It’s official: day-to-day activism has spilled into the streets, onto our newsfeeds, and out of our wallets. Due to our current political and environmental climate, customers are demanding higher standards for the cost of their patronage. While this trend of ethics in the marketplace has yielded a greater supply of organic products, it’s also created and a healthy dose of skepticism. How do we distinguish between the do-gooders and those feigning authenticity for a profit?
At our latest Underground Session, The Purpose, we brought together four prominent, purpose-driven leaders to further this discussion. Sara Weinreb, founder of the all-American, ethically sourced clothing line, IMBY; Lauren Singer, founder and CEO of The Simply Co., an organic laundry detergent company, and co-founder of the zero-waste Package Free Shop; Guy Peires, co-founder of the creative agency and production company, Kworq; and Tobias Peggs, co-founder and CEO of Square Roots, an urban farming and entrepreneurial program. All of whom successfully bridged the gap between honest grassroots activism and widespread brand success. Here are some key takeaways from our panel.
The next wave
Innovative thinkers work to counteract the current standards of industry, assessing the world around us for problems in need of solving. But how do we create a sustainable business when disruption is the core of our platform?
For Tobias Peggs, the driving force behind Square Roots was to challenge the practices enforced by our problematic industrial food system. The urban farming brand, which harvests food in shipping containers and brings the farmer directly to the consumer, creates long-term solutions by functioning as an incubator for the industry’s next great problem solvers.
“Our hope is that over time, we are growing food and selling food, and everyone has access to real food. That’s all well and good, but we’re also unleashing this whole new generation of future leaders in food. The next wave of food entrepreneurs.”
This ability to see beyond an immediate profit in a lucrative organic industry, to think multi-generationally, is why ethically centered startups are resonating with so many consumers. A business that transforms a transaction into an agent for positive change benefits the outside community and encourages those receiving mentorship within it.
Agents for change
Lauren Singer’s journey from everyday employee to ethical entrepreneur stemmed from a similar frustration. She felt a disconnect between her personal activism and her professional impact: “For me it kind of started with having a job that I didn’t like and feeling inactive in my position, like the impact I was having was too small.”
Viewing businesses as “the most powerful forces on earth,” Lauren transformed her zero-waste lifestyle into the baseline of her brand message. By developing The Simply Co.’s organic detergent, and later opening The Package Free Shop, she’s making clean, waste-free products accessible to the masses.
The struggle is real
It’s not uncommon to feel at war with building success and remaining authentic. It’s a catch-22, really: as the brand expands due to its genuine appeal to customers, the messaging and buying experience feels less personal.
Sarah Weinreb, founder of the conscientious clothing line, IMBY, identifies the conflict within the very nature of her mission, “we’re an ethical fashion brand but our brand is about having fewer items in your closet that serve multiple purposes. Which is a really weird conundrum for a retail brand trying to sell you things because we’re promoting this like, ‘don’t buy a lot,’ but we also need to stay in business.’”
Her solution is to keep her brand centered on empathy and honesty, advising that “you shouldn’t start anything, build anything, or innovate anything without talking to people and really understanding what their needs are, what their life is like, how this idea/product/problem fits in with their life.”
Reassess and repeat
So what about the seemingly “evil” corporations, the brands that make us skeptical of honest, purpose-driven business? Guy Peires, cofounder of Kworq, a creative agency whose mission is to produce authentic and thought-provoking content, provides advice to larger clients: “Look at what you’re making. Look at what you’re trying to do. Go back to the problem-solving aspect of why that business was started in the first place and reframe; look at it through a new lens. See how you can reconfigure what you’re trying to do and bring it back to society and the environment and how you can help them prop up everything while still maintaining your bottom line. I think it’s achievable.”
While Patagonia is mentioned as an obvious trailblazer, Sara credits Eileen Fisher as a large company successfully “backtracking their way into being more sustainable” by adopting the responsibility of tracing their supply chain. “Which means everywhere that they grow, every fiber, and all the way through to the fair labor...they’re working really diligently on that process and it’s really inspiring to see that there’s a company that’s able to shift.” And if they can do it, “other companies don’t have an excuse to say it’s not possible.”
The idea of checking in with yourself and your brand is crucial. For Lauren, businesses that lose their way “haven't re-asked themselves that question of what do I care about, what is important, what am I trying to solve? They’ve lost track of their problem or their problem is no longer relevant.”
If they are unable to deviate from what is outdated or overdone, she thinks “one of the best things large businesses can do is acquire and incubate smaller companies that are actually solving these problems on the ground.” This adaptability and inclusive thinking can lessen the divide between what we view as ethical entrepreneurship and the faceless Fortune 500.
Get on with it
As global citizens, it’s daunting to consider the innumerable ways to fight the good fight. Whether it be with voting with our dollar, our open dialog, or our own product design, there will never be a shortage of causes to stand behind and push forward. So where do we begin?
Guy advises ditching the grand idea of who you should be, and moving forward as your most honest self. “You never want to call yourself authentic you just want to be authentic, and people can smell that a mile away. So stop trying to be something and just be it.”
While this puts us in a vulnerable place, Tobias argues to “just get on with it because the reality is you’re going to get it wrong the first time and the sooner you know that and figure that out, the better. So start. Get out there. Talk to the people, get the feedback, constantly question what’s going on, but just do it.”
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Word by: Tanner Celestin