Robert McLaughlin is CEO of Organic Bouquet, a flower company that practices social responsibility and sustainability in its supply chain, packaging and community outreach, among other areas. I recently asked him about how the company came about, the reason it does what it does and challenges it faces.
What inspired you to have your company be a leader in sustainable practices — and be upfront about it?
In the late ’80s, I visited a farm in Ecuador that implemented a 401(k)-type program for all of its workers. Nothing like that had been done at any farm in South America, much less a flower farm in California. I became very interested in workers rights throughout the ’90s, especially as it related to fair livable wages. I believed in the model of doing good while doing well; we as a company can produce a profit and just bank it, or we can produce a profit and bank some and give some back.
Once we realized that doing good with it was part of a niche market that was going unfulfilled, we realized that we could be leaders, and the more we gave back the more good we did and the more interesting we became to the customers and suppliers. So it really became about seeing the benefit of supporting something good, marketing that to gain more support and growing our outreach and business.
Your website describes Organic Bouquet as a “mission-based company that cares about environmental, social and economic sustainability.” Many companies are touting their sustainability and CSR efforts, but what does “mission-based” mean in that context?
Mission-based for us is about supporting growers that produce products sustainably and are audited by third-party agencies to international standards. Our company helped create North America’s first standard for sustainable floriculture. The Veriflora certification provides environmental protections, workers protections fair wages and quality standards for harvest, packing, distribution and sales. We support farms that grow USDA-certified organic, Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance, Veriflora, Flor Ecuador, Florverde and others after they are carefully vetted by our company. These programs must be audited by third parties, must provide fair wages, and no farm we work with can use chemicals banned by the World Health Organization or U.S. EPA.
On top of our commitment to certified supply of product, we also do several community projects. We’ve invested in a farm in Colombia that now, thanks to our help, grows organically, but they also give 10% of the proceeds of each shipment to a foundation to help low-income families with autistic children in rural Bogota, Colombia. Past projects included a group of landowners in the mountains of Ecuador, where we gave them the actual seeds and technical assistance to grow sunflowers for our Thanksgiving production. We helped them develop an exportable crop that provides income for their families, and today they are still operating under their own funding from the profits of our first purchase.
Our next project involves a partnership with an international NGO in Africa to grow a flower project in the coffee region of Ethiopia, and our intent is to again help provide small landowners with an empowering method of supporting their own families with an exportable crop of flowers. Every product we offer to our customers has to provide a benefit for someone other than just ourselves. It has to benefit a farm that employs 60% women, empowering them in their community, or it has to benefit the environment and local ecology surrounding a farm or it has to benefit a charity with a percentage of proceeds going back to a cause we’ve decided to partner with.
We want our business to have meaning, purpose and a compelling value add to consumers considering a purchase online.
Your company, in name, its structure and the eco-standards noted on its website, is staking a lot of its ability to be a sustainable provider. How has this helped set Organic Bouquet apart from competitors?
We are essentially the responsible choice online when looking for floral products. You can read the standards on our site that pertain to the product you’re buying, and we ensure when you buy a product it’s safe for the environment and the workers and ecology surrounding the farm or factory are cared for. We are the only site that offers assuring that you won’t wake up one day to find out something you bought was from a farm that abuses woman or children or a farm that’s spraying harmful chemicals onto the Earth and its inhabitants. We take our business seriously, and its our certifications that define us as a company.
What are the biggest challenges you face in upholding these standards? Which are industry-specific and which seem to affect all companies?
The biggest challenges are economic right now. We’ve had two farms in California that were growing organic, thanks to us, and decided it’s not worth it to them anymore. They resorted to spraying synthetic chemicals in an effort to increase their yield and profits. This is industry-specific, and it’s affecting all companies. We find more support from growers in Ecuador than here in the U.S., which is unfortunate as the carbon footprint is larger bringing flowers in, but we as a company will not support a company in the U.S. spraying harmful chemicals just to say we support a local grower.
We have many great growers in the U.S. and Latin America, and our grower partners will grow responsibly or we’ll move to where we can conduct our business with the least negative effect on nature.
If a business owner came to you and said he’d like to emulate Organic Bouquet’s approach, what’s the first thing you’d tell him to do?
Take a step, no matter how small. Start with a firm commitment to a product line of certified sustainable products, stay committed to that line. Learn from it, educate your staff and develop your own balance within your business. Don’t jump out and make a fake attempt at green marketing for dollars. It’s OK to market you have eco-friendly products, but make sure you understand and believe in what you’re doing. If not, you’ll do more harm to the industry than good, and you’ll eventually become discouraged with your results and go back to traditional business.
You don’t have to change your business overnight. Sustainability is a destination, one that you must strive everyday to reach. And call me, if I can help I will … your success will eventually equal my success. The eco-lifestyle market is still small and growing faster every day; there is room for everyone and this can be tomorrow’s mainstream business.