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New Code: Giving Back in Business from the Ground Up

Some companies are creating positive change by design, by their very nature, and from the ground up.

People in the advertising industry like to talk about this thing called "cause marketing." Essentially, it’s when a for-profit business teams up with a non-profit organization or cause for a mutual benefit. At the risk of sounding overly cynical, the business gets to tell the story of its altruism while the charity gets a healthy infusion of cash.

You may not have been aware that there’s a term for this, but you’ve definitely seen it in your everyday life: Gap’s (Red) Campaign, General Mills Box Tops, and others. This model is not really new; the first well-known case was probably Marriott and the March of Dimes, a collaboration that dates back to the 1970s.

While it’s hard to argue the positive effects that cause marketing can have on both a charity and a brand (at least in the short term), the entire model came under scrutiny recently, when Warren Buffett’s son, Peter Buffett, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times entitled the “The Charitable-Industrial Complex.”

In it, Buffett calls for a new concept of philanthropy. He decries corporate leaders and investment managers with traditional notions of giving back—that is, cutting checks toward noble causes to feel better about working within a system that “creates vast amounts of wealth for the few.”

He explains how this model for charity is also spreading to companies and brands, who’ve come to expect a return on investment (ROI) for philanthropic acts. As an advertising copywriter, I know those businesses and brands pretty well. I’ve crafted their stories, written their mission statements, spun their campaigns to connect with audiences on an emotional level. And while I was doing so, I went back and forth on the effectiveness of this model. On the one hand, money is money—does it matter the company’s motive for doing something good? On the other hand, it never seemed like a sustainable way to solve any major social problems, like poverty, and AIDS, the sex trade, and education. As Buffett so eloquently put it, “it can only kick the can down the road.”

But last month, I was given the opportunity to write a different story. I want to talk about it here because it seems to be a rising trend, and I think it has more promise for our future.

Its not a trickle down story of philanthropy, in which big corporations spread seeds of wealth to different causes, but a trickle up story, in which companies create positive change by design, by their very nature, and from the ground up. It’s the story of an online marketplace called Given Goods, which carries products from more than 70 different “storydoing” brands. These brands were founded on a mission to do good—for the environment, for global development, for human rights, and for business. Giving back is not an investment for them; it’s in their DNA.

My assignment has been to write the profiles and backstories of each of these 70 brands, and in doing so I’ve discovered a whole new kind of commerce. It’s not just TOMS anymore. There’s a glassware company in Boise, Idaho, called Usful, which transforms discarded glass bottles into home goods, while putting homeless and financially struggling people to work. There’s a fashion label called Far & Wide Collective, which sells clothing and accessories made by global artisans, empowering women to sustain their own businesses. There’s a sound systems company called Vers that has a net positive impact on the environment—all their products are made of wood, but for each tree used in production, they plant 100 more. And there’s a backpack company called Ark, which makes its products in the U.S. and donates a backpack to a student in need for every backpack sold.

That’s only a few of the stories I’ve discovered; there are many more, and they’re all inspiring. At some point I realized that these companies differ from the ones Peter Buffett described in one important way: they walk the walk. “Doing good” and “giving back” extends to every aspect of their business—from sourcing materials, to production, to wages, and beyond. They don’t need a marketing campaign to show they give back, because their business model is designed to uplift everyone it touches. Consumers can feel that; all these brands need to do is tell their (true) stories, and hopefully, shoppers will come.

Buffett wrapped up his article with an intriguing call to arms: “It’s time for a new operating system,” he says. “Not a 2.0 or a 3.0, but something built from the ground up. New code.”

I can only hope he is reading this, because there’s an entire movement of people out there that has already started building. All we need now is for consumers to realize the power in their wallets, and make “good” choices when it’s time to decide where to shop.

Philanthropy image via Shutterstock

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