Sustainable business is not just business, it’s something more.
What does a great business leader look like? Many would consider a business or entrepreneur who sets out to tackle a social problem or provide an important service, while prioritizing the well-being of employees and customers, to be a good leader. Yet, from a very basic capitalistic, neoliberal standpoint, a good leader can be, more simply, someone who turns a sizable profit. In this worldview, a great leader is someone like Elon Musk or Jeff Bezos; their vast wealth accumulation stands as evidence of their perceived successful leadership.
While we incessantly hear about the world’s wealthiest and most well-known company heads, perhaps our time would be better spent looking within our communities for local business leaders who are setting a worthy example of business leadership and practices that promote justice and the “greater good.” After all, leaders should not be merely guided by profit-seeking. In truth, a “good” leader is only as great as the impact they make in the world and on the lives they improve.
In what follows, we’ll explore a handful of Detroit-based businesses whose leaders align with our definition of a great business leader: one whose business seeks justice, embraces moral business practices, and goes above and beyond in its fair treatment of employees. Among these include businesses on the forefront of the triple bottom line sustainable business movement, as well as those committed to a socially just cause–ultimately, the business leaders whom we should all strive to be like.
Social Enterprises Leading the Charge in Southeast Michigan
The Empowerment Plan
The Empowerment Plan is one of these businesses that generously serves Detroit residents in a big way; their aim is “breaking the cycle of homelessness through employment.” (The Empowerment Plan) Founded by Veronika Scott and considered a social enterprise–that is, an organization that seeks to “address a basic unmet need or solve a social or environmental problem through a market-driven approach”–the Empowerment Plan employs homeless adults in manufacturing roles to produce sleeping bag coats for homeless persons and those in need. (Social Enterprise Alliance) Scott, a Michigan native who experienced poverty in her own upbringing, envisioned the warming coat in 2010 as a project during college; she soon recognized the importance of empowering the homeless through job creation, and the Empowerment Project was born out of these two ideas. (The Guardian)
The products the Empowerment Project creates–coats, created from upcycled high quality fabrics–are not for sale to the general public; instead, they can be donated for a cost to those in need and/or experiencing homelessness. Thus, the nonprofit alleviates homelessness in two ways: by creating coats to be donated to those suffering from homelessness and through providing meaningful employment for those who are homeless.
Notably, employees of the Empowerment Plan spend two years on average working for the organization, and employees are encouraged and have access to resources to help them find gainful employment beyond the organization. Perhaps most impressively, “not one employee has fallen back into homelessness since [the company] began.” (The Empowerment Plan)
Pingree Detroit also upcycles materials, specifically those “otherwise destined for the landfill,” focusing on leather goods, footwear, and accessories. Commendable for their commitment to sustainability, the company has pledged by 2023 to source the majority of their materials from the Great Lakes region, produce zero carbon emissions, and provide “military-grade, fossil-free plant based alternatives to leather and plastic.” (Pingree Detroit – Sustainability)
Founded by Jarret Schlaff, a Michigan native, Pingree seeks out and trains underserved populations, particularly veterans and those who have fallen on hard times in the local community. The company is also committed to paying workers a living wage and notably shares 77% of company profits amongst the team. (Pingree Detroit – A Mission of Service)
Another Detroit-based social enterprise that produces wearable goods is Rebel Nell, founded by Amy Peterson in 2013. Peterson was inspired by the stories of women who lived in a nearby shelter to find solutions to escape the “vicious cycle” of poverty. (T.E.A.) Now, Peterson’s retail store Rebel Nell sells jewelry created from repurposed materials sourced from graffiti and from iconic landmarks, and aims to “provide employment, equitable opportunity, and wraparound support for women with barriers to employment.” (Rebel Nell) Fittingly, their company pillars are to “employ,” “educate,” and “empower,” focusing on breaking down barriers for women to secure rewarding jobs and gain confidence through art, education and the sale of handcrafted goods, whose dollars directly benefit the local community.
To focus even further on its mission to educate and empower women, the company launched its own nonprofit, T.E.A., or Teach. Empower. Achieve., in 2017, which also helps women secure stable housing and provides financial education and legal aid (Ilitch News Hub). Per Rebel Nell’s website, 23 women employed at the business have become graduates through company-supported education “to further the objective of enhancing their lives.” (Rebel Nell – Our Team)
Triple Bottom Line Businesses that Rise to the Top
In addition to these social enterprises, a number of companies that have embraced 3BL business practices are strongly rooted in a sense of justice and improving the local community.
We first spotlighted Sister Pie, the West Village pie bakery, in early 2020. As you may recall, Sister Pie, headed by Lisa Ludwinski, is committed to triple bottom line (3BL) business practices with a mission to “serve food, [their] neighborhood, and each other.” (The New York Times) According to the Sister Pie website, the three pillars that define and inform their business are “people,” “planet,” and “profit;” they prioritize the fair treatment of employees and foster a sense of community in the West Village of Detroit, embrace the use of sustainable and compostable materials, and emphasize the importance of boosting the local economy. (Sister Pie – About) The entirely women-staffed bakery is also committed to paying fair wages, offering paid sick time and health benefits for employees, and prioritizing hiring local Detroit residents to help lower the local unemployment rate. (Sister Pie)
More recently, Ludwinski temporarily converted Sister Pie into a “make-shift grocery store” during the height of the pandemic. As with many small businesses, adjusting business strategy was critical, but the change also ensured that the needs of residents in the local community were being met. (Click On Detroit)
Avalon International Breads
Another Detroit bakery that embraces 3BL business practices is Avalon International Breads, which is committed to three pillars: the Earth, community, and employees. Denoting their company a “right livelihood business,” Avalon originally set out to have a bread business that “did good and did well”–and they are doing just that. (Avalon International Breads – Triple Bottom Line) The bakery embraces environmentally friendly practices and purchases organic, local ingredients; donates leftover bread to local shelters and dollars to charities such as Greening of Detroit, Alternatives for Girls, and Detroit Waldorf School; and prioritizes fair treatment of employees, offering health care and paid vacation time. (Avalon International Breads – Triple Bottom Line)
Ultimately, a “good” business leader will be guided by an overarching sense of justice in their business practices and decisions, made evident through the company’s overall mission and the way they treat their employees, stakeholders, and the environment. It’s clear that the aforementioned businesses–and certainly others, both within and outside the Detroit community–are helping to improve our local communities and creating a more just world. While the conventional wisdom tends to hold that only millionaires and billionaires are good business leaders, the reality is that good leadership can often be found closer to home–and great leadership is often found within small, socially-minded businesses.
The Empowerment Plan
Social Enterprise Alliance
Pingree Detroit – Sustainability
Pingree Detroit – A Mission of Service
Rebel Nell – Our Team
Ilitch News Hub
The New York Times
Sister Pie – About
Click On Detroit
Avalon International Breads – Triple Bottom Line