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The Good Stuff

More than a decade after America began voting with its feet (TOMS), fork (Whole Foods), and friends (Kiva), pocket empowerment has gone mainstream: 83% of 18- to 54-year-olds say that it’s become an expectation for brands to be environmentally friendly and socially conscious, and an equal percentage (80%) are more likely to buy products from such brands.


While there is no shortage of companies doing good today (a good thing, by the way!), we went on a quest for the best—the true standouts in the increasingly crowded arena of social good and pocket empowerment. We found products on opposite poles of the technological spectrum, some that were leveraging big data, the Internet of Things, and wearable tech to supercharge good, and others that were getting on the ground and connecting with consumers on a more human level to evoke change (for example, hand-mending a 25-year-old Patagonia fleece on the spot). Together, these two approaches offer the perfect hi-lo mix—not so different from pairing a Marc Jacobs bag with a Target T-shirt, incidentally.

So get ready to feel empathy for an eggplant, play Soccket ball, and—just maybe—relocate to Normal, Illinois. Here are 10 brands, organizations, ventures, and products tapping into hi-tech and hi-touch to reinvent social good.


Hungry Harvest CSA

Embracing ugly produce—gnarled carrots, square potatoes, disfigured eggplants, and too-small apples—is the new way to fight food waste. The Washington, D.C., area Hungry Harvest CSA delivers direct to consumers’ doorsteps “rescue produce” that would otherwise get tossed for superficial reasons such as, irregular size, shape, and color, or bumps and bruises. If the moral high ground of eating food that’s not aesthetically pleasing doesn’t make you feel good enough, Hungry Harvest matches the produce bought with a food donation to a family in need.

“If social is good and the idea of making an impact is presented in a positive way, a fun way, or dare I say, a playful way, then people are going to want to do it.”

—Jessica O. Matthews, Cofounder and CEO, Uncharted Play


Normal, Illinois

At a time when cities are the new brands, “normal” is a fashion trend (normcore), and urban centers are the new frontier of sustainability (see Urban Jungle Undone), Normal, Illinois, was bound to catch our eye. What’s unique about Normal (irony intended) is that it invested $47 million in Complete Streets, an approach to renovating its community by thinking about all users—people traveling by foot, bicycle, transit, or car of all ages and abilities. The town widened and repaired its sidewalks, reconstructed Constitution Boulevard, and erected Uptown Circle and Uptown Station, a multi-modal transportation hub. Today, upwards of 40% of all trips in Uptown Normal are by bicycle or on foot. Since implementing these architectural improvements, Normal experienced a 46% uptick in retail sales and attracted more than $160 million in private investment to boot. Not bad for being normal.

“People love Uptown Normal. They ride the bus, they bike the trail, they shop, they socialize, and they recreate in a wonderful urban center.”

—Chris Koos, Mayor, Normal, IL


Patagonia Worn Wear Tour

Patagonia has long been a best-in-class brand for environmentalism—it runs the largest garment-repair facility in North America—but its new initiative gets it on the ground to meet customers and mend their decades-old apparel (even items that the company didn’t produce). Giving a human face to its Worn Wear initiative, which encourages people to repair rather than replace ripped and frayed items, Patagonia recently hit the road in a custom-made, solar-powered camper van to sew, stitch, patch, and darn used clothing (and share DIY repair tips, as well). In an effort to document the soul connection of well-loved items in today’s throwaway culture, the repair crew is also collecting personal stories—like that of Steve Kobak, from Portland, Oregon, who said of the Patagonia quilted Snap-T that he bought around 1987, “It’s seen law school, three years in Aspen, many hiking, climbing, surfing trips, and now it’s the perfect garb for painting houses.” Waste is an increasingly top-of-mind issue for consumers.

Everlane Transparent City Series

Radical transparency is a fundamental tenent of the Web-only apparel and accessories brand Everlane: Not only does it publish specific information about each factory it works with (check out photos of its factory in Dongguan, China, among others, on its website), it also discloses cost, markup, and profit for each garment it produces. While this might seem like a brazen business move, it’s actually savvy: 81% of 18- to 54-year olds say that they’re more likely to buy a brand or product from a company that’s transparent. Everlane’s recently launched Transparent City tour further reveals the inner workings of the company to consumers through on-the-ground events and meet and greets. The first city it visited, Los Angeles, included a tour of its downtown T-shirt factory (for which there was a waiting list of more than 300) and an “ask our CEO anything” Q&A session—along with lighter entertainment, such as a transparency-themed, farm-to-table dinner that took place, fittingly, in a glass house. Consumers can vote online to bring the tour to their city.


