The Birth of “Business = Activism”

In 1980 many vegetarian entrepreneurs had a collective vision inspired by the Book of Tofu (William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi). Some of us went on to create Silk soymilk, Westbrae tofu, and TofuRella cheese alternative. Small village-style tofu shops, thousands across the country just like Japan. Yes, we were naïve, yet we persisted.

I started making tofu in California that year, and opened the first vegan restaurant in the state (there were soy delis before, not restaurants). Using the tofu we made by hand we then made a number of other foods with it, in familiar American forms.

That birthed a new vegetarian movement, which in turn created a vegan movement, then a hemp food movement which then became hemp’s first billion-dollar segment, then today an explosion of interest in veganism in the mainstream. In a way it all began then and there, 1977 through 1982, when many new small tofu shops started. Vegan foods legend Robert Davis had one, Steve Demos had one, and in 1980 I had one. It literally fed the burgeoning plant-based foods movement in those days.

As I started in business, I eventually came to see it this way: the more “evangelicals” we train to go and preach the “gospel of tofu,” the faster tofu will become A Thing, a vegan revolution. We were teaching “tofu missionaries” to go forth and prosper. It’s not easy to learn the actual details of the process of making tofu, there are many variables. At least five companies I remember training how to make tofu; three were in California, my state, so they were potential competitors and in fact later were actual ones. But that doesn’t matter when you’re in a Movement together, he said naïvely af.

Today’s growth of interest in veganism is the latest manifestation of the early work those “tofu missionaries” did. Without the inroads in vegetarian foods tofu and tofu products made in the public’s consciousness, there’s no Impossible Foods, it’s just another Loma Linda or Boca Burger.

With hemp foods, thanks to Business and Food pages more than Lifestyle and Entertainment, people eventually came to see a food made from “Marijuana’s cousin” was safe and cool, normal. That stimulated purchase trial when they encountered it, so the next step was increasing the chance of encountering it by getting placement in as many stores as possible. We also used our Hempreneur program with the Display Unit to get wider retail placement, the most-profitable square foot in the store. Plus our Yahoo! online HempNut store, at its peak we sold $10,000 monthly in hemp food in 2000. Anyone could get wholesale prices just by ordering a full case. Anyone. Many did.

For every new company we help or inspire to start, they will generate public or trade advertising and marketing. Most will get written up in newspapers and magazines, thus spreading the word. Company press releases are a lifeblood for many publications trying to fill space, they’ll often print it word-for-word. One company can only get so much ink, but ten will get more than 10 times because there will be a synergy, it’ll appear to be bigger than it is. The more people hear about something new, the more people perceive it is a legitimate thing, whether tofu or veganism or hemp foods.

If there is no trade in the product or commodity, then there is no demand. If there is no demand, then there’s no interest in changing things such as legalizing hemp. Conversely, if there is much trade then there is much demand and there will be an interest in changing the status quo, whether plant-based foods or legalizing. Then it snowballs and gets bigger and bigger the more we talk about it. I’ve watched the phenomenon many times over the decades.

That’s why hemp didn’t get legalized until 2018, because by then the trade in CBD was well into the billions (most CBD is in hemp). They didn’t mind protecting from hemp the soy, timber and cotton industries, but CBD opened their eyes. A “non-stony cannabinoid from hemp that heals children” was so politically-safe that even Sen. McConnell got on board, after Rep. then Sen. Pauls carried a hemp bill every session since 2005.

In 2014 three of the largest CBD companies asked me to start a CBD trade group, the Medicinal Hemp Association. Since then I’ve been advocating and educating on CBD in Social Media and a website. Each new CBD business I can help get started is like another new advocate, educating their circle and community.

That’s why I offer free tools for start-ups anyone can download. In 2015 I started educating on smokable hemp as a new product category; today it is the value-driver for hemp in Italy and Switzerland with thousands of stores dedicated to it. Of course, I don’t take the credit for that, all I did was seed the idea to the public and let human nature continue the dispersal. It’s about the outcome, not the income. The idea, not me. I can’t tell people to do something and then get pissy when they go do it, now can I? It’s all about diffusion of the idea, not ownership. If they say “Richard whom?” then so be it, I can’t get attached to any of it, positive or negative. That’s why I didn’t sue the knock-offs in the ‘90s, and instead became “the most copied guy in hemp.”

So in my mind, the more I’m empowering people to start a tofu, hemp food, CBD, smokable hemp, hemp, or vegan food business, the more I’m contributing to the Movement with a solution not a problem. Isn’t that the very definition of Activism?

That is how “Business = Activism” came to be.

However, a few years ago I realized the dark side of this concept is what I call Neoliberal Marketing and its tool, Fauxthentic Marketing. The essence of Neoliberal Marketing is “buy our product to save the world.” It redefines voters as consumers, whose democratic choices are exercised by buying, letting “the market” fix the woes of the planet. Fauxthentic (my term) is marketing something using a story that isn’t actually real, the private face does not match the public one. It is often done in pursuit of Neoliberal Marketing. While my story was always authentic, even “Sharon’s Finest” was named after my wife who also worked it with me, I feel partly to blame for today’s Neoliberal Marketing.

