A few months ago a friend of mine asked where she could go to read a summary of sustainability in business. Not a small task. But I realized I really didn’t have any good resource to point her towards that would, in fairly short order, summarize the leaders, the state, the practices, and the future of sustainability in business. Today I begin the short series, Business + Sustainability 101.
Sustainability in modern business started with those early innovators who asked themselves whether it was possible to make money and make a difference at the same time. These are businesses that were able to achieve a size and reach far beyond Grandma’s Hemp Soap Company sold at the shop down the street.
Patagonia represents many in the field: founded by a leader passionate about a category and the natural environment it supported. Patagonia’s founder, Yvon Chouinard, is a lifelong climber who began by outfitting himself and his friends. The company made performance climbing gear and donated 1% of its sales to environmental groups as a co-founder of 1% for the planet. Patagonia has also pushed the envelope on sourcing more environmentally friendly materials.
Soon, green leaders emerged in other product categories. Seventh Generation popped up to bring greener products to the cleaning products category eventually followed by Method. Ben and Jerry’s ice cream transformed one category of dairy, Stonyfield Farms transformed another. Honest Tea showed it was possible to make great organic tea by working with tea growers at a reasonable cost. Whole Foods realized it could sell this growing category of products that were healthier for people and the planet.
Many, many others proved the green market in other categories. These companies were delighted to achieve the 1-5% market share that was sufficient to keep them in business.
Some were highly successful and eventually acquired by category leaders like Burt’s Bees, Ben and Jerry’s, and Honest Tea. Other early leaders were successful and turned down acquisition offers. They were happy to grow organically (pun intended) like Seventh Generation, Method, Stonyfield Farms, and Clif Bar. Plenty failed without derailing the slow, persistent growth in green products over the past 20 years.
These innovators showed it was possible to make great products and a profit in a small segment of the market. Most important, they began to develop the supply chains, prove the market, and create early sustainability standards that caught the attention of Industry Titans.
Next Entry in Series: The Industry Titan Leaders