data centers and other places that need constant on-site power will also be a natural fit; GE’s main competitor in the space, Bloom Energy, already works with many tech-company data centers. Commercialization is still a few years away.
For making government benefits less daunting. Single Stop USA is simplifying the qualification process for government benefits, like food stamps and student financial aid, with a new online platform that allows anyone to conduct a self-screening to see what’s available to them. “It’s sort of incredible that you can search online for sushi or Italian food, but not a domestic-violence shelter,” CEO Elisabeth Mason says. The nonprofit, which launched nationally in 2007, has reached 1 million households and secured $3 billion worth of services and benefits for clients since its launch, but up until now the model has relied on clients going to in-person meetings with staffers. The online platform, which rolls out at the end of 2015, will make access to information easier than ever—what Mason calls the “the Amazon.com for social services” and government benefits. Once they’ve gone through the screening process, clients are given an estimate of how much aid they’re eligible to receive, and they can contact recommended benefit providers directly through the platform. Single Stop’s in-person locations will also remain available.
For bringing electric cars to the people. Continuing on its quest to make electric cars more mainstream, Tesla recently announced plans to build a $4 to $5 billion “Gigafactory” that can speed up the company’s lithium-ion battery production. Tesla’s Gigafactory will be located in Nevada, and the company anticipates that the factory will generate more batteries each year by 2020 than were manufactured across the globe in 2013. Tesla also anticipates that the factory’s massive scale of production could lower electric car battery prices by 30% compared to today. The batteries produced at the Gigafactory will go into Tesla’s Model 3 sedan, a $35,000 vehicle that’s expected to be released in 2017. In keeping with the spirit of accelerating the growth of the electric-vehicle sector, CEO Elon Musk also announced this year that Tesla is opening up its patents to the world, and won’t initiate patent lawsuits against those who want to use its technology.