By Danielle Gano


How many companies can you name that are giving back with each purchase made? If you’re anything like me, your closet is full of them. 


What started as a simple idea from a shoe company headquartered in an apartment in Venice has exploded into a new marketplace where purchases create a domino effect of philanthropy. And with this new industry came a host of new vernacular, too. Terms like “one-for-one,” “ethical,” “give-back,” “conscious” and “impact brand” appear on the packaging, websites and social media descriptions for many organizations that have a philanthropic action embedded in the purchase price of their product. Call it what you want to call it, but I believe this is one of the most promising trends America’s culture of consumerism has seen in my lifetime. 


Except when it isn’t. 


While most – if not all – of these companies have great intentions, many have unintended outputs that do more harm than good in the communities in which they’re working. And the lack of clarity, measurement or certification of these companies can mean a lot of confusion for consumers who also have good intentions, but don’t have the insight or discernment to know what to look for in these brands. Even worse, there are organizations muddying the water with cause marketing campaigns that do little to help the world and a lot to help the public perception of their brand. 


But regardless of whether companies are attaching themselves to the impact trend because of their personal drive to make the world a better place – or because they recognize that this is increasingly becoming a requisite for certain segments of the population such as Millennials – the social impact trends is here to stay. And through our work at Elle Communications, a bi-coastal PR firm specializing in impact brands, we have seen just about all of the models that exist. So, I thought it would be helpful to share some of the do’s and don’ts we have uncovered for making sure your helping isn’t hurting.



CREATE SOMETHING WITH REAL DEMAND. Brands like Zady and Stella McCartney started by thinking about the design first and how it fit into consumer desires and trends. Then they thought about how to access those designs in a more ethical fashion and use their sales to lift up people and the planet. Shopping ethical shouldn’t mean you have to sacrifice on style, after all. 


SELECT A SOCIAL MISSION OR CAUSE CAMPAIGN THAT ALIGNS WITH WHO YOU ARE AS A COMPANY. I love the past few years of campaigns from Patagonia encouraging customers to buy less, which ultimately promotes them buying high quality products from their company that will last a lifetime. And just this week, Reformation announced an apparel recycling campaign that encourages their customers to use the box from their online orders to return old clothes back to them, which they will then recycle. This is a perfect complement for a brand with sustainability at its core. 


BUILD WITH PLANS TO SCALE. When The Honest Company started, they made no small plans because they knew that in order to create healthier and safer environments for everyone, they had to create a large company – one that would rival the big guys. They started their company with a goal of being “dramatically large” as co-founder Brian Lee once said and their decision to take the company public was part of that plan for expansion. 


BE HONEST ABOUT YOUR CHALLENGES. One of the many things I have admired about my friend Chris Fabian, who co-founded UNICEF’s Innovation Unit, is his willingness to share their failures. Not only does it make him a trustworthy person to invest in (in my opinion at least), but it also helps to strengthen the entire impact community by enabling others to learn from his mistakes and to not make the same ones. It also creates an internal culture of humility and honesty with colleagues that I have personally found to be imperative for this kind of work. 


KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. One of my favorite ethical brands is Maiyet, a luxury fashion line that is ethical as a standard, but doesn’t use this as a marketing tool. They never try to guilt consumers into shopping from them or gloat about their empowerment of artisans around the globe. Instead, they have taken the time to truly understand what appeals to their consumer – travel, luxury, aesthetics and sophistication – and they have created beautiful marketing campaigns that tap into these desires, inspiring them to become brand loyalists and ultimately support their artisans in the process. 



THINK LIKE A NON PROFIT. Sometimes I see companies gravitate to messaging that hangs too heavily on the impact and not enough on the product, which won’t create a sustainable relationship with consumers. It’s also import to think about finances like a for-profit rather than a non-profit. Impact organizations have to offer competitive pay, think about incentivizing partners and ambassadors through equity or royalties and should be thinking about scalability from the start. 


MISTAKE YOUR COMMUNITY AS YOUR COMPETITION. Too often I hear brands in the impact space direct their competitive muscle toward like-minded companies. Until ethical becomes the mainstream requisite, it’s my recommendation that brands focus their attention on helping to grow the overall pie of demand for ethical products before they start trying to make sure they have the biggest piece of it. 


OVERLOOK UNEXPECTED EFFECTS. There have been many companies that have started with all the right intentions, but once they began to scale realized they had some unintended outputs. For example, a one-for-one company might give out free products for each one purchased, but in doing so they could put local businesses out of business who were making their living selling those products. Obviously, free products would do less to help transform the community than economic opportunity would. 


DO IT FOR THE MARKETING. Greenwashing and other similarly less-than-authentic forms of cause marketing can have a profoundly negative impact on both consumers and the community at large. Proceed with an impact campaign with intentions of sustainability, effectiveness and real impact, or not at all. 



It’s my belief that there really is enough to go around in the world and it just takes those who have more than enough extending a helping hand to those who don’t in order for everyone to have enough in the world. Now, obviously that is a simplification of the issues and there is a lot of innovation and strategy left to be uncovered and implemented to eradicate big challenges like poverty and hunger and homelessness, but successful companies being willing to shave off a bit of profit in order to help others with every product they sell is an exciting step in the right direction. I hope these ideas help you as you consider infusing impact into your business initiatives! //