Business owners are increasingly embracing the notion of profit and purpose going hand-in-hand as “social impact” becomes a more commonly used term to define success. Even as companies grow more comfortable with the notion, many question how to integrate a double or triple bottom line into their existing business. Digital Union, an Austin-based consulting group that helps companies realize their social mission, shares the story of Blue Avocado, though an interview with Paige Davis, Chief Inspiration Officer. This five-year old company creates lifestyle products that tread lightly on environmental waste and go heavy on sass.
Blue Avocado has made a practice of bringing big names into the eco. They recently launched their green food storage products nationwide at Target stores. This placed Target as the first national mass market retailer to feature B Corporations, which are companies that receive a stamp of approval for meeting rigorous standards of social and environmental performance. In 2012 Blue Avocado signed celebrity author and designer, Lauren Conrad with The XO(eco)™ line of sustainable lifestyle products. This was the first celebrity portfolio designed entirely to reduce waste and conserve natural resources.
With eco accessories available nationally at The Container Store, Bloomingdales, Whole Foods Market, Amazon.com and top retailers around the country, Blue Avocado products have eliminated more than 128 million disposables, avoided 1 million pounds of carbon dioxide emissions, upcycled more than 3 million plastic bottles invested in nearly 500 micro-entrepreneurs around the globe.
Paige: We really developed the business model from the very get go because we wanted to create a blueprint for other social impact businesses to follow. As we were creating our mission, vision, values…we made sure that the triple bottom line was a key part of our foundation. It really was people, profit, and planet from the first conversations we had. A key part of that for us was the measurement around the impact. Our CEO Amy’s background was around social impact space, so the measurement lens related to impact was already built in. For us, impact was measured on waste we were avoiding, like carbon emissions and plastic bags avoided.
So, for example on measurement: for our buyers, on their order sheets we track their order and we track the amount of waste avoided by their purchase. This allows us to do sustainability reports as a social impact business. These are reports you might find with Fortune 500 companies…but we are proud that we were the first ever start-up to do this kind of sustainability report to share and report our impact to all stakeholders such as investors, customers, suppliers. Another element of impact for us was women entrepreneurs and helping to empower women entrepreneurs in developing countries. This was our way of relating when we were starting up. As we met with advisors in our early days, we wanted to create a meaningful thank you by making investments in women entrepreneurs. This married our valued system because at the end of the day we are women trying to make an impact. So yes, our social impact strategy was woven into our model. We knew the more product we were making the more impact we could be making as well.
Paige: Again for us we did this from the get-go so it was very authentic to us. I think companies looking to add social impact should be careful not to just toss out “doing good” concepts for a marketing “win”. In the day of social media, transparency is key and social impact is a great story if it’s coming from the right place to align with business and personal values.
There are some small steps to take. For example, we started out looking at our entire supply chain. We wanted to make the greenest bag in America manufactured in Texas and realized there was only so much we could realistically do at the time. The cost just didn’t make sense. Again, we looked at the supply chain and how we could use recycled materials. However, we are thrilled to currently be working on a Made in the USA initiative. So, I think especially for smaller businesses that want to get started, I’d give the advice to look at the supply chain and where you can possibly start partnering with organizations to make impact decisions. This way you can also invite your customers to be a part of it too.
We involve our stakeholder circle in our social impact plan. From day one, we invited and challenged our suppliers to take actions on how they can walk their talk in their own value systems. I think it’s important to invite your system to take the small steps and to align yourself with the right strategic partners. So for example, with Whole Planet Foundation (Whole Foods), it was a strategic and natural decision for us since it immediately provided visibility for the Whole Foods customer we needed but allowed us to immediately give back. We built in a dollar-a-bag contribution model and they helped us market them to all regions, so it was a true partnership. I think a lot of people associate social impact with “cash out” but it doesn’t have to mean that. Especially when you have a premium product where the impact value is built into it, businesses really have the opportunity to give back naturally and engage customers to be a part of the process. The opportunity is how businesses can integrate it in a really authentic way. What does your business resonate with and the stakeholders (customers, suppliers, employees, investors). It can start simply through engagement and doesn’t have to be a dollar amount.
Paige: For us, it is about aligning that visibility with our strategic partners. For instance, when we send off press releases, we will make sure we talk about the impact we are making with our business decisions, like with Whole Planet Foundation or Target. With Target, we created a partnership to partner with Preserve to offer 100 percent recycled, made-in-the-USA food storage containers. With Lauren Conrad, we can send out a press release and she will use the language of the impact our products we are making on her blog. It’s important again in the partnerships you create in business that your partners are speaking with similar language about impact. That makes a big difference.
We also just got certified as a B Corporation as a business who is dedicated to solving social and environmental problems. We leverage all these things, but they are authentic decisions. I would encourage any young organization to research B Corp because we really do think that is where the future of impact is heading…tracking and building impact into your company by-laws. The important thing here is that a business doesn’t have to wait to “self-actualize” to finally get to a place to bring in social impact. It can simply start through internal conversations within the company. This is how the message will move from internal to external and become a genuine part of the company.
Sincere social impact has to come from more than just from top-down, it is tough to build something without asking if the rest of the stakeholders care about it. I’d say businesses can start with even simple actions like getting in on the ground floor with a partner or organization they are interest in working with or want to support, then go meet with the partner and have a real conversation. This is the opportunity where people get inspiration and growth. Just writing a check isn’t the goal. I think people get overwhelmed thinking that social impact in a company has to be something huge and they have to re-do everything with their business. It can just start with one person. Ask the question to yourself as a leader and then for the greater good. Giving is very powerful so get the most out of it you can.
Paige: The cancer diagnosis just reminded of this journey to stay true to our core values and deeper purpose. This is why we came together. There has to be a bigger picture that you are connecting with. I think the start-up environment very much trained me for this journey through breast cancer. The steps I am taking really mirror the steps I took for business building:
1) Do the research and due diligence – For any new business idea, this is a given. For my diagnosis, I wanted to make sure I asked questions so felt empowered by the information vs. being told what to do.
2) Build the team—seek people smarter than you – For BlueAvocado, we built an amazing team of advisors very early on. For my diagnosis, I sought out several opinions and wanted to be sure I had a medical team I trusted and believed in.
3) Be your own advocate and trust your inner voice – Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Whether business or a personal situation, YOU are driving the bus and need to feel empowered by the decisions you are making
4) Take pause - find joy and laughter in the process and celebrate the successes – So much of the time we take ourselves so serious. Lighten up and try to get perspective when you feel yourself having tunnel vision. We have a bell at BlueAvocado that we literally ring with big wins. And a glass of wine with friends is always a great way to celebrate!
5) Create a desired outcome and then let it all go - The road of an entrepreneur is often times a bumpy one. No matter of preparation can prepare you for the unpredictable challenges that will constantly present themselves to you. So hold that feeling of what you see as the end goal, and then prepare yourself to trust in something bigger than you can imagine. Just like life, the opportunities for personal and professional growth will be the greatest gift on the journey if you are just open to receiving them.