As part of our “You Said It” Op-Ed series, we invite contributors to submit their opinion pieces. The views reflected in these pieces may not be our own. Have a submission? Contact us here.
How we live, work and play is rapidly changing in a world transformed by the COVID-19 pandemic, and now is the time to “vote” for better forms of capitalism. Now it is possible for each of us to shift our spending towards business models that support greater sustainability and balance purpose and profits. Social enterprises, businesses that sell goods or services while also addressing a social need, are already pointing the way forward and we as individuals and consumers, can and should follow their lead.
My own journey from typical capitalist to social entrepreneur is just a tiny example of how we can rethink commerce in ways that work for everyone. For the first nine years that we were in business as office tenant reps, we ran our business the conventional way: we paid ourselves with the profits and invested the rest in the business. Then, in 1995, we decided to start giving our clients 10 percent of our commission, asking them to give it to a nonprofit of their choice. Eventually, we came up with an idea that would make it possible for every brokered real estate transaction anywhere in the country, regardless of who the broker was, to generate funding for the client’s favorite nonprofit.
This example illustrates three stages of evolution for our value proposition: 1) do business with us because we’re great at what we do, 2) do business with us because we’re great at what we do and “we give back”, and 3) do business with us or any broker, and maximize your positive impact in the world. And making that positive impact doesn’t come at any expense to the client.
Our idea to turn ordinary brokered real estate transactions, both residential and commercial, into significant nonprofit funding for the consumer’s favorite nonprofit for free became a separate social enterprise called Investing In Communities. The pandemic will change the real estate needs of individuals and companies, but people will still buy and sell homes and companies will still lease commercial space. Millions of transactions will still happen and each one of them can generate thousands of dollars for any nonprofit chosen by the real estate client, at no cost to the client and regardless of who they choose as their broker.
Nonprofits everywhere are being hit with a double whammy: reduced revenue and increased needs for their services. We need new ways to support their work besides simply reaching into our pockets. If we can find more ways to give support, shouldn’t we do that? If we have more ways to give that support, shouldn’t we use those ways?
I do not mean to say that what we accomplished in the real estate industry can be accomplished in every industry. In fact, for multiple reasons, I’m pretty sure it can not.
But that’s not the point here.
Just as we can make a difference with each real estate transaction, other examples abound of how we can rethink the way we go about our day-to-day consumer spending. I’m not talking about simply rounding up your purchase total at the grocery store and donating that amount to charity. I’m talking about getting our groceries and many other products and services from better stores and service providers. Each of us can use our purchasing decisions to support more equitable models of business. Buying locally grown food is good because it reduces air pollution by reducing shipping. But that isn’t the same as committing to getting some of your food from a CSA, which helps local farmers manage risk, while providing you with sustainably grown food. Or you can join a local food co-op, if you have one in your community.
You can even do your banking so that you’re supporting responsible businesses rather than using a bank that invests in fossil fuel companies.
Think of each purchase you make of a product or service as a potential chance to vote with your consuming dollars for companies that I like to say are doing business doing goodsm in the world.
When companies start to see how we as consumers are voting for more equitable and sustainable options, more will compete to be the better option. In our own experience, the impetus came from us, as service providers, because we know for a fact that our competitors were “motivated” to copy our offer if they got the opportunity to try to win an assignment, instead of losing it to us. And we have gotten assignments because of how we do business. So it’s also smart business.
But it’s really the consumer that holds the power in the larger context of the marketplace.
Being a for-profit company with a social mission is called social enterprise. And there are lots of social enterprises that we consumers can patronize. Yes, we also need to elect leaders who will make laws to promote a more sustainable future. But while those elections only happen every so often, as consumers, we can vote each and every day to bend the curve of capitalism to be more just and sustainable.
The range of products and services that are being offered for sale is constantly expanding. So it becomes increasingly practical for our purchasing decisions to satisfy our needs, while also serving a greater good. Yes, in some cases that might come at a slight cost premium. But in many cases there is no need to pay any premium at all. And, yes, sourcing our products and services from social enterprises might require some additional effort on our part. But that’s by no means always the case. In this age of surfing the web, which so many are comfortable doing on a mobile device, why not “let your fingers do the walking”, as they used to say last century. It should be increasingly possible to learn about the doing-good business practices of companies. They don’t want to be quiet about their good deeds. I imagine fibbers will be called out.
Judging by what I see all around me, people are excited about a lot of causes. That energy is so hopeful for our country and the world. Use your excitement about what you really care about, before you make your next purchase.
For example, we are investigating if our home is suitable for solar. I spoke with two installation companies and asked each of them as many questions as I could think of to learn about cost, quality, tax credits, payback time, etc. I also asked each one what they do to “give back”. One of them said they once sold, at cost, an installation to the house of worship that the company’s owner belongs to. The other one said that each of the ten years they’ve been in business, they’ve given an installation to a school. I’ll bet we can do a little easy fact-checking. Last year they also gave a free installation to a Habitat For Humanity house. The owner of the company told me they will now give one to a school and another one to a Habitat house each year.
All else being equal, which one would you choose? I don’t think that takes a bleeding heart.
The amazing thing is that we can make such purchasing decisions without a bleeding wallet, too.
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