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This is the third profile in a series on Conscious Commerce. 

Gardener’s Supply Company, the 33-year old Burlington, Vermont gardening superstore, has long donated eight percent of its pretax profits to charities. Why eight percent? Because its stateside neighbor, the famously benevolent Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream, donates seven and a half percent.

“We wanted to go one better,” says Max Harris, vice president of eCommerce at Gardener’s.

The company was founded with a triple bottom line vision, a corporate framework that focuses equally on People, Planet and Profits.

“We are a company that is as concerned with the quality of life for our employees and with being good environmental stewards as we are with our financial profile,” says Harris.

The company, which is wholly owned by its roughly 250 employees, is an “open book” where transparency reigns and everyone has a say (and is accountable for) the performance of the company.

Gardener’s eight percent supports several umbrella causes including gardening, sustainable agriculture and childhood hunger, on a local and national scale.

Three of the national recipients: the Green Education Foundation, which focuses on K-12 sustainability education, the American Community Gardening Association focusing on, yes, promoting community gardens, and Ample Harvest, which connects more than 40 million Americans with excess food grown by home gardeners and donated to food banks.

The overall initiative, called Good Works, is administered by a communications executive, who reports directly to Gardener’s CEO Jim Feinson.

“It’s not like PR in other companies,” says Harris. “A significant part of the job is administering the program, budgeting and reviewing requests and choosing recipients.”

Gardener’s Supply, similarly, is not like other companies. It has its own R&D team and maintains 18 test gardens around the country, where it puts pruners, loppers, leaf shredders and vegetable planters through their paces. Its selection of garden-tested merchandise is vast, and it works with customers, gardeners, manufacturers and suppliers to design and bring to market innovative products.

About two years  ago, Gardener’s went further and became a certified B-Corp, which are for-profit companies certified by the nonprofit B Lab to meet high standards of social and environmental performance, accounting and transparency.

The certification process provided Gardener’s with feedback on its level of corporate social responsibility, and helped it quantify its progress.

From a business perspective, there is hope and optimism that B Corps will become widely recognized and embraced as the mark of a company associated with doing good works.

“There is an army of conscious consumers who, if given the choice between brands, will have a preference to buy from a B-Corp certified company,” says Harris.

But first, Harris says, Gardener’s must do a better job streamlining its fragmented philanthropic initiatives – a visit to the Good Works section of its site reveals several different endeavors which could be tied together more cohesively – communicating their existence to the market, and analyzing the impact of its philanthropy on its business.

Moreover, not all projects make the cut in evolving into sustainable programs. The company used to administer the Garden Crusader Awards, which recognized individuals in their communities who contributed to the core principles of the Good Works program. But it was discontinued in favor of channeling resources towards other programs.

“We don’t do this to be self-aggrandizing or because we think it’s going to improve our KPIs,” says Harris. “We truly want to do good. It’s a culture that attracts a lot of incredibly talented people.

Because its donations are variable based on its profits, Harris says employees are motivated to be as efficient and productive as possible.

“In a cacophony of marketing-driven messages, there is a growing opportunity and a human cry for brands that are doing things the right way, and that’s the sales driver. “

As marketers everywhere are well aware, technology (and the depth of online available to everyone, anywhere, anytime) has shifted the balance of power almost completely from marketers to consumers.

That said, information about a retailers’ business practices, standards and ethics are transparent and never more than a few clicks away.

“They have so much choice at their fingertips. Consumers will always be price and value motivated, but some will be mission driven.”

In This Series

Dogeared Jewelry Makes Good Things Happen 

For Lush Cosmetics, Charitable Giving is Great Business 

Socially Conscious Commerce