Vegan Shoes and The Winds of Change

In 2014, I bought a pair of vegan shoes. I didn't shop for vegan. But there they were, on the shelf of my neighborhood chain shoe store. To be honest, I bought them for the polka-dots. And they weren't some hippy dippy brand in Soho. They were Keen brand shoes in Lawrenceville, Georgia - about as mainstream as it gets.

Those shoes sparked a realization for me that sustainability, the term that still raised eyebrows in my corporate workplace, was mainstream. Companies and products that embed social and environmental attributes (broadly named sustainability) are now ubiquitous:

  • Organic foods now dominate my local grocer's shelves - not just the local co-op but also chain supermarkets (In 2015, Costco and Wal-Mart became the biggest buyers of organic produce, outstripping Whole Foods' $3billion annual sales.)
  • My neighborhood restaurant menu describes the source of their ingredients: organic farms in Minnesota and Wisconsin with names like Hidden Stream and Dale Wolf Honey.
  • My favorite food truck is called "The Moral Omnivore: Ethical Eats from Bacon to Beets."
  • Shampoo and cleaning bottles now have tiny logos that claim the products are USDA-certified Organic, or free of GMOs, animal testing, parabens, gluten... (Who knew that people wanted gluten-free dishwashing liquid!)
  • My coffee is fair trade certified.
  • My childhood cereals no longer have artificial colors and flavorings and are whole wheat.
  • My car has an eco button to encourage fuel conservation.
  • My lipsticks and candles are made with soy and bees wax.
  • My neighbor uses a mobile app "buycott" to screen her purchases based on whether the company has publicly deplored child labor, animal testing, GMOs, human trafficking, and arctic drilling.

Meanwhile many of company leaders were still skeptical about the appeal of sustainability as a purchasing factor: that it probably is not a game-changing market opportunity. For more than a decade, these "truisms" have lingered in the business world: 1) the greatest value of sustainability (aka corporate citizenship, corporate responsibility, ESG, social/environmentalism, CSR) is reputational with little or no bottom-line value and 2) consumers SAY they want to buy responsible products from sustainable companies but they don't, and 3) The socially/environmentally-conscious consumer market segment is a niche so small that most businesses can't afford to serve them.

As a result, most corporate executives remain focused on charitable giving or sustainability programs that cut costs (energy, utility costs), added efficiencies and employee engagement. Yet the same skeptical executives dinging sustainability were sipping fair trade coffee, feeding their children organic baby food; and sorting their trash for recycling at home.

A revolutionary mind shift was happening right in front of their eyes: The Blue Sky Resolution, a flood of companies who have resolved to do right by the world.

I derived the term from "blue sky" thinking, defined as "not limited by conventional notions of what is practical or feasible; imaginative or visionary." Blue Sky entrepreneurs, in this book's context, are those that take a mindful approach to business - balancing profits and growth with a keen awareness of their businesses' impact on society and the environment. The founder of Tom's of Maine Tom Chappell calls it "intentional goodness - managing for profit and the common good."

Slowly, gradually over the last five years or so, this approach has put a new style of entrepreneurism at the popular table. Blue Sky companies are the future, and the now.