A new fashion boutique opened on Aspen’s Hyman Avenue in early December called Olivela. In some ways, it’s a lot like other retailers in the chic mountain town, carrying a variety of luxury clothing and accessories.
One key element serves to differentiate it though: 20 percent of the proceeds from each purchase made through Olivela — in person or online — goes to select charities around the world. The company’s primary focus is on organizations dedicated to educating girls and young women, such as the Malala Fund and Too Young To Wed.
Olivela, founded by former educator and socially focused entrepreneur Stacey Boyd, is representative of a growing trend in the business world. It’s a for-profit company, but its emphasis on corporate social responsibility and contributing to the greater good is front and center to what it does. When a shopper completes a purchase in the store, a screen produces an image immediately thanking them for supporting its charity partners.
“I think the product is a major driver, clearly, but a lot of these products you could get in different locations,” Olivela chief experience officer Matthew Alland said of what brings people in the boutique’s doors. “We actually do feel that people are coming to Olivela because they also get the additional benefit of helping girls around the world.
Data backs up Alland’s observation.
A 2017 study from Cone Communications found that 78 percent of American consumers want businesses to address “important social justice issues,” including local job growth, racial equality and women’s rights. Eighty-seven percent of people indicated they would buy a product from a company because that company supported a cause they care about. Meanwhile, 76 percent said they would refuse to buy goods or services from a company if they found out it supported causes that run counter to their beliefs, according to Cone’s research.
“Corporate social responsibility and having something more than just buying and materialism is obviously on the rise in our society,” Alland said. “This is just pushing it a little bit further because it is our entire business model.”
Many other businesses are taking note of the value consumers — and potential employees — put in good corporate citizenship and are embracing social responsibility programs earlier and more actively than businesses did a generation ago, observers say.
Denver-based Visible, a mobile phone service provider launched by Verizon, announced its corporate social responsibility initiative in July, just months after it started inviting select consumers to use its service. Through Visible Connect, the company is working with nine nonprofit organizations from across the country that are using mobile technology to address issues like hunger, sex education and voter engagement.
Visible has provided each of the nine with $10,000 grants, but the company is also providing each with access to mentors and expertise over the course of the roughly year-long program to help them grow and reach more people. Many of the experts helping out are members of Visible’s staff.
“If they have questions with SEO (search engine optimization), or product marketing, or public relations, they can rely on our Visible experts years round,” said Meagan Dorsch, who manages the Visible Connect program. “It’s really neat because it allows us to grow and expand and learn right alongside them.”
Visible partnered with some outside experts when it came to figuring out how best to help its first cohort of social entrepreneurs, Uncharted. A Denver-based nonprofit, Uncharted, previously the Unreasonable Institute, has nearly a decade of experience running accelerator programs for businesses focused on the greater good. It has worked with big-time companies like Chipotle to craft and operate specialized social responsibility programs.
Visible’s early embrace of corporate social responsibility and willingness to share its internal expertise to make a difference are part of growing trends in corporate America, Uncharted CEO Banks Benitez said. It’s a departure from a generation ago when companies waited until they were big and successful to share the wealth, and more often than not did so in the form of cash donations instead of active participation.
“Corporations are really saying, ‘We’re more than just a dollar sign. We’re good at stuff, and we can do that stuff for social impact purposes, too.’ Which is awesome,” Benitez said.
Other shifts in the realm of corporate responsibility Benitez has been keeping an eye on in recent years include companies abandoning political neutrality to tackle social issues in the public sphere, (See: Dick’s Sporting Goods actively lobbying for gun control) and millennial employees putting pressure on the companies they work for to be better corporate citizens. Google employees — in Boulder and across the country — walking out of work in November to protest the company’s handling of sexual assault allegations stands out as a recent example, Benitez said.
“The point is they are now holding Google internally responsible for being good corporate citizens,” he said.
In a state where the unemployment rate is under 3.5 percent, being able to attract good employees, particularly in youth-driven fields like technology, increasingly means being a company that “walks the talk” when it comes to social impact, Benitez said.
When Regis University launched its business school in 2015, corporate social responsibility was a key pillar. It fit in well with the university’s existing ethos. The west Denver school is one of 28 Jesuit universities in the country.
The vision of the school’s Anderson College of Business in part is “to help businesses become stewards of society with a goal of improving the quality of life on Earth,” said Ken Sagendorf, the business school’s founding professor and director of Regis’ Innovation Center.
“We don’t have a center that studies this,” Sagendorf said. “The entire business school is set up around it.”
There has been shift in the market, Sagendorf said, driven by young consumers who are more informed and more globally minded than any that have come before them. They demand the business they patronize and work for support their values and those demands will continue to shape the future of American industry.
“(People) want capitalism to change because it hasn’t delivered on the promise that it was originally set up for, because of the inequity in society,” Sagendorf said. “So that evolution of capitalism is that, instead of maximizing shareholder return, you’re looking at business as a force for good.”
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