Talking CSR with Pur Projet Founder - Gauthereau Group

I recently sat down for a phone interview with Tristan Lecomte, founder of Alter Eco Foods and Pur Projet. Named one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2010, Tristan is a social entrepreneur, an innovative thinker and a good friend of mine. We felt it would be interesting to share some of our thoughts about CSR and compare our answers, his from the perspective of a founder of social ventures and mine as a founder of commercial ventures that integrate a high level of CSR. Guillaume: Tell us a little bit about your latest venture, Pur Project, and some of the important causes that you support both as an entrepreneur and as a citizen?

tristanTristan:  I assist companies integrating climate projects into the core values of their business. We help them understand how they can give back to the ecosystem to balance environmental concerns and economics. On a personal level, I believe education is very important. Some years ago, I was able to help a friend of mine create a school in Kathmandu, Nepal. Half of the students from more affluent families pay tuition fees while the other half of the students are comprised of local children who do not have access to proper schooling and they attend for free. We wanted to make the school self-sustained, with fees paid by those who could afford them and pass along the benefits to the other poorer students in the area. My friend has set up a couple of these schools and all they require is a one-time investment of $40k so they can get up and running; after that, they are completely self-sustained. It’s a brilliant idea I was happy to which I was happy to contribute.

Guillaume: For TOTSY, fighting climate change is an extremely important mission. It can be complex to understand, as is the notion of carbon offsetting. But planting trees is very meaningful and it’s a concrete idea that most people understand, which is why we decided to work with Pur Projet to plant a tree for every family that makes a purchase on TOTSY. We also buy green electricity for the office. When you work with Con-Ed in New York City you have the option to buy wind power from wind farms from Green Mountain Energy. It’s not 100% of TOTSY’s electricity use but we buy carbon offsets for the remaining portion. We also buy green products, organic food, we ban plastic single use cutlery and cup, and we buy carbon offsets from Terrapass. We also work with UPS and USPS on green initiatives that offset some of the carbon used for their planes and packaging materials. Unfortunately, I think the public is still very skeptical about whether climate change is even happening.

Guillaume: Are there other, lesser-known causes that you think need to generate more attention from the mainstream media?

Tristan: Definitely. Agroforestry is a cause that if very close to my heart. Agroforestry is the practice of planting various trees among crops. It brings more nourishment to the soil,reduces soil exhaustion, diversifies income for farmers and sometimes can double or triple a farmer’s revenue. There’s also no mainstream movement to promote ecoforestry, which is really a philosophy that encourages people to be connected to their ecosystem. Today, people are disconnected, and the way we live cannot be supported by earth. If we continue to live the way we do, we will need 3.7 earths to sustain our needs and resources. We are essentially living on credit.

Guillaume: Fortunately, there has been a lot of change in the last six months. You see people trying to block the Keystone Pipeline. There was a recent protest where high-profile activists chained themselves to the White House that helped bring the issue to light but we’ve got a long way to go. 2012 was the warmest year in the U.S. on record. The yield of corn was 40% less than it was the year before. We’ve also got to cut down on the use of chemicals in our daily life. Chemicals are present in our food, shampoos, cleaning products, sofas, and plastics. There are thousands of chemicals out there and there is more and more evidence that they cause cancer in the general population, and they increase the levels of chemicals present in pregnant women. Breast milk is contaminated by 400-600 chemicals on average, and we don’t really know what the risks fully are, and no one knows what the full impact will be. The rate of cancer in young children under 10 has doubled over the last five years. Much of this change must start with the business community and organizations who feel they can align social goals with business goals.

Tristan: You’ve got to start by defining these goals and creating a social project to support them. For example: How do we use tree planting to make customers and employees feel proud? I try to show CEOs that it’s in their own interests to invest in ecosystems. I try to talk to the person, not the CEO, to help inspire the will to do good. Another approach for organizations is incentivizing employee behavior to reduce energy use and costs. But even if you’ve got all of your employees motivated, you’ve still got to sell the projects through to your board. To do this, Pur Projet creates a calculation for how much the organization will benefit from the ecosystem versus how much they need to give.

Guillaume: I agree. You’ve got to define your mission and the things that are most important to you. That’s where TOTSY started. We focused on protecting kids and promoting interactive games. Sometimes you see companies that don’t offer a clear alignment between the company and the cause they support. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) needs to be embedded into the core of the business. You’ve got to show that board that CSR is better for the business, and good for client and employee retention and today, ther0e exists an incredible of scientific evidence that backs this theory. It’s not easy to commit to the idea that your business can change the world for the better, but the rewards of persevering on this front are tremendous.