Numerous small cannabis businesses are already setting the example, but as the “green rush” hurtles forward and big capital becomes enmeshed, long-time observers fear profits will outweigh ethical considerations.
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[Header graphic credit: Enis Aksoy]
Corporate social responsibility, or CSR, simply means a company’s bottom line isn’t the only thing that matters.
“You can put a quality product out there, market it well and make a lot of money, but will you responsibly contribute to improving the environment?” she asks, making it clear her level of respect depends on your answer.
Realm of Caring partners with companies that uphold its environmental values. One of those companies is Charlotte’s Web, one of the leading manufacturers of CBD oil in the United States.
Types of CSR
Paying a living wage, hiring locally, offering health care, practicing nondiscrimination and insuring a harassment-free work environment are all means of practicing social responsibility internally.
And one way for cannabis corporations to become more involved in their communities is to support nonprofits and service organizations — whether financially, logistically or via employee volunteerism programs.
According to Forbes magazine, attention to CSR is growing rapidly in the business world as a whole. As the magazine reported in January: “In 2018, the expectation is that companies will continue to expand their activism on, and investment in, the issues that matter to their employees, customers and communities.”
From the YouTube description: What is Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR)? This video clip tries to give competent but also entertaining answers to this question. The video is part of series “in a little green bag” at the University of St.Gallen, Switzerland. © University of St.Gallen (HSG), Text by Prof. Thomas Beschorner (http://bit.ly/Beschorner), Production: http://www.zense.ch
“We put an immense focus on decreasing our environmental footprint,” says Laura Day of Yerba Buena, a third-party certified organic cannabis farmer near Portland, Ore.
Yerba Buena’s practices include using predatorial insects instead of pesticides, on-site composting, reusable fabric pots and 50 percent recycled or upcycled building materials. They also provide a vegetable garden for employees and give them paid time off to plant trees and participate in highway cleanups.
In 2018, Yerba Buena was ranked sixth in Oregon’s 100 Best Greenest Workplaces by Oregon Business magazine.
But labor policies can transform. For instance, the few dozen employees of Magnolia Oakland, a Bay Area dispensary, are unionized as part of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5. The 30,000-person union is an advocate for labor in a variety of food and service industries that now—perhaps incredibly to some—count some cannabis industry workers in the Bay Area as members.
As for Yerba Buena, Day says, “our labor practices are among the most progressive in the industry.”
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As a result of these employee-friendly policies, Day says, “we have had next to zero turnover, reducing our cost of training.” This, she believes, is because Yerba Buena’s employees feel valued as they work toward a shared vision.
“Happy people grow happy plants,” says Day. “Happy plants make people happy.”
According to Michael Steinmetz, Flow Kana’s CEO, the company seeks to promote biological diversity in the cultivation of cannabis that he hopes will counteract the monocropping trends in the “grow” part of the industry.
Community engagement and support
Reiman says when cannabis businesses and nonprofit organizations partner and create mutually beneficial relationships, they also increase community resiliency and social capital.
She also surveyed 35 community-based organizations (CBOs) in seven states whose work addressed a large variety of social and economic issues including assistance to homeless people, veterans, LGBTQ+ groups and those living with HIV. All of the CBOs were located in states with a medical cannabis market, and in some cases a recreational market as well.
Seventy-six percent of respondents reported interest in partnering with cannabis businesses, though only 23 percent reported having already done so. In most cases, respondents from CBOs were either unsure how to partner with cannabis businesses or concerned lingering cultural stigma might impact relationships with funders.
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“I think consumers want to know that the company they purchase from cares about the community that needs those products.”
Adult use sales in California began only this past January. Now, Reiman says, “I have definitely noticed it’s easier to get local community-based organizations to engage with cannabis businesses post-legalization. In the past, they were very reluctant to work with us, take sponsorships from us. That is changing.”
Flow Kana has sponsored events supporting the Cancer Resource Center of Mendocino County as well as Mendocino College. In addition, they have established scholarships and internships with the Good Farm Fund and the School of Adaptive Agriculture, thereby helping to support emerging organic farmers.
“But,” adds Reiman, “CSR is not just about writing a check, it’s about becoming part of the fabric in the communities you occupy.”
For instance, she says, “Last October, Redwood Valley was ravaged by fire. Flow Kana arranged for and served food at the first community meeting after the fire and again at a holiday meal for the community.”
[Read: Franny’s Farmacy had an unexpected surprise days before its Grand Opening … thanks, Jeff Sessions!]
Magnolia Oakland maintains a food bank, an annual school supply giveaway and offers free weekly massage and chiropractic sessions for patients. Medical cannabis is given at no cost to low-income patients in need and cannabis business classes encourage minority entrepreneurship.
As one of the founders of the Berkeley Patients Group, another California dispensary, and as an advocate in the medical and adult use cannabis industry for 25 years, Goldsberry asserts that strong community engagement has always been a cornerstone of her approach.
“Giving back to nonprofits that support the communities where they operate is a beautiful business model”
The Colorado-based company tests their soils for contaminants and heavy metals and is in the process of becoming certified USDA Organic. Charlotte’s Web also uses cover crops and hand-tending techniques to mitigate their environmental impact.
“In the beginning,” says Jackson, “we were both small organizations trying to figure out how to navigate the legal landscape, though we all had the same goal: helping people.”
She sees evidence that consumers care about corporate social responsibility, too. “I think consumers want to know that the company they purchase from cares about the community that needs those products. We are in a unique time in the cannabis and hemp industry where meaningful philanthropic partnerships can raise the tide.”
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Big Business: Your turn
On the cusp of full legalization in Canada, a cannabis company named Canopy Growth announced a $4 billion investment from Constellation Brands. Tilray, another Canadian cannabis company, has also made news with its big IPO and stock prices that have at times risen to $300 per share.
There’s no doubt that big cannabis is here, and the industry is changing.
Goldsberry observes, “I think all of us long-time advocates and entrepreneurs are shocked to see how fast people focused only on profits have taken the lead positions in the cannabis industry.”
Day adds that, “there are certainly tensions between small business and big business as more capital pours into the industry … Small farmers are finding it more challenging to remain competitive with the larger companies coming in, so there is a lot that will evolve as the industry continues to mature.”
But will they?
Goldsberry is skeptical of big business’ ability to adopt the type of corporate social responsibility practices the #CannasbisCommunity wants because large corporations serve shareholders above all others.
She maintains that smaller companies in the cannabis space can “be more nimble, building social responsibility programs into their marketing campaigns as a way to drive consumers to their products or shops. Small companies are generally privately held,” she continues, “with boards and shareholders more willing to support social change.”
She hopes that small, socially responsible cannabis businesses will educate their customers about why they should support businesses that give back to the community, instead of “strict profiteers. There is a lot of work to do if we really want to create a better world,” she says.
Danielle Simone Brand
Danielle Simone Brand, an independent journalist based in California, writes about cannabis, homesteading and parenting. Her work appears on TheWeek.com, Kveller.com and ChopraCenter.com. She is writing for Carolina Cannabis News as Part of our "Voices from the Green Side" series.