From fashion brands fighting human trafficking to gin distilleries supporting gorilla conservation, businesses are becoming increasingly ethical. Stylist discovers exactly why more companies want to have a heart.
Molly Gunn didn’t set out to be a fundraiser. But after she found herself weeping at a news report of a bombing at a Syrian hospital, she had an idea. She could use her experience as a fashion journalist and blogger to launch a product, one that would raise funds for women in war-torn regions. And so the cult ‘Mother’ T-shirt was born. “Giving a percentage to charity seemed like a win-win,” she says. “I’d be helping others as well as creating a great product for readers of my blog.” Two years later, Gunn’s company, The FMLY Store (thefmlystore.com) has grown from a website to include a standalone shop, and, as of January this year, has raised £515,000 for 13 different charities.
It’s a great success story, but it is by no means the only example of a small business with a big heart. Recent government statistics show that ‘mission-led’ enterprises account for 4.3% of turnover in the UK private sector. That amounts to over £165 billion and 1.4 million employees. In fact, we’re seeing a fundamental shift in the way smaller companies manage their profits. Until recently, we largely expected global firms or billionaire individuals to make a difference – such as beauty brand Clarins supporting FEED, Lauren Bush’s programme to fight global hunger via sales from certain products, or author JK Rowling, who set up her own charitable trust Volant to support women and girls, as well as donating millions to other causes.
But right now giving back is increasingly linked to grass-roots rather than Bill Gates types. Rather than waiting until they hit a magic profit margin, increasingly smaller start-ups are taking inspiration from the big players and building giving back into their business plan from the start. Welcome to the ‘trickle-up’ model of philanthropy. “Our generation is passionate about running businesses that not only provide a great product, but also have a positive social impact,” explains Natasha Rufus Isaacs, 33, who co-founded Beulah London, a luxury women’s fashion brand that offers employment to survivors of sex trafficking. “Today people are motivated by helping to create change, not purely by financial gain.”
Take a closer look at your new favourite brands and that certainly seems to be the case. From the innovative Mud Jeans, which you ‘lease’ so they can be recycled when you tire of them, to Supply Yoga school, which uses profits to fund lessons for those who can’t afford them, it’s a struggle to find one that doesn’t have an ethical focus. The range of products available is as diverse as the causes they support – from the Graveney Gin company which not only makes organic gin but donates 10% of profits to a conservation charity for mountain gorillas, to candle brand SevenSeventeen which donates £1 per candle to pre- and post-natal depression charity PANDAS Foundation. And it’s not just about giving money. Many new start-ups have a well-intentioned mission at the heart of their business, from Ella’s Kitchen wanting to start an organic baby-food revolution to Thinx aiming to break the period taboo and provide a sustainable alternative to tampons with protective underwear.
Stylist and Clarins seek a woman with heart
So, why are we seeing a surge in the caring economy right now? Apparently, it’s us driving the change. “We’ve seen a consumer backlash against the current economic and political climate,” says Emma Grace Bailey, associate editor at WGSN. “In 2016, it felt like we’d lost a lot of control over the bigger picture – particularly when it came to politics. Conscious consumerism feels like a way of having a positive impact through small actions.”
“I think recent world events have been a huge wake-up call for us all to question our attitudes to how we consume and how we show up in the world with the work we do, explains Ruby Warrington, founder of conscious lifestyle platform The Numinous. In her upcoming book, Material Girl, Mystic World, she explores the spiritual concept of ‘dharma’, which means, in part, acknowledging that the work we do is of service to society and humankind at large. “The idea is that we each have a unique role to play when it comes to creating a harmonious world that truly works for everyone. The biggest benefit is feeling like our individual voice and actions can make a difference.”
And if brands can respond to that desire, it makes good business sense. According to the Havas Index, ‘Meaningful Brands’ outperform the stock market by 133%. “If a brand is seen to be embedding compassion and kindness into the core of what they do, they are going to have customers that commit to them in the long term,” claims Bailey.
Ethical values also play an important role for employees. “One of the key issues for businesses today is finding talent and retaining it,” says Michael Hayman, co-author of Mission: How The Best In Business Break Through. “If your team loses belief in what it is you do, then they leave.” But if they’re inspired, you’re on the path to financial success. According to a recent survey from employment specialists Bain & Co, “Inspired employees are more than twice as productive as satisfied employees”.
The cool factor
For charities, of course, the benefits of this kind of alliance are twofold: raising both funds and awareness (just look at the impact on once-taboo causes such as AIDS and breast cancer thanks to collaborations with the fashion and beauty industry over the past few decades). Today, if the product itself is the kind of thing you can’t wait to Instagram – boom! Dani Lawrence is a director of Help Refugees (helprefugees.org.uk), launched in 2015 in response to the growing migrant crisis. The response, she says, “snowballed” – partly due to the help they’ve had from brands. “Katharine Hamnett was an early supporter, designing us a ‘Choose Love’ T-shirt based on her iconic Choose Life design,” says Lawrence. “The reaction was amazing. We had photos of entire families wearing them on Christmas Day on our Instagram feed.” The right sponsored_longform and right products create that magical thing all brands want: authenticity. “After the financial crash, trust in business was tarnished and needs to be rebuilt,” says Hayman. “Without trust you won’t sell your product, but placing good intentions at the centre of your brand is one way to win it back.”
Stylist and Clarins seek a woman with heart
More than money
With so many obvious business benefits, it’s easy to see why this is a trend on the rise. But for the true ‘philanthropreneurs’, this is about more than making money.
“We donate a superhero sleep buddy toy to a vulnerable child for every one we sell, so it’s not a money-maker for me,” says Jo Tutchener-Sharp of childrenswear start-up Scamp & Dude (scampanddude.com), founded after she had to spend time away from her kids following a brain haemorrhage. “It’s about helping families deal with separation anxiety.”
“I knew, before I even thought of the business, that I wanted to give something back,” says Emma Macklin, a designer who launched a range of badges to raise money for charities with her husband Ian (menyouvstheworld.bigcartel.com). Their David Bowie-inspired ‘Black Star’ pin is the best-seller. “Ian has always run marathons for charity. This is my marathon. I never think, ‘What could I have done with the donated money’. I think, ‘Wow, I wonder what will be done with it’.”
And for the companies who don’t adapt to show they care? “Consumers have wallets and choices which means they can punish businesses that don’t care and promote ones that do,” says Hayman. “Businesses have to respond or increasingly they are going to get left behind.”
In the words of Mad Men’s Bert Cooper, “Philanthropy is the gateway to power.” And for business today, he might just be right.