Interview: Jeff Hittner, founder of sustainable social venture Ethikus

I recently spoke to Jeff Hittner, founder of Ethikus, an online community that connects conscientious consumers to local businesses that share their values. Ethikus employees use a mobile app to survey New York City stores and restaurants on their business practices in four main areas: environmental impact, employee care, sourcing standards, and community engagement. The best businesses are featured on Ethikus’ website and promoted to its email list of ethical consumers.

While Ethikus has only recently emerged from incubatory form, Hittner & Co have managed to form connections with a variety of non-profit organizations, businesses and consumers, all of whom are interested in sustainability, ethics and once again creating a sense of community. The ultimate goal is to make this into a national movement.
I spoke to Jeff about Ethikus’ origins, how the venture is positioned in 2012, and the unexpected that has happened along the way.

I know you worked for IBM’s sustainability program. Can you tell us a little bit about your role within that division?
I founded and led IBM’s corporate and social responsibility development process. At least five or six years ago, it started becoming obvious that a number of IBM’s corporate clients were getting very focused on how sustainability was impacting their strategy, bottom and top line. So, I started building up research and what we call “thought leadership” to prove that there was a need in this space. IBM is the largest consulting firm in the world with over 400,000 employees, so you have to build a case for something before the company is going to get behind it.

Then we started developing what are called “service offerings” to sell to the clients to help them improve from a strategic perspective in sustainability. By the way, I always use sustainability and corporate-social responsibility interchangeably, and I use it in the broadest context. It’s how business and society intersect on community, environmental and social levels.

That sort of reminds me of this thought my friend had recently where he said he would be employing the idea of “health” across a spectrum of areas: personal, social, mental, political, environmental, etc.
Yeah, It’s like taking a systems view of everything. Over the last couple hundred years, since we really started focusing on industrialism and capitalism, it was all about developing these silos of specialization, whether it’s a specific industry or a specific task. The reality is that now–even though we should have always known it—everything is interconnected.

It seems like a way of addressing a variety of forms of entropy without falling into the nihilistic belief that entropy has already doomed the system. On a planet of limited resources, if every country, bank, or business’s goal is to grow the market exponentially, isn’t there a critical mass where the planet cannot sustain this any longer? Are businesses and governments thinking about this reality apart from how it effects the bottom line and public relations?
Well, I think there are new set of industries who are thinking about this problem. And I think there is an old set that wants to ignore it as long as possible. That is as much human nature as it is business nature. There is a new concept called collaborative consumption. Examples of it would be Airbnb, Zip Car, eBay or Skillshare. The whole idea being that all of us have a set of skills, all of us have resources that we own that are being under-utilized. And so a new set of companies and industry will grow around this idea where we will be sharing what we have instead of buying new. So instead of going to buy a new car, you would use the Zip Car service.

My organization has ten people. All of them are unbelievably passionate, and they are working for me because they can’t find jobs in the old economy. They want to have a job that has an impact. They want to feel they are doing something in addition to starting their career. It’s amazing, people are out there in this economy looking for crappy internships because they’ve already given up on finding traditional jobs. We are tapping into the Millenial values and passions, and hopefully can provide them with a set of skills. My dream is that Ethikus can take off so that they can be gainfully employed.

Back to Ethikus’ origins for a moment. You leave IBM and then you have this whim to dive headfirst into a start-up?
After I left IBM I switched to a three-person start-up and it wasn’t a good fit. Again, I couldn’t find the job I was looking for. One part of it is my values and what I’m trying to do, and the other part is that there aren’t a lot of jobs out there that say, “Hey, do you want to create change?” So, I realized that I’d have to try to start something, and the timing was just right.

This is a whole new social circle, too. There are social entrepreneurs all over the city, all over the country, and all over the world. It’s because there is a big gap between capitalism and traditional non-profit, and people are trying to find a way to fill that gap.

How does Ethikus work? If someone comes to the site, what do they encounter?
Specifically, when they come to our site they’ll discover stores and restaurants in their neighborhood that are ethical and doing the right thing. As a result, they will be enticed to patronize these businesses. We have videos where you actually see the owner talking about what they do at their restaurant or store. The idea is for you to realize there are businesses and business owners that share the same values as you. By supporting them, you are creating an impact and creating change. You’re saying that business is not all about the bottom line, but about the community, the employees, society, and, of course, it’s about being sustainable in a financial way.

The overall goal for Ethikus is to inspire a movement, and to direct the purchasing power of ethical consumers, or what we call “conscientious consumers” to the stores and restaurants that do good.

Interview: Jeff Hittner, founder of sustainable social venture Ethikus
The Ethikus team

What are some obstacles to creating that larger movement?
First and foremost, lack of information. We try to address that on the website. Then there’s the perception of higher prices if the product is ethical and sustainable. Sometimes it’s true, sometimes it’s not. We try to address that by having some small incentives for the businesses we feature on our website. The last is complacency. People are by nature lazy because they don’t have the information. So, we make it impossible for them to be lazy by sending them a featured email every week with a new featured business, and news at Ethikus.

How many businesses are involved in Ethikus?
We set out to launch it as a pilot in the East Village. The two biggest assupmtions that we had to prove as either true or false were: 1) did businesses care enough about these things that they would jump on the idea of communicating values and ethical and sustainable credentials, and 2) did individuals, like you and I, care enough to support them. What we assumed to be the harder of the two, businesses, has turned out to be the easier one.

If you walk into a business and say, “Hey, we’re trying to figure out what you’re doing from a community and environmental standpoint, could we talk to you for a few minutes?”, they love to because it is built into the values of a lot of people. On the customer side, we haven’t spent a dime on marketing because this is meant to be a grass roots test. We did a bunch of focus groups. We video interviewed a bunch of people in Washington Square Park, and asked them what an ethical, sustainable and local business meant to them. What we found is that it meant a million things to a million people. But, there were four “buckets” that people seemed to care about: environmental impact, where products were sourced from, how a store engaged with a community, and how it treated its employees. And so with that we set about defining the criteria of how we evaluate a store.

We then canvassed in the East Village. We sat outside of Whole Foods and farmer’s markets and tried to sign people up. We got 1,000 emails and that’s when we launched the pilot. We grew by about 70% in a few months virally and by just testing it out.

What else did you learn in those first few months with Ethikus Beta?
We noticed that there were a lot of other people that were interested in this cause, so we started collaborating with a lot of community organizations. The East Village, in particular, has the Model Block Project, which is focused on creating the greenest block in the city. There is EcoBizNYC, which is trying to help businesses with energy. We started to basically make friends on the community side.

When we got to a point where it seemed to be working, we thought, “Now, how can we create some real change?”, we came up with the concept of Shop Your Values Week across the city. For a week in May we are going to celebrate the hundreds of stores, restaurants, theaters and galleries that are ethical and sustainable. At the heart of it is going to be a pledge that we hope 10,000 to 30,000 New Yorkers take that says essentially, “For this one week we do our best to only shop and eat at stores and restaurants that are on this list.” We’ve now amassed a partnership with over 20 organizations across the city, from Grow NYC to Nona Brooklyn, a kick-ass food blog.

Our goal is to get 200 businesses to participate and create some sort of celebratory incentive, which will be up to them. A free glass of wine with the meal, or a prix fixe menu, or 10% off, you name it. The idea is that for this one week we’re going to draw so much attention to this concept, that it’s going to stay in the psyche of people. That will be kind of our city-wide kick-off for the rest of the year.