“No ethical consumption under capitalism” is a meme at this point, parroted by teens on TikTok who rail against shallow corporations making nods toward social issues while still selling plastic garbage produced by sweatshops in third-world companies. It’s not fundamentally wrong, although Seeding Change: The Power of Conscious Commerce, a new documentary about a group of eco-friendly next-generation companies, is out to argue the contrary. Whether it succeeds at doing so is … well, difficult to say. But it has its heart and mind in the right place and a clear belief in the potential for small companies to make a big difference.
Director Richard Yelland’s relatively short film focuses on the founders and representatives of several small companies that have made sustainability and fair trade part of their foundational missions: Sambazon, which produces açaí-based food and try to pay the Brazilian farmers a fair wage for their work; Numi Tea, which makes organic teas; and Guayakí Yerba Mate, which advertises a “market-driven regeneration” business model. These companies, along with others, are all over two decades old. Over time, they and other companies founded OSC2 (One Step Closer to an Organic and Sustainable Community), a collective action firm that brings together the efforts of small firms to increase their leverage in the marketplace. One of their most notable success stories is lobbying for biodegradable packaging.
Each of the companies’ founders discuss their success in developing these new models of production. To their credit, they never pretend social justice is their primary goal: These are for-profit companies that only exist to market and sell products, and being thoughtful about their supply chains is part of what they sell potential customers. To that end, Seeding Change does frequently feel like an advertisement for these companies: Buy these teas, these soaps and these products, and you’re not causing as much harm to the environment as you would when buying the big brands.
Which is true, to some extent. If Nestlé or larger corporations attempted sustainable, egalitarian models, the world would indeed be better off. But it’s also the case that the economic models for a lot of these countries and communities rely on destructive forest-clearing and other practices for their immediate economic well-being, and simply sourcing tea and paying villagers better is a small footprint. That’s a much larger problem to solve than any one group of companies can really tackle.
“The future is scaling this model,” one of the founders says, although there are few suggestions on how to do that. This film does make it look appealing, at least, from a social standpoint. Is the answer really “Make yourself look good, and more people will buy your product?” I guess if you’re a CEO or an investor looking to throw some capital into start-up companies, that might make a difference.
The documentary never dives deeply into the companies and whether their best practices are actually followed. A quick Wikipedia search shows that a few of them have become mired in some controversies over the years, usually conflict with local governments or regulators. These are still corporations that derive profit from packaging third-world resources for higher-end first-world consumption. There is no ethical consumption under capitalism … but if this is the system that drives the first world, as Seedless Change‘s multiple subjects seem to argue, it’s worth doing our best to do as little harm as possible while making a profit — even if doing no harm, and being ethical, is an imperfect and difficult goal at times. At least it’s a start, a seed, toward a better future. At the very least, it makes us feel better about ourselves.
Cynicism aside, Yelland has put together a pretty compelling documentary. Even if it’s easy to fall into skepticism about the participants and their relative successes (and there have been material success stories, don’t get me wrong), the film is positive and hopeful about the ability for a new generation of entrepreneurs with a wider view of the world and their place in it. The ultimate goal of Seeding Change is to be aired in tandem with programs that provide examples of regenerative resource management, fair trade practices, and a “triple bottom line” management perspective. Although the challenges that face the world seem insurmountable — and Yelland is happy to provide plenty of appropriate examples of how much we’ve royally screwed our environment — there’s no denying we’d be better off if people, and not just companies, had a better vision for caring for others. Even if for-profit business isn’t the most suitable vehicle to deliver our species’ salvation, it’s at least one tool in the arsenal. If it can be aimed in the right direction, that’s a good thing.