Jay Coen Gilbert: I think what you've described as a shift towards a culture of sustainability is actually part of a much more profound shift—one toward meaningful work. We see this reflected not only in the frequently-reported research on the Millennial cohort of workers who want to both make money and make a difference, but also in longstanding multigenerational family-owned business that are saying, “We need to go back to the core values of what made American business great, which is caring for the people with whom you worked and the communities where you work.” That's not a new thought as much as a return to an old thought that we lost along the way. “Sustainability” and “green business” and frames like that are important, but it's part of a much bigger picture. People are seeking to integrate their values in their work.
Knafo: How do you account for this change?
Gilbert: I'm not a social scientist so I don't have any data, but my perception is that there are earlier threads of this that stretch back for a long time: the responsible business movement, or responsible investing, fair trade and green building. A lot of those forces are causing ripples and joining into a bigger wave.
Some of those things may be accelerated by external events like the financial crisis, which shook everyone to their core and created a psychological opening where people maybe said, with more conviction than before, “Maybe it's the system itself that is need of evolution.” It has also become clear that you can make money operating your business this way, or, even more poignantly, you might be able to make more money operating this business this way. I know the tipping point is supposed to be a point, but I think we’re at the very beginning of a tipping point in the evolution of capitalism.
Knafo: I want to believe, but I can’t help feeling skeptical.
Gilbert: We feel like we've been manipulated at various times, whether it's because of ads or Power Points or nifty mission statement on the wall. That's part of why we created B Corps—as a response to the understandable skepticism or even cynicism. Performance matters a lot more than promises, and performance is a lot more believable when it is verified by an independent third party. Those 1,250 certified B Corps have voluntarily submitted themselves to the most rigorous process of validation of their overall performance of corporate social and environmental transparency and responsibility. “Green” and “sustainable” are words that can mean anything to anybody who uses them. There's no standard definition of the term. There is a standard definition of the B Corp.
Knafo: You started out selling basketball sneakers. What did you learn from that experience that carries over to what you’re doing now?
Gilbert: On one hand, we learned how powerful it was to build a business that our parents and kids would be proud of. We had incredibly low turnover. We had loyal suppliers that we had relationships with, and customers who gave us second shots because they believed not only in what business we were in but in how we were running our business. We didn't have a Googleplex with free food, but we did have a basketball court. And we had dogs, and kids running around the office, and all kinds of stuff. Everyone who had been at the company for more than 12 months owned stock, so when we sold the company there were a bunch of employees for whom that was a big day. We gave away 5 percent of our profits to charity and funded a charter school in Philadelphia. We tried to run our business by the golden rule.