Economy

"Our human destiny is inextricably linked to the actions of all other living things. Respecting this principle is the fundamental challenge in changing the nature of business."
- Paul Hawken, The Ecology of Commerce

 

A SUSTAINABLE ECONOMY
- = Sustainable Economy Initiatives = -

Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility

Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility is a non-profit association of businesses in Vermont whose owners share a dual commitment to business success and to social and environmental responsibility.

Origins and Development
In 1989, an organization called New England Businesses for Social Responsibility was formed. Some of its members decided to form a Vermont Chapter, to do similar educational work, while adding legislative work to their agenda, and so Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR) was formed in 1990 as a forum for businesses in Vermont which shared a commitment to social and environmental responsibility, enabling them to meet together, exchange ideas, and work towards shared objectives.

VBSR has grown steadily, from 35 members in 1991, to 300 members in 2000, and 480 members in 2004, to become one of the largest regional socially responsible business organizations in the US, even though Vermont is a small state. VBSR’s members share basic values and goals with regard to workplace quality, environmental quality, and community involvement, and they subscribe to VBSR’s “dual bottom line” philosophy of wanting to run their businesses in a way that is profitable from both a fiscal and a social and environmental perspective.

Together, VBSR members represent over 28,000 employees, and do $3.5 billion in annual sales. Members represent a very wide variety of business, from major banks to bed and breakfast establishments, energy efficiency companies to wilderness camps, and power generation companies to ice-cream makers. They include Ben and Jerry's nationally renowned ice cream company, three of the state's largest banks, two of Vermont's largest electric power utilities, several long-established law firms, and the Vermont branch of Merrill Lynch.

VBSR was the first independent state business association of its kind in the USA. The New England group has since closed down, and some of its chapters joined the national group Business for Social Responsibility which formed in 1992, and is now a global organization that helps member companies achieve success in ways that respect ethical values, people, communities and the environment, with groups throughout the USA.

In 1995, VBSR set up a sister organization, Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility-Research and Education Foundation (VBSR-REF) to undertake educational and research activities, and to present workshops and conference and newsletters that help businesses share information, and learn about socially responsible practices.

Aims and Objectives
VBSR's mission is to foster a business ethic in Vermont that recognizes the opportunity and the responsibility of the business community to set high standards for protecting the natural, human and economic environments of our citizens. It has three objectives:

1. Education. Providing resources and information that will enable its members to better meet their goals of improving business practices and finding solutions to social, environmental and economic problems.

2. Public Influence. Representing a socially responsible business ethic to the larger community, including the news media and legislative bodies, that fosters positive change and resists the exploitation of our people, our state and our planet. In doing so, it provides a public policy voice for businesses in Vermont that is based on principles of sustainability

3. Workplace Quality. Fostering a work environment and an economic climate that enables every worker to earn a fair income in safety, contributing his or her labour to a high quality product or service, and working and living with dignity and respect.

Education
VBSR's first activity is encouraging networking and co-operation among its members, through networking events, through its member directory and member mailing list, and through its web site and newsletter, which are geared to bring information directly to members’ desktops, making it easy to share with co-workers or employees.

VBSR also produces a series of very practical “Sample Business Practice” sheets that cover a wide range of matters that concern a business, from ‘Conflict Management’ to ‘Improve Your Bottom Line’, from ‘Effective Hiring Practices’ to ‘Emotional Competence’, and from ‘Running Effective Meetings’ to ‘Selling to a Workers Co-op’. They also cover such matters as ‘Affirmative Action Guidelines’, ‘Drug-Free Workplace’, ‘How Long to Keep Records’, ‘Performance Reviews’, and ‘Termination Guidelines’. On the environmental front, they include such things as ‘Cutting Waste’, and ‘Non-Toxic Lawn Care’.

Because of their shared values, VBSR members are supporting the emergence of a regional business culture in which there is a higher degree of trust, responsibility, and willingness to help each other than is normally the case. Autumn Harp is a member company which produces and markets petroleum-free natural skin and lip care products throughout the world. When its owners faced a period of rapid growth, they were able to find investors through VBSR who believed in their mission and supported their recapitalization, as well as finding other business advisors, legal counsel, and marketing assistance. VBSR members use each other's services extensively, feeling secure in their commitment to shared values. The City of Burlington's Community and Economic Development office has commented that relationships that might otherwise be seen as over-reliance on a single source or supplier are possible because of the trust that develops between VBSR members.

