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Melanie Colburn headshot

A New Marketplace for Goods of Change

The Union Co. is a new online retailer seeking to become a clearinghouse for cause-related goods. The Union offers an assortment of just over 200 hand-selected, cause-related products, and is still growing. The co-founders, Mitch Ahlenius and Benjamin Juhlin, brought the site live in January, officially launched in March and reached profitability in the first three weeks. They are adamant that new clients resonate with the company’s goals and their mission to change the way people purchase everyday items.

Every purchase provides an in-kind donation to someone or somewhere in need: a tree planted, a condom distributed, school supplies in the developing world, music education. The causes The Union targets are huge intractable challenges: AIDS, community development, education, environment, health and hygiene, homelessness, hunger and nutrition, job creation, peace, post-war, sex trafficking, water, youth. The founders say they look for products that offer a human story, a premium product that embodies the cause it’s supporting. Epic took the leap as The Union’s first client and it has been gaining clientele ever since.

Today, over one billion people in the world lack access to clean water. Epic Timepieces creates a line of cause-branded watches and, with each sale, provides a year’s worth of clean drinking water for someone in a developing country via the distribution of water filters.

There are a handful of other online stores doing similar work to facilitate socially and environmentally conscious cause-shopping. One is Rootz, which operates like a cause-product-only fashion site.

The Union’s Ahlenius says, “Rootz is ‘bringing the sexy back to giving back.’ This is awesome for starting the conversation of social good, but we believe it has to evolve and focus more on personal storytelling to really tap into the potential of this social niche.”

Global Exchange, an international human rights organization, has had an online Fair Trade Store for about a decade. It shares similar ideals as The Union around making the world a better place but focuses most of its efforts on education, advocacy, and reality tours. Perhaps The Union can take the do-good store concept further.

"We’re targeting younger generations that have not necessarily formed their purchasing decisions—ones that are open to trading in their ‘normal’ goods for those that support a cause.” The Union founders say, “We want to get to the point that we have such a range of products that our customers can come to us for everything—that our site is the first place they go to make their everyday purchases.”

Mass market or niche?

I would love to see a retailer reach the mass market of consumers with responsible goods. When will we see an Amazon.com of eco and socially-conscious products?

A lot of people would prefer to “do good” while making a purchase, but are relatively ambivalent about what type of cause they are helping. For the typical consumer there’s a feel-good factor with any cause-related purchase. At the mass-market level: good is good.

The way The Union is designed today, it is perfect for shopping for that water-conscious friend or that co-worker who volunteers for AIDS rides. The site is set up to allow you to easily filter down products by the social impact they make.
But you can’t shop the way you usually do online. If you want to buy a shirt for yourself or shorts for your 2-year-old, you’ll have to browse through all the clothing products in the category for Men, Women, or Children. There’s no filter or sort for product categories, which will frustrate both the casual browser (“Cool watch”) and the purpose driven shopper (“I need new jeans”).

As The Union grows and adds more selection in each product category, perhaps we will see more browsing options. For now, there are only a few products of each type (five styles of socks, for example).

Looking to the future, are cause-related products fated to the niche of gift shopping and one-time donation-like purchases? Or can the social good they provide become a value-add that is relevant to regular shoppers?

Today, consumers place great trust in third-party certification, but retailers like The Union have the potential to provide that same assurance of ethics and quality. If The Union successfully grows the community and traffic builds, shoppers are more likely to be visiting because they trust the website’s brand and believe that any product on the site will be doing some measurable good.

That would be nice, because sometimes I just need socks and would prefer to shop with care—without choosing between creating employment in Kenya or providing food to the hungry. A retailer that can attract the conscious consumer who isn’t only shopping to support a cause could do a world of good for many.

[Photo Credits: Courtney Apple,  Benjamin Juhlin]

Melanie Colburn headshotMelanie Colburn

Melanie Colburn is a sustainable business writer and consultant based in San Francisco. Melanie's done some interesting work in corporate social responsibility and sustainability-- with organizations like Autodesk, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), and Nestle. She holds an an MBA with honors (Sustainable Business) from San Francisco State University and a BA with honors from University of California, Berkeley. Contact her at melanie.a.colburn[@]gmail.com and @MelanieAColburn on Twitter.

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