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|Socially Responsible Vermont : River Valley edition : Tuesday, 22 May 2018 20:52 EDT : a service of The Public Press|
northwestern and central Vermont
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Socially Responsible Vermont:
by Stephen Morris
The gatherings provide opportunities for members and guests to establish business and marketing ties, consider new ways to boost their bottom lines and ponder ways to help others and safeguard the environment.
The group honors outstanding achievement through its annual Terry Ehrich Award (named for the late president of Hemmings Motor News, who in the early years also was a driving force in the establishment of VBSR). It publishes a directory of members, including a listing of courtesy discounts and privileges that members extend to each other. It offers accessibility to group benefits, such as health insurance, that some small business members might otherwise be unable to afford.
In the early years "social responsibility" meant very different things to different people. Jeffrey Hollender, now president of Seventh Generation, said: "It (was) like playing a game with no boundaries, where all the referees use different rules, and no one can agree who wins the game."
Hollender, whose company was striving to achieve financial viability as a mail order cataloger and distributor of recyclable paper products, admits that at his company in the early years there was much high-minded talk about social responsibility at the same time the company was just trying to survive.
Social responsibility sometimes seems synonymous with wacky marketing schemes. Ben & Jerry's, led by freewheeling and irrepressible Ben Cohen, set the tone. For a time it seemed that no idea was too outrageous. Need money? Sell stock to Vermonters and watch the stock rise in value. Thwarted by Pillsbury? Sue the Doughboy and get great publicity. Got a new concoction? Name it after other famous hippies, such as Wavy Gravy, Jerry Garcia and, later, Phish.
David Barash heads Mystic Pie today, but in the 1990s he was a member of Ben & Jerry's senior management team as sales at the ice cream manufacturer mushroomed from $2 million to over $40 million.
In those heady days, he says, "There is absolutely no doubt that, in certain areas, we absolutely did NOT know what we were doing."
The company careened down a very public blind alley – socially and environmentally speaking – when Ben Cohen met with Jason Clay, then executive director of nonprofit organization, Cultural Survival. Clay was concerned about the world's rainforests and said some could be saved, at least in Brazil, if a market could be developed for the Brazil nuts that grew there. Ben & Jerry's answered with Rainforest Crunch, the ice cream with candy pieces. For several years Rainforest Crunch was the gold standard for how corporations could come up with a product that would promote social change. But after several heady years, the venture encountered reality. The simple plan to save the rainforest was not so simple.
The rainforest campaign began in 1989 but ended five years later with the disclosure that Ben & Jerry's was purchasing most of its nuts from agribusinesses in Brazil and that the product was doing little if anything to prevent destruction of the rainforest.
The embarrassing revelation prompted a re-assessment within the company of what social responsibility was. The company began conducting more rigorous social audits conducted by independent third parties in an effort to ensure that the company's claims of corporate responsibility would pass any test of outside scrutiny.
The disclosure by Ben & Jerry's and the removal of Rainforest Crunch from its product line in 1995 raised the bar for other companies affiliated with VBSR. The Vermont companies learned a hard lesson that any unsupported claims of social responsibility could be challenged by activists, employees and the press.
While the jury is out on whether the concept of socially responsible business can ever work at major corporations, no one disputes that the idea is alive and well in Vermont.
Hollender has emerged as an unofficial spokesperson for what now might be called a movement. As the author of "What Really Matters: How a Small Group of Pioneers Is Teaching Social Responsibility to Big Business, and Why Big Business Is Listening" (Basic Books, 2003), he now finds himself talking to CEOs of much larger companies who want to learn how to be socially responsible.
There's an irony to this. Hollender came to Vermont with a reputation as a business-before-mission guy. In stark contrast to his colorful partner, Alan Newman, who was bearded, wore crazy glasses, drove an old Mercedes sports car and had a nap room for employees, Hollender originally seemed rigid. He didn't come to the state to plant a garden, make ice cream or live in the woods. He came to make money. Now he seems just as serious about his commitment to VBSR. And he is frank about the lessons he has learned. "What we learned is that social responsibility is not about what you say, it's about what we do right inside your own building."
The feedback he received from staff in internal audits at his own company was often intensely personal. "People told me I was far too critical. It was painful to hear, but it was also a gift that gave me a roadmap of where I had to go.
"What I've learned," says Hollender, "is that social responsibility is a journey that doesn't have an end. And it is hard work. We are still in our infancy."
Social responsibility, he says, has to become a corporate way of life. It is not about counting paper clips, pretty pictures or self-aggrandizing mission statements. It's about where your vendors get their resources, what chemicals are used in processing those resources, how the by-products are disposed of and how the company treats its work force.
Around Vermont Mystic Pie Company the talk is more about the grueling schedule of upcoming tastings than how the company might save the world. While Dave Barash may fantasize about making this world a better place by gathering the world's leaders over a slice of Vermont Mystic, accompanied by a scoop of Ben & Jerry's and a steaming mug of Green Mountain Coffee, he says he knows that he first has to bring his product to market.
If he can meet the expectations of customers, vendors and employees, and if he can stay ahead of the competition maybe he can then also think more seriously about social responsibility. Vermont Mystic Pie has great start – using some respectable Vermont products and services – but there's a lot of hard work ahead.
Stephen Morris is a business consultant and writer who lives in Randolph. He is the founder of The Public Press (www.thepublicpress.com)
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