Once a month, it seems, I get to write about a new wonderful pioneering green-minded company that... after a couple years of investor-fueled growth, ups and sells out to The Man!
"It's entrepreneurs with vision, elbow grease, boldness and caring who create great companies in new market niches, and then big business recognizes that "doing good" or being "eco-responsible" isn't just idealism--they can actually make money off of it--then they absorb our little company, giving us far greater distribution."
And then those ex-entrepreneurs go on to found other visionary, pioneering companies. And lo: the evolution of a green-minded, fair-trade business sector that, under the appellation of LOHAS, now amounts to some $209 billion dollars annually in the U.S. of A.
But here are two problems with the above scenario.
One: when Coke buys Odwalla or Pepsi buys Naked Juice or Vitamin Water, or Kraft buys Kashi and Bear Naked, or Dean buys Silk Soy, or Hershey's buys Dagoba or Clorox buys Burt's Bees...here's a list of other companies that you used to love that sold out to The Man--well, the Man dumbs the product down.
It's no longer quite so high-quality, quite so green, organic--because The Man is about the bottom lines, not triple bottom lines. And bottom lines flourish under cheap labor, usually in foreign countries (now I hear the Republicans and Mid-Westerners out there listening up, this ain't just a hippie/liberal issue).
Bottom lines love cheap ingredients. The Man loves gutting a brand, and protecting only...the logo. The image. 'Cause the Organic Cow of Vermont might sound Vermonty, which gives you a cozy warm feeling when you stroll down the grocery aisle, but it long ago was bought up by Dean, the very Darth Vader-like company that's helped shutter organic dairies and small farms across the country--and that recently turned its Silk Soy from the world's largest organic brand to the world's largest Gotcha brand, selling "Natural" under the same code, and close to the same price, so that it's taken shoppers around the US months to even realize they'd been had.
Two: the second problem with the above get-green-sell-out-make-green scenario: the natural products, eco, fair-trade marketplace is fundamentally different that other markets: it's about changing the world for the better. That's why consumers will pay something extra. It's about being responsible for our products from beginning to end, from farm to table. It's about the notion that we, as businesspeople and conscious consumers alike can live a good life, make good money, and at the same time do so in a way that's of benefit to others, not at the expense of others.
There's plenty of examples of such businesses in these membership lists of two organizations: 1% for the Planet, and B Corporation: Method, Evol, Seventh Generation, Nau, prAna, Patagonia are among the many, many businesses above that, while imperfect, are leading the way.
The world is in a bad way--in large part of the predatory, insecure, greedy habits of big business and the lazy habits of we speedy consumers. We can fix that--this is a monster we created--and we're at a time in history when we can give back to the earth and all the people on it. The LOHAS market has proven that many customers will go out of their way, and pay more, for companies that they can believe in.
A few months back, I traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with my Congressman, Jared Polis, to hang out with ex-military man and leading green new media magnate Adam Shake...and to meet with the founders of Guayaki Yerba Mate, who were receiving a commendation from the Ambassador to Paraguay for their service to the land and people of that great little country.
After the Guayaki - Paraguay luncheon and speeches, I sat around a table (with Mr. Shake, and David DeFranza of Treehugger, and closely questioned two of Guayaki's founders: Alex Pryor, and David Karr, whom I have known a little bit for a long time.
In short, Guayaki is healing our earth through business. Not fruity, unprofitable, airy-fairy business that'll never make it. Rather, Guayaki represents a new paradigm: the better their business does, the more nature heals.
Here's how it works: mate (pronounced mah-tay) is shade-grown. In Paraguay, only 7% of the Rainforest remains (called the earth's lungs, the rainforest absorbs carbon emissions and cools our planet, cleans the air we breathe, and provides habitat for a remarkable diversity of tribes, wildlife, and healing plants). Whenever you buy Guayaki mate, it's grown in the forest. (Beware: many other mate companies are not shade-grown). Shade-grown products monetize the forest, thus protecting it from the bulldozer and the torch.
When you drink Guayakí, you're helping to preserve the forest. It's that simple. You're helping to create jobs down there, so that natives don't have to give up their traditional way of life and move to the city, where things often go downhill for them, fast. And a shade-grown plant like yerba mate allows the communities and farmers to earn fair-trade income without selling the precious land for destructive mono-crop agriculture (soy milk, anyone?). In other words, Guayakí creates markets for rainforest-grown yerba mate that provides a long-term sustainable economic alternative to rampant deforestation for lumber, cattle grazing, and monocrop agriculture.
Finally, if I told you that there were only seven forms of caffeine known to man (tea, coffee...), and that one of them was mate, and that mate was loaded with healthy nutrients and antioxidants, and didn't stress you out in the same way coffee can...and that only mate was, as a business niche, unexploited...well I say mate's the next great green fad. Its potential for market growth is enormous, and largely unrealized.
Mate has long been hugely popular in South America. I like to say that mate is the soccer (football) of the natural products world--popular and well-loved, but unknown in the US.
Guayaki, a $10 million dollar business, is poised to become a giant (sans hyperbole) in the caffeine world. They've got a product that works. They've got a product that's healthy. And they've got a product that gives back to the country where it comes--both to humans and to nature.
And in this day and age of "conscious consumerism," they're poised to become everyone's favorite company.
Other companies, who shall go unnamed here, market themselves as givers. Every time you buy our product, their story goes, you're benefiting "X". Some of those companies, unfortunately, don't fully deliver on those promises.
Guayaki walks their talk.
When I questioned Guayaki founders about their business model--would they sell out like all the others when they got big--they said, well, we don't need to. We're in this to make money, sure, but we're in this because it inspires us to get up in the morning. We don't need to sell out, they said, to live a good life.
I'm choosing to believe them, and to support Guayaki's walk-the-talk Market Driven Restoration business model.
If you support Guayaki, leave a comment below, and say why, and where you first encountered mate.
If Guayaki succeeds, we all win: we'll have a better, cleaner, happier world that will have proven that do-good business can do well. And that will inspire hundreds of entrepreneurs to try and do the same in their own way.
And, perhaps, those new entrepreneurs will also learn that they don't have to sell out to The Man to be successful. They can remain independent, family-owned, with pride in the values of their business.
And that will be the kind of world I want my children to grow up in.
Subscribe to elephant's free, weekly top 10 blog enewsletter.
Follow Waylon Lewis on Twitter.