As philanthropy evolves, a new model has emerged that attempts to interlace social development with for-profit business practices. These so-called social enterprises encapsulate the credo popularized by the pharmaceutical and healthcare company Johnson & Johnson, whose mission statement notes that, “If you give someone a fish—that’s charity, but teach them how to fish—that’s sustainability.” The basic idea is that corporate social responsibility, in whatever form it may take, allows businesses to do what they do best (i.e. run a for-profit company) while simultaneously giving back. Meanwhile, promoting a social cause is a way for these for-profit companies to reflect on their internal dynamics and improve their brand.

Reformation and the Renewal Workshop profit off of minimizing waste.

The “Doing Good” Index: Environment

The majority of companies now trumpet a social mission of some sort, even if the authenticity behind the message is skeptical. But a growing handful of companies—particularly younger for-profit startups—are genuinely attempting to lead with socially-minded practices from day one.

Reformation, a women’s apparel brand, was founded in 2009 by Yael Aflalo, who crafted an ethos that’s opposed to overproduction; its design process “starts with… thinking about what we really want to wear right now” in order to “bring those designs to life quickly” with minimal waste and sustainable fabrics. Each SKU listed on Reformation’s site informs consumers about how much carbon dioxide, water and waste they will save in purchasing the item (metrics that the brand calls “RefScale”). The company also publishes a quarterly sustainability report to hold itself accountable to its mission and establish greater transparency with consumers. On the company’s site, visitors can learn about everything from certified dyeing and packaging to supplier standards, community service and Reformation’s factory tours, where Reformation highlights its green building infrastructure, as well as its focus on training and growth opportunities “to invest in the people who make this crazy revolution possible.”

The RefScale.

Reformation’s sustainability mission somewhat falls apart upon inspection of its business, which, at the end of the day, exists to sell clothing: essentially, the brand prioritizes minimizing environmental impact at every stage of its business, but is still based on creating demand for its products. To truly deplete waste, Reformation would not be producing new clothing in the first place, and shoppers would not be purchasing new items, regardless of what energy was wasted in their creation. For instance, Reformation markets a pair of skinny jeans by telling customers that they will save 22 pounds of carbon dioxide and 711 gallons of water by purchasing the item—but not buying the jeans means that the consumer won’t waste any energy at all. In other words, Reformation is still making you buy, but it’s making you buy better.

The Renewal Workshop takes Reformation’s philosophy a step further. Founded in 2015 by Jeff Denby and Nicole Bassett, it recycles products that are already on the market, instead of producing new items. “For garments that have been produced but cannot be sold, the creative, physical, natural and financial resources invested in them are lost,” the company’s mission statement begins, going on to outline the environmental and financial drawbacks for brands and consumers alike.

The Renewal Workshop takes unsellable inventory from brands and retailers and discarded textiles and recycles them into new products. Its factory operates at zero waste and brings circularity to a historically linear industry that churns out vast amounts of material that cannot be sold, filling in the gaps of what brands, retailers and consumers can’t accomplish on their own. Ideally, the company functions in a way that allows consumers to reduce their waste. To maximize this circularity, the company also sends data it collects in its own work back to its brand partners in order to enhance their product and design moving forward.

Both Reformation and the Renewal Workshop don’t just stand out against companies like Berkshire Hathaway and Amazon for their smaller size. When Aflalo, Denby and Bassett launched their companies, they did so to provide both a public good and to generate revenue from the get go—in contrast, Buffett and Bezos grew massive companies and only turned to philanthropy after amassing great wealth. Looking to the future, it will be important to watch how large companies like Reformation and the Renewal Workshop grow (some growth is inevitable because of inflation), and to observe how well they are able to scale their social missions in tandem. There is also price sensitivity at play—leading with low-waste policies often requires more expensive technology, and producing fewer SKUs always comes at a higher cost to a brand. So, seeing how these companies navigate continuous price pressure will also be an important marker of environmentally sustainability moving forward.

Apple improves environmental sustainability, but still relies on planned obsolescence.

The “Doing Good” Index: Technology, Environment

Tech companies often talk about what their company and products do, but not about how they are made. Though the environment factors into every element of its global supply chain, it took Apple more than three decades to address environmental sustainability—a plan that first emerged in a 2007 letter by the late co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs, who stated that the company would remove toxic materials from its products by the end of the following year (a promise largely brought about by Greenpeace criticism). In 2009, the company also began releasing an annual environmental responsibility report.

In the ensuing years, Apple has made great strides in environmental sustainability and transparency. The company launched a clean energy program for its suppliers in October 2015, with the short-term goal of generating and sourcing four gigawatts of new clean energy by 2020, which accounts for one-third of its current manufacturing electricity footprint. Apple has reduced its carbon footprint every year since 2011, when it reported 137.2 million metric tons (in 2017, it recorded 27.5 million metric tons). In 2018, the company also achieved 100% renewable energy at all of its retail stores, corporate buildings and data centers. It also releases environmental reports for each product, outlining its impact on climate change, energy emissions and recyclability.

The iPhone X Environmental Report.

Despite these positive changes, Apple continues to lead with design and user experience at the forefront to make profits, at the expense of creating products that are more durable and minimize environmental impact. This is not to say that Apple should walk away from design and user experience—two aspects that have defined the Apple brand. But the company’s production schedule remains guided by planned obsolescence—Apple products are built so that upgrading their operating systems is only possible to a certain point before the consumer must trade them in for new products—sometimes each year. This cements the idea in consumers’ minds that they must trade in their old version for the latest one and it also drives Apple forward as a for-profit company that must produce more in order to sell, sometimes subjecting workers in its global supply chain to do so. The company’s 2017 revenue numbers reflect this: iPhone sales accounted for 61.6% of revenue, and iPhone, iPad and Mac sales made up a whopping 81.3% of revenue.

This stands in contradiction to Apple’s environmental mission, particularly because the manufacturing process produces the greatest energy emissions in a product’s life cycle. When it comes to the environmental effects, 70% of the energy a laptop uses in its lifetime is spent during the manufacturing process—the negative impact occurs before an item reaches a consumer’s hands. In 2017, Apple recorded that 77% of its carbon emissions came from manufacturing, 17% from product usage, 4% from transportation, 1% from facilities and less than 1% from products’ “end of life.” Manufacturing accounts for more than two-thirds of the company’s carbon footprint—an aspect of the supply chain that Apple downplays in its environmental responsibility reports by highlighting other improvements. While establishing 100% renewable energy to operate its facilities is a feat, wouldn’t it be more effective to use 100% renewable energy to power its factories, the main drivers behind Apple’s carbon footprint? Everything Apple has accomplished in the past few years is a start, but the company has a long way to go.

Apple’s sustainability is also a question of making products built to last so that consumers don’t have to replace them when a new model goes to market. Apple could do more to help customers repair their products even if newer products have a better user experience and the company makes more money selling entire devices as opposed to upgradeable parts (which third-party companies sell relatively cheaply). Making products easier to upgrade and repair would help the company’s purported sustainability message materialize and in turn, could enhance the brand in a new way that goes beyond design.