In true Neoliberal fashion, we authentically told the story on every package and mentioned it in marketing materials, like this:

and this…

The reason is, I started a self-imposed “Green Tax” in 1988 as a way to counter my use of resources in pursuit of profit while marketing tofu cheese alternative TofuRella. Blessed with massive profits back then, my manifestation of that Green Tax was giving hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and product to good causes. To differentiate us from our mega competitors, Rella labels offered an unprecedented (at the time) 100% money-back guarantee, an 800 toll-free number (800-NJOY-NOW), an email and mail address to complain to, and we mailed free recipes and coupons on request. We stood tall in the face of a threatened boycott of Safeway by those logging the temperate rainforests on Vancouver Island. We gave tens of thousands of dollars to NORML, Hemp Industries Association, Sierra Club of Western Canada, and EarthSave. Over $70,000 in product just to help with Hurricane Andrew relief efforts, back in 1993 when a dollar meant something.

Why did we market this way? We were a small closely-held company of true believers, and our biggest competitor was a huge multinational company. The others were people for whom natural foods was just a job not a lifestyle like it was for us. It rubbed me the wrong way and I wanted people to know that we were the “anti-corporate choice,” a “Pro who is also a Bro.”

Not coincidentally I started studying Marketing at Sonoma State University the year we started the Green Tax, 1988. Going to night classes for five years through undergraduate and graduate school, no doubt I applied what I was learning without even trying to.

I knew I needed some way to differentiate Us from Them to the public, and I did it by giving money I wanted to give anyway and telling people what we were doing and why. I hoped others would follow suit like they had in the past with tofu, again with the Business = Activism but there it is; an example of why I think a company could be an effective advocate just by going about its usual business, merely by existing. So we used differentiation-by-philanthropy to achieve it; a way to show consumers that we weren’t like the ravenous corporate monsters living quarter-to-quarter, we were down-home and folksy like them.

Frankly, the trade didn’t really seem to care one way or the other. They wanted those 5 points of profit you so proudly gave away to come to them instead, I kid you not, one even said so.

Today, Dr Bronner’s is a master of Neoliberal Marketing and many others try to incorporate some aspect of it in their marketing. Whenever you see that the company publicizes its donations or policy or charitable acts, it’s typically a Neoliberal Marketing ploy. “Feel good about giving us money so that we can do these altruistic things with it.” Sometimes it even disguises a dark secret for which the company is seeking to atone; some try to balance their karma using donations to this or that, and their publicist can’t resist. Like BP’s gauzy ads post-Gulf Oil Spill.

As companies have jumped on the bandwagon it’s become dilute and less effective, so Dr Bronner’s had to step it up a notch this year (click here to check it out). The problem is that when all that money comes from companies, it also often comes with bad advice and there are varying degrees of persistence in taking that unsolicited advice.

Never mind that you might be better at dispensing money to say the homeless than American Express or United Airlines or whomever, they’ll still use a tiny bit of the money they made off you with exorbitant fees to do something nice. One credit card company spent $750,000 to advertise it gave $250,000 to a food bank. Recently a beer company made a $5 million commercial to brag about a $100,000 donation of water.

Additionally, how does one market ethically in a post-ethics world like today? I know companies who didn’t actually make the donations they claimed to, or “borrowed” huge sums from the foundation which was supposed to fund these things. Or they donated then clawed it back when the organization didn’t sign on to the donor’s bad ideas. Or they publicize only the tiny amount that is organic or fair trade, implying it all is.

The temptation to lie at least to some degree is so powerful and effective that it gets used against us all the time. It steals our hope and good faith. They do it because it works and there is very little downside. Look at VW, BMW, Bayer, and Ford… they’re still in business today despite their record in WWII actively supporting the Nazi war effort.

Not even B Corp certification separates the good from the bad, when the two least-ethical companies I know became B Corps I did the B Corp assessment using the policies of the Sinaloa Cartel and the Nazi Party. Both rated high. It appears to be more of a CYA for institutional investors than a true measure of corporate integrity.

Since corporations are composed of people, the character of those people will determine the character of a corporation. The saying “the fish stinks from the head down” is metaphorical, allegorical, but true in that bad bosses or CEOs determine the culture of a corporation, good or bad. They can starve the room of oxygen for the good ones, and the good will leave. Eventually, all that’s left is people willing to tolerate bad behavior for a paycheck, or sociopathic enough to agree with it.

If you steal $100 from corporations, you go to jail. If a corporation steals $100 from you, someone is getting a promotion. That breeds unintended consequences across society. This downward spiral of business ethics is what “Business = Activism” was intending to address, to provide a model for doing good for society as much as shareholders.