If you’re reading this post, you probably already know what Berrybird does. We make products for people who are older or people living with chronic illness, and we try our best to make them both beautiful and super functional. Our first product is a dress sock with a little compression that is perfect for people with sensitive feet who also have tired, achy or swollen legs.
But I also wanted to carve out some space on this blog to talk directly to our consumers about what kind of company we are and want to be, and the challenges we face on the road there.
I haven’t always run a business. For more than a decade, I lived in India and founded and ran a non-profit that worked with slum-dwellers to improve access to basic services like running water and toilets. Then I moved to LA and worked for City Hall on homelessness. In the past, I had been motivated less by profit than by the potential for making social change.
So why am I building a business instead of becoming a public servant or working in the non-profit sector again? Well, there are a few reasons.
Firstly, I don’t love the non-profit model. As the head of a non-profit, I spent way too much of my time chasing down grant money to support our work. Many of our donors were amazing, but I hated how much so much of our fundraising involved trying to manipulate our mission to fit a foundation’s agenda, which often had little to no relationship to what was needed on the ground. I also hated that we ostensibly served poor city residents, but we weren’t directly accountable to them – we were only really accountable to the donors who gave us money. I wanted to find a way to be directly accountable to the people I served.
Secondly, I also wanted to test my own ideals. In the past, I have been very critical of businesses that took actions that were not good for the communities they served or for the people who worked in them or lived around them. (In fact, one of my first jobs was documenting the continuing impacts of the 1984 poisonous gas leak at the Union Carbide plant in Bhopal, India, two decades after the deadly event.) But running a business is extremely difficult, and being profitable is even harder. I wanted to know: could I create an ethical AND successful business?
As a result, I have had to think a lot about what it means for my company to be “ethical”? Having a social mission has increasingly become a part of our commerce landscape, but different companies have taken different approaches.
Some companies donate large amounts of their profits to causes they support, like the outdoor gear company Patagonia supporting environmental causes. Other companies have integrated a social mission into the way they operate – Bombas socks donates one pair of socks to the homeless for every pair they sell to their customers. Warby Parker trains people in developing countries to administer eye exams and sell very low-cost eye-glasses – improving both vision and livelihoods in their target countries. Toms started by giving away a pair of shoes to a child in need for every pair that was purchased, and has since expanded into many other kinds of charity.
Still other companies have integrated a social mission into the very way they build or source their products. Stumptown Coffee sources beans directly from farmers, paying them much more than they would get on the market and working closely with them to achieve environmental and economic sustainability. American Apparel made their well-compensated factory workers in Downtown LA a central part of their identity.
From these models, I have some ideas about the path that Berrybird will follow in crafting its own social mission, and I am really excited about figuring out how to bring these ideas into reality. In the meantime, I am hoping that I will be able to talk through the ethical implications of the many decisions that I will make for the company – sourcing, hiring, production, marketing, pricing – on this blog. I imagine that these decisions will not be easy nor will they be without their compromises, but my hope is that I will be able to bring greater transparency to the decisions I make by talking about it in more detail here.