Public Influence
When it comes to 'Public Influence', VBSR plays a very active public role in support of socially responsible policy and legislative initiatives, supporting members who work together to make an impact on issues of public policy, based on the need for Vermont to practice sustainable economic development that meets today’s needs without compromising the resources that will be needed by tomorrow’s generations.

In 1994, VBSR engaged in active defense of Vermont's environmental regulations, which were under attack from an onslaught of reform measures backed by traditional business interests, who wanted to make them more 'business-friendly'.

In 1995, they worked to support the successful passage of legislation that created the Vermont Sustainable Jobs Fund (www.vsjf.org). This fosters sustainability in the Vermont economy by providing technical assistance grants to groups of businesses that qualify as sustainable economic development projects; identifying opportunities for large-scale sustainable development projects and taking an active leadership role; building a network of partners who focus their resources on sustainable projects; and serving as an education center for sustainable economic development, all in the name of a Sustainable Vermont.

At a time when many business owners assume that most taxation is at best a necessary evil, VBSR has played an active role in forming the Vermont Fair Tax Coalition, which works to provide public support for Vermont’s progressive approach to green taxation, such as taxes on pollution and suburban sprawl. In 1999, VBSR co-published the report “Tax Reform that Agrees with Vermont”, arguing for an increase in taxes on negative activities, balanced by a decrease in taxes on positive activities, such as quality jobs.

In 2002, VBSR’s policy work focussed on the Vermont state budget decisions, renewable energy, childcare, transportation spending, and water pollution.

Workplace Quality
VBSR’s most recent policy involvement has been around a Livable Jobs campaign. This has resulted in Vermont raising the basic minimum wage in the state four times to $7 per hour, while the US federal government has not lifted it in a decade from its current level of $5.25. Vermont has also adopted a legislated calculation that adjusts the estimate of a “livable wage” upwards each year, based on what it takes to sustain a family. As part of their campaign, VBSR produced a Livable Jobs Toolkit, designed to help business owners who want to attract or keep their employees and find new ways to compensate them. The Toolkit helps businesses create a work and life-friendly workplace and offer an attractive package of wages, benefits and workplace practices, while still remaining profitable. It contains three levels of benefits and workplace practices, ranging from the very affordable to those that require more of an investment, with potentially more return. It includes worksheets that help businesses identify employee and company needs, assess the financial costs of employee-related challenges, and develop action plans to use the solutions offered in the Toolkit.

VBSR members and their employees also participate in Issue Groups on topics such as sustainable economic development or livable jobs, where they join with other members to speak out on the issues, or to learn more about each topic. VBSR also facilitates Circle Groups which meet monthly, enabling employees from different companies to meet with others who are doing similar work, learn from each other in areas such as human resources, computers, shipping, environmental issues, and discuss topics of common interest.

Structure and Finance
VBSR is a 501(c)(6) membership-based non-profit organization, governed by an elected Board of Directors. Its income comes from membership dues (33%), services and programs (20%), and grants and sponsorships (47%). The dues range from $175 for companies with sales below $500,000, to $400 for companies with sales above $500,000, and $1,000 for Gold Level members. Members also receive discount benefits on health insurance, VBSR events, and member services/products.

Problems/Success
VBSR is seen as a successful model by other corporate social responsibility groups in the USA. There are 3 reasons for this success (and lack of problems) :
(1) VBSR has a bottom-up structure, with the educational programs, legislative work and member benefits based on the members' needs and feedback.
(2) VBSR's combination of educational programs and legislative work has been essential to the commitment of VBSR's members, and the growth of the organization.
(3) Right from the beginning, VBSR's founders hired staff to help the organization grow, as opposed to relying solely on part-time volunteers.

Future
One area where VBSR wants to do more work involves strengthening local economies, by emphasizing locally owned commerce versus global ownership, and downtown revitalization versus suburban sprawl. In addition to their peer-to-peer education work, the members are also asking for an additional layer of education involving outside expertise, and possible input from academia. VBSR is also set on continued growth to expand its membership, so that eventually, socially responsible business becomes “the” way to do business, which everyone embraces.

For more information, contact :

Spencer Putnam,
Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility,
30 Community Drive, Suite 2
South Burlington, VT 05403, USA
Phone: (802) 862-8347
Fax: (802) 863-1535
info@vbsr.org
www.vbsr.org

Written by Guy Dauncey, Sustainable Communities Consultancy, Victoria, Canada. www.earthfuture.com