Companies with a conscience – the rise of social enterprise

By Jessica Knoth

A spinner dolphin swims with a plastic bag caught on its pectoral fin in Brazil. Credit: Flickr user Jedimentat44

I smiled as I clicked the checkout button and got the notification that my bracelet would be arriving soon. It was a simple design of braided coral-colored threads woven through clear plastic beads and neatly tied. I liked the look of it but I had not spent $20 + shipping of my grad student budget on a bracelet for no reason – this one was special. It was made by 4Ocean, a for-profit company with a business model structured around their mission of ridding the ocean of plastic. I don’t work for 4Ocean, and this is not an ad for them; rather, I‘m choosing to mention them because 4Ocean is part of the growing sector of social enterprise, or commercial organizations that have specific social and/or environmental objectives as one of their core purposes. Social enterprises (also known as B corporations) attempt to maximize profits with their services or products, which are then put toward benefiting society and the environment.

The original 4Ocean bracelet made from 1lb of plastic removed from the ocean. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

4Ocean is a prime example of a social enterprise because they state that 100% of their sales are directly or indirectly invested into their global ocean cleanup operation. Every bracelet is made of one pound of plastic 4Ocean employees have cleaned out of the ocean, and because plastic pollution is not just limited to the U.S. where they were founded, they have created jobs in multiple countries for their cleanup crews. 4Ocean  also partners with environmental organizations that coincide with the species represented by each bracelet. My newest bracelet represented the removal of a pound of plastic from the ocean, but my purchase also donated money to the Coral Restoration Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to restoring coral reefs globally.

I trusted 4Ocean to fulfill their mission as they say they do, and that the non-profit organizations they partner with are legitimate. However, the savvy consumer may want to make sure they are not just being “greenwashed,” or purposely misled to believe through a company’s marketing that they are environmentally conscious. A way to verify a company is by checking the Better Business Bureau (BBB), a private company that determines if corporations meet their eight accreditation standards, including transparency, integrity, and customer service.

A tropical marine atoll – an example of what Coral Restoration Foundation works to protect. Credit: Pixabay

BBB audits companies monthly, and takes all customer complaints seriously, but 4Ocean has an “A” rating with them, so it is fair to assume they are pursuing their mission and distributing their profits as they say they do on their website. Charity Navigator, and GuideStar provide similar services for charities, and Coral Restoration Foundation was given the “Gold Seal of Transparency” by GuideStar, proving that they are legitimate. Another way to verify social enterprises is to see if they have received Certified B-Corporation status by a non-profit organization called B Lab. Just as BBB rates corporations based on their integrity as a company, B Lab decides if social enterprises are truly balancing purpose and profit, and if so, labels them as a Certified B-Corp.

Plastic waste on a beach – a pervasive problem companies like Plastic Bank, Plastic Whale, and 4Ocean are working to fix. Credit: Pixabay

Patagonia works to create the best outdoor gear using sustainable and ethical sources and donates time and money to grassroots organizations fighting climate change, earning the Certified B-Corp label from B Lab. Plastic Whale is also a Certified B-Corp whose mission is to make the world’s waters plastic-free and create value from plastic waste by fishing plastic from the ocean and converting it into furniture and boats. Sand Cloud is a company that sells sustainably made towels and clothing, and has partnered with nonprofits such as the Marine Conservation Institute, the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, and the Surfrider Foundation, among others to support their mission of saving marine life. Plastic Bank is a company that incentivizes the collection of plastic waste by paying above market prices for people to pick up plastic off the beach and bring it to collection centers in return for cash, digital currency, or items, simultaneously cleaning the beaches and providing income for individuals living in poverty. SafetyNet is a company working with scientific and academic partners to reduce bycatch and overfishing. To increase the selectivity of commercial fishing, they have created devices using fish behavioral habits and physiology so that fish of the wrong species or age that would normally be discarded are allowed to escape before being pulled to the surface.  I encourage you to check out their websites and explore the success stories they’ve had so far!

A graphic representing the many companies and startups that are tackling environmental issues. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

4Ocean, Plastic Whale, Sand Cloud, Plastic Bank, and SafetyNet are just a few examples of for-profit companies designed to address environmental and social problems, and I featured them because  their missions are centered on sustainability and ocean health. There are many other notable organizations focused on other problems, and more startups happen every day. The question is, how are these companies that direct their profit toward mission programs thriving in fiercely competitive markets? A significant reason they are growing is because millennials have shown trends of buying and working for ethical companies. It varies by location and education, but in general seven out of ten millennials actively consider company values when making a purchase, compared to only five out of ten older adults. Millennials are often thought of as young and naive, but in reality they range from 23 to 38 years old, and make up the largest age group in the U.S. workforce. Consequently, millennials create a significant economic impact with their purchasing decisions, and if they choose a brand for its story or purpose over a company selling a similar but less ethical product they can cause a huge shift in the market. Retailers’ positions in the supply chain between producers and customers gives them significant power to help or hinder sustainability and social issues, and as public awareness of these problems grow, companies are put under more pressure to improve their business strategies, or to create new ones entirely.

A sea turtle swims peacefully in clean waters. Credit: Pixabay

The millennial support for corporate activism means social enterprise can potentially have a monumental impact on ocean conservation efforts. Instead of relying on donations or government grants as traditional non-profits do, mission-based businesses can fund their own operations. For a social enterprise, the more the business grows, the greater the positive impact it can have. No sector is perfect, and a study done on corporate environmentalism (CE) suggested that more research is needed on CE as a marketing strategy, and the growing issue of greenwashing. However, the future is bright with innovative ideas to solve social and environmental issues, and the rise of social enterprise is promising. So next time you go shopping, take a minute to consider the company’s values. You might just save the ocean, one bracelet at a time!