What good is a story from an oil giant who funds a development project in an indigenous community after stealing their land and polluting their waters? Or from a department store who works with a group of Haitian artisans, but who sources the rest of their products from sweatshops?
I asked myself these questions and noticed a woman across the room shaking her head before lowering it into her hands. They are companies like these that put a halt on progress towards positive social change.
I was representing Dean’s Beans at a conference on how businesses can promote women’s empowerment, an invite only event put on by the United Nations to discuss the Women’s Empowerment Principles. Dean’s Beans is on the Leadership Group for the development of the principles.
By working with companies to promote social change, the UN office that sponsored this event is walking a fine line. They offer a forum for companies to discus and improve how they can advance gender equality and other social and environmental goals. At the same time, they risk offering a platform for companies to trumpet token development projects that in reality only mask their ‘business as usual’ approach.
This sort of ‘fairwashing,’ ‘greenwashing’ is something we see all the time in the world of Fair Trade coffee, and we aren’t fooled. While their small-scale projects might be good in and of themselves, when taken in the greater context of the companies’ over-all business practices, they do nothing else but to define for us the meaning of hypocrisy.
I did come to understand that most participants at the event were well aware of these challenges. In a world full of big problems, this group had chosen a tough one and was taking it head on. It was my introduction to the slow path towards policy change that so many NGO’s and activist groups are familiar with.
So why was I there? Because Dean’s Beans is an example of a company that can, from the fundamental business practices on up, flip the conventional ‘profits before people’ business ethos on its head. We source our coffee from organizations that promote women's empowerment, and have gone above and beyond by creating women’s loan funds and health projects. We consider issues of social and environmental importance in all that we do, not only in a part of it. Because of this, we offer a valuable and authentic voice to the discussion.
Of course comparing Dean’s Beans with Microsoft is not even apples and oranges. We work with a simple supply chain and very few employees. They work with a super-complex supply chain and a huge corporate structure. But the point is: it is possible to use business as a vehicle for social change. We’ve shown it to be.
What was heartening to see was that many people have dedicated their careers to fighting the slow, frustrating, but ever so important fight of promoting women’s empowerment. The real challenge now is convincing the other people in the room to do the same.