Everyone knows that bicycles are good for the environment, but one start-up is hand building them as a way to boost the local economy and create jobs. HERObike—which is run by the nonprofit Hale Empowerment and Revitalization Organization (HERO) in the impoverished town of Greensboro, Alabama (population 2,500)—developed not out of a love of two-wheelers, but from the proliferation of a local crop: bamboo. Realizing that the thick stalks flourish in the hot climate, HERO sought to utilize bamboo as a resource in creating a sustainable, socially conscious small business. Bamboo, it turns out, is the perfect material for building bicycle frames—and it fills a trendy design niche, as well. The company launched with a $44,000 “Semester Bicycle” Kickstarter campaign, which successfully brought local manufacturing to a town known as the catfish capital of the state.


 Hampton Creek

According to this food technology company, the future of food won’t come from chefs, farmers, or foodies, but rather from data scientists. Hampton Creek is tackling the goal of developing healthier, more sustainable fare by creating the largest database of plant proteins in the world. The database—which currently tracks 4,000 plant proteins—is being used to algorithmically analyze and model new foods, the first of which is a synthetic equivalent to a chicken’s egg and the special sauce behind Hampton Creek’s mayo and cookies. The venture is essentially big data as executive chef. While data-driven food might not sound appetizing to some, 57% of people believe that genetically modified food is safe to eat. Expect technology to play an even bigger role in what lands on our plates: Bill Gates, along with Twitter cofounders Evan Williams and Biz Stone and the former Twitter VP of product Jason Goldman, invested in another plant-based meat substitute, Beyond Meat.

59% of 18- to 54-year-olds prefer a future of faux meat to one with no meat.

Nest Thermostat

The Internet of Things bakes sustainability into the DNA of objects—proving that sometimes the more high-tech a product is, the more human it becomes. This electronic, programmable, and self-learning Wi-Fi-enabled thermostat is a major step up from the ugly beige box on the wall that most people never learn to program. Not only does the Nest have a simple, beautiful interface, it also “learns” the behaviors of inhabitants and optimizes to conserve energy. Says the SXSW Eco advisory board member Emily Chan: “If you think of something like Nest, it’s inherently sustainable, and that’s what makes them so appealing to people. As we move forward, best-in-class products will have sustainability at their heart.” Expect built-in sustainability in the next wave of fridges, couches, and TVs: Smart homes are the number one development that people say is plausible by 2050.

Watson Health

While wearable technology has given us the ability to track our runs, sleep patterns, and hydration levels, it hasn’t tackled major health-care issues, from cancer to diabetes—until now. IBM’s cognitive computer analytics platform, Watson—the very same one that won Jeopardy!—is set to revolutionize the health-care industry by harnessing the power of big data. While not tied to any one wearable device, Watson Health will sift through anonymized data sets sourced from Fitbits, Apple watches, Nike+ FuelBands, and smart scales, along with those of partners, such as the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and Emory University, to reveal new insights into personal health. For example, Watson could come up with the most effective cancer treatment plan for a patient based on data, case histories, and emerging therapies from around the world; or it could match a patient with the best clinical trial out of tens of thousands. While we’ve been tracking the social impact of big data for some time (see The Curve, Volume 2: Data Strata), this new entry from Big Blue has the best potential we’ve seen to actually save lives.


Organic transit’s ELF solar and pedal hybrid vehicle.

While it’s unrealistic to think that everyone will be up for throwing on a messenger bag and commuting to work by bicycle (85% aren’t betting on it), the massive carbon footprint of cars isn’t sustainable either. Enter the middle ground of transport: ELF, a solar- and pedal-powered bicycle-car hybrid. The three-wheeled vehicle with an aluminum shell is legally cleared to drive on bicycle paths (thus bypassing rush-hour traffic jams) yet also has the power to travel 30 miles per hour and go as far as 60 to 90 miles a day. Organic Transit, the company that builds it, claims it’s the most efficient vehicle on the planet. Until the Hyperloop takes shape (see Urban Jungle Undone), the ELF may be a good option for those who haven’t quite reached SoulCycle status on the street.

“Imagine if we used vehicles like ELF for the majority of our in-town commuting. We’d be healthier and safer, have more fun commuting, and our cities could begin to be reshaped around a more human scale.”

—Jason F. McLennan, CEO, International Living Future Institute




This energy-harnessing soccer ball is proof that incorporating high-tech capabilities into low-fi products can solve major world problems. SOCCKET looks like a normal soccer ball, but it’s so much more: A portable generator inside the ball gathers and stores the kinetic energy of every kick, pass, and bounce, transforming every 30 minutes of play into three hours of light from a (provided) LED lamp. Through a Kickstarter campaign, a buy-one-give-one model, and corporate sponsorships, more than 50,000 balls have been distributed to resource-poor areas, including South Africa, Mexico, and Brazil. Meanwhile, integration with the Internet of Things will soon allow donors to receive notifications when balls are in use, allowing people to actually quantify the impact of their gifts. The company that produces it, Uncharted Play, is also launching more play-meets-social-good products, including the Pulse, an energy-generating jump rope. Skateboards and basketballs are to come. No wonder that 80% of respondents believe that brands can make the world a better place.

President Barack Obama kicks a SOCCKET.
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