The golden moment: when social responsibility becomes profitable

The other day I met up with a colleague and friend when we ran into each other at our local farmers’ market. He is an artisanal breadmaker, and over several seasons of buying his bread, we became friends over our common ideas about local food. I would drop by to buy bread, and the transaction often turned into a very long conversation on the trials and successes of sharing the local food message. Sometimes our ideas (and ideals) turned a profit, but more often we scraped by on a combination of baking jobs, teaching people the intricacies of jam-making or doing freelance consulting jobs for non-profits.

When social responsibility becomes profitable

This particular sunny Saturday, marketers browsed and loaded up on fresh produce, and I filled him in on how things were going in my new (full-time) role bringing local food to a large convention centre.  It’s very satisfying, I said, to be working on such an interesting project. His response? “Yeah, well I guess we all have to sell out eventually”.

I admit, I was slightly taken aback, but at the same time, I fully understand the thought process that leads to a conclusion like that. Isn’t there something romantic about slaving away in obscurity for something you believe in? I always thought I was exactly this type of person, for whom no job could be worthwhile unless it came with a bohemian existence and a slightly righteous sense of being part of something that no large corporation could possibly understand. No one was more surprised than me to find that this is actually false.

Lately we have seen an influx of stories in the media about very large corporations taking large steps towards becoming better corporate citizens. Whether it’s through green initiatives, buying local food, or demanding meat from more humane sources, large companies are hearing what used to be small blips on the radar, and shouting it from the rooftops. People want better, are demanding better, and companies are listening. Of course, doing the “right thing” must also be the right thing for the business. There is that golden moment when social responsibility becomes profitable, and that’s when real change can happen. So, what’s wrong with that?

It’s a strange dichotomy but very true, that when you are a part of a grassroots movement, you do everything you can to spread the message. But once the message is out there, there is an attempt to reel it back in and keep it small by the very people who championed the changes in the first place.

I recently had the opportunity to host a group of our staff on an excursion to some local farms. We heard from three passionate people who grew apples, raised heritage pigs, and made artisanal sheep cheeses. They articulated to us exactly what the impact a large organization, buying their food, had on their business. The local food movement, and the resulting changes in procurement practices moving up the supply chain, are saving their farms, and their businesses.

The idea of selling out, to me, means turning your back on what you believe in for the sake of making money. What is happening in the case of local food and sustainable practices seems to be just the opposite. The small movements that have been gaining momentum have merged conscious thought with good business, and small producers are reaping the rewards.

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