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A Seat at the Transition Table

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Earlier this week, I had the chance to participate in a discussion at the Obama-Biden Transition Office with other leaders of the sustainable business community. The topic was setting an agenda to support mission-driven businesses.

The transition office had a great deal of energy around it -- and security detail too. The front was protected by concrete barriers, guards, and lots of suits walking around with earpieces. It was fun to spot Attorney General-designate Eric Holder coming into our elevator and Health & Human Services-designate Tom Daschle walking through the metal detector.

The topics that we discussed ranged from supporting green technologies to community-development lending to organic farming. Some ideas were practical and easy to implement, others were thought-provoking, if not immediately achievable -- but the meeting was refreshing in two important ways:

- First, that it happened! Although the companies represented in the room were leaders in the field of mission-driven business, we collectively represented less than $1 billion in revenue, less than one division of most multinationals. So the fact that the incoming administration is interested in our views is an event in itself.

- Second, it was wonderful to hear such a strong desire to encourage our approach to doing business. The question of the day was how can an Obama-Biden administration support and encourage mission-driven businesses?

The participants in the room and on the phone (calling in from around the world) were an impressive collection of leaders. The businesspeople included:

- Amy Domini of the Domini Index
- Timothy Freundlich of Calvert Foundation
- Priya Haji of World of Good
- Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm Yogurt
- Adam Lowry of Method
- Ronald Grzywinski of Shorebank
- Jeffrey Hollender of Seventh Generation
- Wayne Silby of Calvert Group
- Julius Walls Jr. of Greyston Bakery
- Ed Dugger of UNC Ventures

Also in attendance were leaders from several non-profits that are helping to organize the charge for sustainable entrepreneurship, including:

- Alisa Gravitz & Melissa Bradley of Green America (formerly Co-op America)
- Doug Hammond of BALLE — Business Alliance for Local Living Economies
- Julie Kantor & Steve Marriotti of National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship
- Deb Nelson of Social Venture Network
- Andy Kassoy of B-Corporation

There was no shortage of ideas. Some of the more innovative ones included:

- A green business expansion fund
- Funding of clean energy victory bonds
- Creation of a federal gas tax to support the development and funding of more sustainable energy
- Development of a more robust recycling infrastructure
- Development of a new form of business -- the B-corp concept, which encourages companies to include issues of social and environmental accountability within their charter
- Creation of an Institute for a Sustainable Economy
- A 90 percent tax on short-term capital gains, to encourage a longer-term approach to business

In addition to chiming in on some of the ideas above, I encouraged the team to explore more models like the USDA Organic labeling system -- federally enforced standards that encourage companies to stretch to meet positive criteria without relying on federal mandates to impose change on companies. The continued growth of organics could be replicated with federal standards for building materials, cars, and even international labor practices.

While it's too early to say what will come out of the meeting, it's exciting to get the discussion started. One of the challenges of supporting mission-driven business is that the concept is so broad that there isn't one policy or Cabinet department that can take on the task. Organic food companies may interface with Agriculture, while community loan funds may interact with Treasury, and all could probably benefit from interaction with the Small Business Administration. In recognition of the fact that the opportunities and challenges for companies like ours are multi-dimensional (not under the purview of one Cabinet department or the Small Business Administration), the transition team had representatives from several different parts of the next executive branch.

It is clear that the whole transition team is committed to openness, not just in the way they invited a wide range of companies to present their views, but in their insistence that any material presented at the meeting be posted on the Internet. For a look at the materials, check out www.change.gov.

Many of the transition officials will be out of a job by the end of the week, as they await the new administration to finalize its leadership. So there won't be any immediate action as a result of Tuesday's meeting, but the conversation has begun -- and that on its own is progress.

Last updated: Jan 16, 2009

SETH GOLDMAN | Columnist | Co-founder of Honest Tea

Seth Goldman is the President and TeaEO of Honest Tea, the company he co-founded in 1998 with Professor Barry Nalebuff of the Yale School of Management. He's preparing the September release of a graphic novel titled Mission in a Bottle.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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