How was Ecojot founded?
We started in business about 12 years ago, and started making paper products in 2001. The recession came and we looked for a way to rethink this whole thing. We found an idea to align ourselves with literacy and education. We launched Ecojot in 2007 and started working with partners to distribute books, mainly in Africa. The first year, 2010, we sent stuff to Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Africa – about seven different countries. I also went to Kenya to work in refugee camps.
I am from Africa. I understand Africa and poverty, and I wanted to get a more intimate sense of it. I made a short film and realized that Kenya has a modern side to it, in addition to extreme poverty. You can actually buy things there. I thought, “Why are we shipping this thousands of miles across the world and taking away local jobs?” So, I came away from Kenya with the feeling that that particular model did not make any sense even though it was idealistic.
In September 2011, I went to Haiti. It was the worst poverty I’ve ever seen. You can’t buy anything. We went travelling around Port-au-Prince and went to about 35-40 schools. I realized that Haiti is not too far away; we have partners there, and we know people there now, so we have to really focus on Haiti.
When you have a place like that, people are literally living day to day. Things we take for granted, they don’t have it. It’s hard to describe. I’m doing a video now of my trip (see video below), and I was telling the guy who’s editing the videos, “You can’t really tell how poor this place is by this video. You have to go there.” The thing is, most people aren’t going to go there. It’s trying to get people to support a business that has this other side to it. It’s not easy.
You’ve mentioned that previously, the psychology of trying to get people to understand.
You know, people buy products because they’re designed well. They’re not buying them because of [the company’s] social awareness.
People have to pay their mortgage and feed the kids. And you know, at the end of the day, you come in, you’re tired and everyone wants your money. There are a million charities, and here’s another guy doing something. So, that’s hard. I think that if we didn’t do this work, I don’t know if we would change our business all that much, to be honest. People buy our products because they’re well-designed and functional. People actually still write, as funny as that may sound.
So, the summary of this is, you walk into a shop, and there are a million things to purchase and we’re trying to say, well, if you choose this product, then this is what’s happening on the other side. You’re supporting a business with a deeper purpose.
So, in terms of the social conscience component of the business, from your perspective, it’s an add-on to the business that doesn’t really factor into the purchasing decision of the buyer?
Not as much as I would have thought. Of course, I can’t prove it scientifically. I can’t understand why someone buys this. But, instinctively, I know it’s because it’s cute looking. If this was ugly and I was saving the world, no one would care. So, it’s the design of the product; it’s a beautiful product.
We’ve added new products now – a new baby line, a bag line made in India. One thing I’ve learned after 12 years in business is that you have to continually be innovative in business and reinvent yourself.
What inspired you to become a Certified B Corp?
It’s the right fit for us. The mandate of B Corp is not about greed and an extreme form of capitalism. It’s more about giving back as a form of capital, which is exactly what we’re doing. B Corp is still young, so I hope it helps us as a business and we’ll see where it goes.
How was the process of becoming a certified B Corp?
We just made it (our assessment score). It was harder than I thought to become certified. Hopefully, B Corp gathers momentum and becomes mainstream. We humans are capable of incredible exploitation and cruelty, but capable of exceptional brilliance at the same time. And this whole idea of cheap-cheap is not cheap. It may be cheap day-to-day and month-to-month, but it’s not sustainable.
Why is it that you can’t buy stuff made in Canada? What’s the long-term feasibility? What about our children? I think about this a lot; I have two teenage children. What kind of world are we leaving for them? Is it going to be a good place or a bad place?
That speaks to the idea of being a values-driven business. What values drive your operations and your business?
I came to this country with nothing, no money. My first value was survival, trying to pay the bills and feed myself – very primal. Then eventually we found a business that could make money and we started thinking beyond survival. Then we evolved to Ecojot and philanthropy. Capitalism is all good, it’s the world we live in and we can’t change it.
But, this form of capitalism that’s got this component of the deeper purpose of business…I like it, I like it a lot. It comes from a genuinely good place, not something I’m just making up. I really like going on these trips and making a small difference. Just imagine the talent that a kid will be able to express on paper. Someone wants to be a writer, a musician, or an engineer, or whatever and now there’s a little component in the growth process of a kid. It’s little for us, but for them it’s huge.
I didn’t make this up, the Buy-1, Give-1 [in reference to Ecojot’s GIVE Program]. I was inspired by the Tom’s Shoes idea. I thought, how can we apply this to what we do? Paper->literacy->education. That’s where it comes from. So, we’ll see where it goes.
In terms of what B Corp stands for, how has that idea translated into Ecojot’s operations?
We do what we do here. We have been focusing on maintaining profitability. Otherwise, nothing happens. So, the more that B Corp is recognized and the more that people look to support companies like this, the better it is. The more stuff we can donate and the more lives we can change.
What advice would you have for aspiring B Corps?
B Corps are new. What comes first, your business or being a B Corp? I think businesses should have a conscience and be accountable. Businesses think of the next quarter. I think they should think long term. Think, what is our legacy ten years down the line? Is it rape and pillage, or is it something else?
Natalie Mc Farlane is the founder of Positive Impact Law Group, a boutique law firm with a mission to empower clients with legal strategies, tools and systems that support the sustainability of their blended-value businesses; and support lawyers who embrace relationship-based models of client service in their respective practice area.
On March 30, 2012, Positive Impact Law Group will conduct one of their Authentic Social Entrepreneur: Bridging the Gap between your Visionary Venture and the Law workshops.
As well, on March 31, 2012 Positive Impact Law Group will Chair a Law Society CPD professional development program entitled, The Integrative Lawyer: Intro to Integrative Law, featuring J. Kim Wright, the publisher of CuttingEdgeLaw.com, author of the ABA bestseller, Lawyers as Peacemakers, Practicing Holistic, Problem-Solving Law, and one of the American Bar Association’s Legal Rebels, “finding new ways to practice law, represent their clients, adjudicate cases and train the next generation of lawyers.”