November 25, 2008

Triple Bottom Line Business Networks. [SVN, BALLE, B Corporation]

A triple bottom line business model takes into account social and environmental factors in addition to the traditional financial bottom line. You may have heard this model simply called, “people, planet, profit.” A few years ago, I worked for a socially responsible investing firm where I had access to our analysts’ research on the social and environmental policies of major corporations. After this first exposure to CSR (corporate social responsibility) I began to further explore how for-profit organizations and nonprofits are committed to responsibility. And in turn I was introduced to the Social Venture Network (SVN), B Corporation and Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), all networks which connect businesses focused on the triple bottom line.

Founded in 1987, SVN is an association with close to 500 members which include both non-profit organizations and for-profit businesses, all sharing a commitment to creating a sustainable world. SVN supports action at three levels: individual, organizational and societal. This support is created through the organization’s events, programs and resources available to members. Non-members can also access resources through books and even electronic documents for free right on the site. The “Tools and Best Practices” page has a document library that is searchable by topic, from customer service to fundraising. Members include my former employers, the Center for the Urban Environment and Kopali Organics (a job I found through scouring the SVN site!), Air America Radio, Candle Café, Eileen Fisher, Presidio School of Management, and other businesses in varying industries with the shared goal of responsibility.

Zak Zaidman, Co-CEO of Kopali Organics, expanded for us on his experience in joining the Network. “When Josh Mailman (SVN Co-founder) invited me to SVN I had just sold my software company in San Francisco. I had made a personal commitment to devote my life to helping to create a more sustainable and compassionate world but I had no idea exactly what I was going to do. I was quite disillusioned with the unconscious and greedy way the once visionary early internet culture had been overtaken by the dot com bubble, and I was even more disillusioned by the economic fall out of the dot bomb. I thought that maybe I might leave the world of business all together. It literally didn’t take more than a few hours after arriving at my first SVN conference for me to become totally re-inspired and committed to being part of building a just and sustainable world through business. A few years later I showed up to an SVN conference in Tucson, Arizona with Kopali Organics’ first line of products. Josh was so excited and supportive he became our first angel investor.  Today Kopali directly supports many hundreds of the most sustainable organic family farmers and their communities around the world.  We do this through a line of purely delicious, energy-packed and nutrient-dense Supergood Superfood organic and Fair Trade snacks and SVN continues to be one of my dearest and most important communities and I will be forever grateful to this tribe of visionary businesspeople.”

It is true that the network creates partnerships. I know for instance that it was at one of the member gatherings that the Executive Director of the Center for the Urban Environment started up a conversation with another member about starting New York City’s BALLE chapter.

BALLE, a sister organization to SVN, is more focused on local networks of sustainable businesses. It began as a SVN project by Judy Wicks of White Dog Café, who started the Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia as an outgrowth of her work building a sustainable local food economy around her restaurant. Spun off in 2003, BALLE now has 60 networks. So what makes up a “living economy”? According to the BALLE site, “The network’s main focus might be a single issue, such as independent retail (a Local First campaign) or local food. Or, it might be bigger, such as transforming an entire regional economy. Each network evolves according to the needs, contours, and conditions of the local community with the ultimate goal of building a Living Economy. BALLE meets each network where it is, connects it with other networks, and, if the network chooses, provides opportunities for growth, learning, and greater impact.” I saw this in action last year at the first planning meeting to start a New York City chapter. My friend Vanessa Knight of the Center for the Urban Environment is the Sustainable Business Network of New York City’s (SBNYC) director. She said, “Doing business in New York is a very unique experience and the city has a rich cultural history and part of that has to do with our business landscape. It has become increasingly important for locally owned and operated businesses to come together and support each other, share lessons learned and teach each other innovative practices for staying competitive in the marketplace. And that’s what we are; we’re a group of locally owned and operated business owners who strive to run our businesses with integrity and with the health of our community in mind. SBNYC launched in January 2008 and has almost 100 members to date. We’re a growing powerful voice in the New York City marketplace. “

Individuals associated with SVN and BALLE serve on the Advisory Board of B Corporation. Recently I did some work for Mathew Gerson of eConscious Market, a founding B Corporation. Member companies are a new type of corporation that are purpose-driven and create benefit for all stakeholders. Members must meet comprehensive and transparent social and environmental performance standards. Another leader in the sustainable business community here in Boulder, Colorado is Mark Fischer of Inspire Commerce. Mark shared his experience in starting a triple bottom line business and his choice to become involved with B Corporation. He said, “I often got frustrated when I saw companies branded green.  Because I know they are trying to act a certain way in order to increase sales, but the act is really that, a shallow one. It’s not hard boiled into their DNA.  It’s them trying to access another vertical market, or make up for their own lack of integrity.  We see this often.  With companies that are certified B corporations, I know that they are being evaluated on every aspect of their benefit for humanity, and a company that is certified is clearly miles ahead of most other companies in their commitment levels to not only their shareholders, but all stakeholders.  This means, as a B corporation they are measured, not only on how well they act towards green branding, but the environment, their employees, and their communities.  This is a huge deal.  That a third party objective group actually analyzes these companies holistically, and only allows a high caliber of company to be certified.  And that the company actually alters its articles of incorporation to make this commitment.  And it’s a big commitment.”

In the end, members of these networks understand that it’s not about individual branding, but building real vitality into companies and also sharing in the voice for positive business models that membership holds. Mark also expands on this process of striving for improvement. “We thought of ourselves as a holistic and giving company when we first formed, but taking the B Corporation Survey opened up our eyes.  There are hundreds of ways we all can do better.  And for us, being a B Corporation is a commitment to continued improvement.  It is a radical concept, that business can lead positive global change.  It’s the opposite of the Machiavellian paradigm.  For us, B Corporations are a hallmark of positive leadership.  It’s a transparent mark of objective integrity, and a commitment to always improve and do better.”

Whether it is through SVN, BALLE or B Corporation, the foundations are in place to strengthen our ability to achieve sustainability through the business model. Check out these sites for full membership lists of companies that have proven deserving of our support: SVN, BALLE, B Corporation. Although I chose to highlight these three networks here, they are not alone and SVN has an extensive list of organizations here, many of which are also more accessible for individuals who simply want to be involved in conscious capitalism. Be inspired about voting with your dollars!

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