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Profits With a Purpose

Wed, 02/12/2020 - 11:33
GUESTWORDS

Last summer, the Washington-based, industry-led Business Roundtable made headlines when it announced a new purpose statement for corporations. The Roundtable’s chairman, Jamie Dimon, who is also chief executive of JPMorgan Chase, led 181 of his fellow C.E.O.s to commit to “lead their companies for the benefit of all stakeholders — customers, employees, suppliers, community, and shareholders.”

This simple statement had sweeping, radical overtones. No longer should business leaders make gratifying shareholders their singular goal. Rather, the shareholder becomes one of several important constituents to be considered.

While the new purpose statement received wide support, it was not without its critics. Some questioned how corporations would turn words into actions and meet the commitments outlined in the announcement. Others claimed empty rhetoric.

In the aftermath, no one can deny the Business Roundtable statement propelled a powerful shift that shook and motivated executives across the corporate landscape. We’ve seen big business make sweeping changes. In September, Walmart announced it would no longer sell ammunition for military-style assault rifles in its stores. More recently, Nestle pledged to cut its use of plastic made from fossil fuels by a third in five years and said it would invest up to 2 billion Swiss francs to find more usable recycled materials. Unilever, Procter & Gamble, and others have made similar commitments. These actions are inspiring, and their impact will be significant.

I, too, was swept up in the excitement, and appeared on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” and wrote an opinion piece on NBCNews.com to extol the virtues of the Roundtable’s proclamation. But in truth, the idea of purpose-driven business is not new or nearly so revolutionary when considered up close.

On Long Island’s East End, fusing commercial endeavors with deep-rooted values and social good has been an ideal for years. There are many examples flourishing in our midst.

Back in 1989, before most people thought of coffee shops as workspaces, Lynda Sylvester opened her Modern General store with the intention of offering a hub in the community where people could meet, have a coffee, connect. I make it a point to stop in whenever I’m on Main Street in Sag Harbor. Browsers are welcomed as warmly as shoppers and buyers. Ms. Sylvester is more than a merchant. She’s a neighbor and community activist, too.

“We create products that have social intention,” Ms. Sylvester said. When the beloved Sag Harbor Cinema burned down, she sold baseball hats with the original movie theater logo to raise money. Patrons can also buy a scarf and leggings featuring a montage of newspaper clippings; a percentage of proceeds goes to Planned Parenthood.

“We have a box for donations, which lives on the front counter in the event of natural disasters,” she said. As this piece was being written, Ms. Sylvester’s pursuit of forging profits with purpose continued. This time she was marshaling donations for those affected by the earthquakes in Puerto Rico and bushfires in Australia.

Ms. Sylvester’s boldest ambition to date may be launching Red Thread Coffee: an organic, Fair Trade cold brew inspired by her own travels to India and Africa. Two cents from every bottle sold goes to a local charity that fights hunger. Its business model was built with giving back considered part of the cost of goods, rather than the more reactive “after we make money, we will give some away,” she said.

Modern General is, in her words, “its own universe.” There are author signings every four weeks through the season and plenty of wall space for artists to showcase their work.

Another world of its own is folioeast, a showcase and gallery for East End artists created by Coco Myers five years ago. A former writer and editor of women’s magazines, Ms. Myers debuted her mobile gallery in 2016 with a group show at Ashawagh Hall in Springs.

“I grew up in East Hampton, among the Abstract Expressionists, many of whom were family friends. I felt a strong connection to the art I was exposed to — and still do. When I decided to start folioeast, it felt only natural to work with the rich community of artists on the East End,” she explained.

The East End has been a hotbed for influential artists since the 1870s, when the Long Island Rail Road made it more easily accessible, and Ms. Myers is dedicated to preserving a way of life for artists. She curates group shows every four to six weeks, including several pop-ups during the summer, giving many local artists a chance to exhibit. She has combined a lifelong passion for East End art with business acumen that’s added new resonance to the term “buy local.”

Long before Modern General and folioeast, there was another East End tradition that continues to this day: buying at local farm stands. Whether it’s a small shed at the side of a potato field or a little market next to a winery, shopping at these independent stands supports family farms, encourages small business, sustains fishermen who work Peconic Bay, and offers your friends and families fresher choices.

A favorite ritual of mine is dropping into King’s Farm Stand on Noyac Road. The King family and their North Sea Farm are synonymous with this area. The patriarch of the family, Richard (Tate) King, was a 12th-generation East Ender who convinced his father to buy the land while stationed overseas during World War II.

Tate King died in 2016, but the family is firmly rooted here. I buy flowers, free-range chicken, and fresh eggs from the young woman behind the counter. I’m sad when King’s closes during the dead of winter, but reassured every spring when the “open” sign returns in the window. The same woman behind the counter.

It doesn’t take the Business Roundtable to tell me that purpose is a worthy transaction. Good business is about more than just making money, and finally big business is beginning to take note.


Sally Susman is chief corporate affairs officer at Pfizer. She lives in New York City and Sag Harbor.


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