Net Impact Networking at Honest Tea

June 21, 2012

in Corporate Social Responsibility,Side Notes,Sustainability

Last Tuesday I received an invitation through the Facebook group of GW PMBA students to a Net Impact Networking event hosted by Honest Tea. When I read about the sponsors of this event – DC Net Impact and their mission: “…to use the power of business to create a more socially and environmentally sustainable world”, and William James Foundation – I got interested. Then I read brief introductory information about the hosting company – Honest Tea, “one of the leading “8 Revolutionary Socially Responsible Companies”, and got even more intrigued. So I decided to attend this event, thankfully it was held not too far from my home.

There were two aspects of this networking event that I appreciated specifically. First, I learned about Honest Tea. Until this Tuesday I had seen the Honest Tea products in the stores, but neither paid much attention to them, nor ever had real interest in the company behind it. As for the name, it seemed a bit gimmicky to me. And although I like to drink tea, I prefer it in its original hot form – the idea of iced tea in a bottle was never too appealing to me. As for their teabags, it was just one of many brands on the shelf and I had other brands I already liked. So when I learned from the invitation that Honest Tea is a local company with strong social and environmental impact I thought it would be cool to check it out.

At the event I had a chance to meet and talk with a few Honest Tea employees, including Seth Goldman – the company’s TeaEO. One of the aspects especially interesting for me was how the company managed to maintain their “socially responsible” philosophy, which they had since the foundation, in the wake of the company’s acquisition by Coca Cola last year. I became aware of this paradoxical situation in terms of attitudes to corporate social responsibility from my classes during the MBA program: smaller companies driven by the convictions of their founders may want to have greater positive impact on society and environment, but often lack resources and expertise to do so. The big companies, on the other hand, have all resources, but, driven by the consideration of the bottom line, often implement elements of corporate social responsibility only as a marketing tool or in response to some embarrassing and widely-publicized blunder. In the case of Honest Tea though, they had enough conviction from the founders to pursue social agenda from the start and were financially stable enough by the acquisition time to support their philosophy.

Indeed, when I talked to people from the company, this contradiction became apparent. As one person said, they had to make a conscious effort to make sure they were speaking the same language when they talked with Coca Cola about their philosophy. As for now, it seems that Honest Tea has managed to maintain significant control over their pre-acquisition culture, though some compromises had to be made, such as cancelling the employees ownership in the company, for example.

The second aspect of the event that I liked was the chance to meet interesting people driven by social and environmental agenda. There were a few entrepreneurs with budding businesses whose ideas were very aspirational. One of them was Twice as Warm startup. There were also many students, interns, business people, and volunteers from the sponsoring organizations. Meeting and talking with all these people was very stimulating and encouraging.

There was one conversation with a principal of Nuspace Consulting that was particularly interesting to me. He mentioned that he graduated from Case Western Reserve University (CWRU) and I remembered that this University is the place where Appreciative Inquiry has been developed. I learned about this methodology in my introductory class to Consulting. We had a guest speaker from the company that has integrated Appreciative Inquiry in their consulting business. I remembered that lecture because Appreciative Inquiry was a very different approach from traditional problem solving philosophy. So it was great to see another company adhering to the same principles. As a matter of fact, the person from Nuspace was a student of the professor at CWRU who came up with Appreciative Inquiry originally.

“Doing well by doing good” has become my conviction sometime during the MBA program at GW.  Unfortunately, many of the socially-minded startups are not doing so well for a variety of reasons. That’s why seeing a successful company such as Honest Tea first hand was a great encouragement.

One last note on the power of personal connection and “the story”.  As I said, before this meeting I did not care about Honest Tea because I did not know anything about them and their “story“. Now I am going to check out their teabag products at the store, and maybe even occasionally get their bottled tea for refreshment. And their name does not appear “gimmicky” anymore, now that I know their story.

This is just a reminder about the importance for businesses to have and promote their story, and maintain as close and personal relations with existing and prospective customers as possible.

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