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Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility Celebrates 25th Anniversary
by Stephen Morris
Why Here? Why Now? Why VBSR?
Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility, the state’s second largest trade organization for businesses, is now 25 years young. How did it happen, and why here?
He has, however, witnessed first-hand the impact of Vermont’s changing business landscape with mushrooming organic food businesses that have made Hardwick a poster child for the nation’s trend towards local, organic foods. Imagine ... Emeril and the Food Channel coming to Hardwick!
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What Burak, Carlough, and Hodgdon have in common is that all three serve on the Board of Directors for the trade organization Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR). With more than 750 active members, the organization is second in size only to the state Chamber of Commerce and is celebrating its 25th year. No other state boasts an organization anywhere near VBSR’s strength and vitality.
Why is that?
Explanations abound. Not everyone agrees on the meaning of “social responsibility,” let alone why the concept is so compelling in the Green Mountain State. On thing, however, is inarguable. Vermont is a state where people can agree to disagree.
Helping each other out, he points out, is an essential part of living in a small community, something that holds true for Vermont’s business community, too. “95% of all businesses fail in the first five years,” he points out. “We’ll all find ourselves in a ditch at some point, so we better be willing to help each other out,” he says, sounding like the veteran of many a mud season.
Christopher Miller, Social Mission Activism Manager and the current board chair at VBSR, also cites the lifestyle options: “In Vermont, it’s easy to encourage and foster proper work life balance. With so many outdoor opportunities so close to where we all live and work, it’s easy to jump from work to play, and back to work again. It’s good for employees which is in turn good for employers.” When he’s not working, Chris enjoys the outdoors, eating lots of local food, and has recently tried his hand at running marathons.
The group decided they were FOR social responsibility, although they stopped short of defining what “social responsibility” was. “We decided the members would define the term over time by their actions,” says Bruce Seifer, “and that’s what seems to have happened.”
Their name, initially, was Vermont Business Association for Social Responsibility, but that was more than a mouthful. They explored becoming a local chapter of a national trade association, called Businesses for Social Responsibility and invited a representative to present options to the Vermonters. But, in the words of Pat Heffernan, the national group “blew it!” by wanting too large a percentage of membership dues and restricting political activity on the state level. The die was cast, and the Vermonters would go it alone.
“We formed a steering committee,” says Heffernan, “and did bylaws with help from our attorney, Ken Merritt. We finally launched in ’91, a year after our original organizational meeting.” Ben & Jerry’s and the city of Burlington provided seed capital to help the organization through its most formative years. The activities, then as now, were to provide education and networking opportunities for its members and to establish positions in public policy that could be championed with legislators in Montpelier.
The twist was that the VBSR positions were often diametrically opposed to those of the established business interests. While the latter group thought in terms resisting any legislation that restricted the ability of members to generate profits, the newcomers talked in terms of “sustainable jobs,” “livable wages,” and even “family leave.” Instead of bottom lines, says Don Mayer of Small Dog Electronics originally of Waitsfield, but now with stores in Rutland and Burlington, “We ascribed to the ‘dual bottom line’ - i.e. profit and socially responsible involvement. Over the years we have refined this concept and now refer to ‘multiple or triple bottom lines.’”
Early policy decisions were key. The organization would be about business, not social agenda or style. There would be no screens or criteria to determine who could join. You pay your dues, you’re a member. Secondly, the group would play actively in public policy. If you like the political and social positions the group is taking, you are inclined to join. If you don’t, you won’t. It’s a process of self-selection.
The message resonated. Mike Burak had dutifully tried going the traditional Chamber of Commerce route, but was not satisfied. “Nothing against the Chamber, but I found that only one side was ever represented, the side that served the interests of the business owners and the bottom line. When I discovered VBSR it was like a breath of fresh air. There were other people like me who wanted to examine both sides of issues.”
No one remembers who first used the phrase “a chamber for the rest of us,” but suddenly the description fit. Today, Vermont Businesses for Social Responsibility (VBSR) is an unquestioned economic force. Membership stands at more than 750 businesses and organizations that collectively employ more than 35,000 Vermonters and generate more than an estimated $5.5 billion in annual revenues.
While the jury is out on whether the concept of socially responsible business works at the mega-corporation level, no one disputes that the idea is thriving in Vermont. Social responsibility has taken its place alongside dirt roads, maple syrup, fall foliage, mud, and wacky ice cream flavors as commodities that distinguish Vermont from the rest of the world.
So Does Green Living Journal
25 Years of “Practical Information for Friends of the Environment”
In 1990 in the triangular corner where Vermont meets both Massachusetts and New Hampshire, an ex-stockbroker fresh from Wall St. was trying to figure out how to make a living. He had walked away from a successful, but emotionally hollow, stint as a stock and bond broker in Manhattan. He took his financial windfall to Vermont where he bought a piece of “the good life” not far from where legendary homesteaders Scott and Helen Nearing had settled in the 1950s. He lived simply and frugally, partially by necessity, but also by choice, making his decisions by fully considering not only his own needs, but those of the environment.
After 15 years at the helm, Glickman moved on to start Echo Point Books, a business that both sells the damaged books of other publishers but also publishes original titles, specializing in bringing “the best titles of the past into the future.”
Marshall Glickman, now in his early 50s still has the look of a greyhound, tall, thin, with close-cropped hair. Even though he has started two successful businesses, he retains the simple, grassroots values that have always been at the heart of green living. “As an ex-New Yorker, it was clear to me that you don’t move to Vermont to become rich and famous, but because you care about the quality of life.”
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