Cullen Schwarz: Co-Founder of DoneGood – Ep. 99

About Cullen Schwarz & DoneGood:

Cullen Schwarz is the co-founder of DoneGood, an eCommerce platform that is like a more ethical version of Amazon.

They only work with vendors who have vetted their supply chains and offer quality products—products that are better for the planet and for their customers.

They only work with companies committed to human rights, fair wages, worker empowerment, and the protection of wildlife and the environment.

Cullen is an alumnus of the Harvard Innovation Lab, and his B Corp is a “Best in the World” award-winner for excellent social and environmental impact.

We talk about how he left behind a profitable career in big-league politics to pursue what really mattered to him and lead a more authentic life. 

Full Unedited Audio Conversation:

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3:20 – “Americans in total gave $475 billion to charity last year. But we spend over 300 times more than that buying stuff. And so if just even a fraction of our spending can fight climate change, reduce poverty, make a positive impact in the world, help create the kind of world we want to see, that’s huge. That’s a huge impact.”

3:54 – “Public policy is important. People should vote. I think non-profits – I hope the number goes up. I hope people donate more. There’s…a lot of really great organizations doing great work in the world. But if we’re not paying attention to this huge mountain of resources that is consumer spending, then we’re missing a huge opportunity. I think the most powerful opportunity to shape the world. If you want to change the world, really, you change business behavior. And if you want to change business behavior, you change consumer behavior – who we give our money to. Businesses will chase our money.”

 5:01 – “Business behavior is already starting to change. We just need to accelerate the pace of that change. And so every time that we choose to give our money to a business that is super sustainable, paying living wages, we help those kind of businesses succeed, more people want to start businesses like that. And eventually even the big guys start to see this shift in consumer spending. They start to shift their behavior, too. I really think that is the hope. That’s the hope for humanity and that’s how we really make an impact. We should vote and march and post on social media and volunteer and donate and do all the things. But if we’re doing all that stuff and then we’re given all our consumer spending to businesses that are working against us, what the hell are we doing?” 

*5:51 – (Ross) “I think smart people, if they are smart, they’re asking themselves the question of what can I do to create the most change? What is the most effective vehicle for the kind of change that I want to create? And that touches upon the fundamental premise of this show…Because if I post about something, then we understand that we can quickly find ourselves in an echo chamber. I say this and then all of the people who are liberal and progressive, they’ll all flock to me and we’ll all agree with each other. And then over here is a completely separate Internet where all of the conservative people live and they’re posting those memes and sharing that. So we can quickly just get further and further away from each other. Or if I say 99% good things but then I mention one thing about women’s rights. Then somebody will say, ‘You just lost a follower. I’m out of here for good.’ So we’re in this super delicate and weird time where we’ve got all of these one button issues that people are divided over. And the question is, how can we actually get change done instead of, like you said, fighting to an endless draw for years and decades, which is basically the stalemate that we’re at.” 

7:59 – “I wanted a site like DoneGood to exist. I said… ‘I don’t know who I’m giving my money to when I buy things. It’d be nice if there was a site where there was everything I needed to buy all in one place but I knew all the companies shared my beliefs and supported things I believe in. I knew that they were all paying living wages. I knew that they were all incredibly eco-friendly, giving to good causes.’ So that I knew I could feel good about it and it would still be then quick and easy. I’m not trying to spend all day online either. I mean, everybody’s busy. And so that’s why we started DoneGood is so that we could create that sort of Amazon for good, where it’s quick, easy, convenient.”

10:36 – “When you see this stuff that is bargain basement prices you know there’s either poverty wages behind it or worse. I mean, slavery is still a thing…we call it human trafficking now. But let’s call it what it is. It’s modern-day slavery. It’s still a $150 billion a year industry worldwide. There’s more slaves on the planet now than at the height of the African slave trade. And if you use a site, you can actually enter in what kind of stuff you’ve bought over the last couple of years. And they’ll tell you, ‘Oh, here’s how many slaves you’ve had working for you, on average.’” 

11:48 – “All this stuff comes at a cost. They’re doing it as cheaply as possible. And so that’s the real problem with Amazon. It is it is multifold, right? One, Amazon treats their workers terribly. You see all the stuff about all these injuries and people not being able to go to the bathroom, drivers peeing in bottles and stuff like this. Meanwhile, Jeff Bezos is flying a penis-shaped rocket into space or whatever…Amazon is the company. But then there’s all the companies selling on Amazon. What do we know about them? What fly by night outfit operating with what kind of supply chains, and doing what to the planet? So yeah there’s negative impact at a lot of levels but so that’s why to the extent we can be an alternative.” 

*14:30 – “It’s not like an executive at H&M is like, ‘hey, let’s use slavery, hey, let’s use child labor.’ It’s that they’re so big. These systems are so massive, they don’t know what’s in their supply chain. Right? There is no H&M factory. They just subcontract to another company that produces the stuff and they subcontract to a mill who subcontracts from a cotton farm. Meanwhile, a subcontract to make the buttons and the zippers. And that goes all the way back to the mines that mined the metal for the zippers…And so if you have to crank out billions of articles of clothing a year, then you’re going to subcontract with so many companies and they’re going to subcontract with so many. You just have no idea what’s in the supply chain…But that’s the problem. You don’t know. And so that’s where, if we can provide that safe haven site where people can know, like, ‘okay, look here, we know for sure that we’re not supporting stuff like that,’ then we hope that can help.” 

15:58 – “A friend of mine, he is in Hollywood and he does film and he buys some very expensive gear for film and lighting. And sometimes I’ll see these products and it’s a reminder of what a quality made product can be. Now, granted, it’ll cost $1,000, but you say, ‘Oh, that’s a nice bag, that’s clearly not going to fall apart,’…And then you realize we’ve gotten accustomed to such a low standard of the products in our lives and we’ve got so much e-waste. And I think it was a gradual shift. Obviously, it wasn’t overnight that we went from things that could last 50 years to things that last 5 minutes. But when you see the contrast between a well-made product and a cheap product, it’s just getting more and more extreme.”

17:01 – “As the business is a force for good movement, the sustainable business movement, continues to grow and mature I think it becomes more and more price competitive. But, a lot of times the stuff on our site is more expensive and we don’t set the prices. You know, we’re the marketplace. We screen all the partner brands that sell on our site. They set the prices…they’re more because when you pay people a good wage instead of poverty wages, you’re not using human trafficking, you’re not killing the planet, it costs more to produce the product.”

*17:48 – “Stuff that’s handmade by someone who’s paid well tends to be way better quality than stuff that’s mass produced by some giant mega corporation who’s trying to make stuff cheap so that it’ll break down and we have to buy more of it. And so ultimately when you say, ‘oh, I got that really great product for 20 bucks,’ but you have to buy another one every six months or every year or you get something that’s 70 bucks but it was bought thoughtfully, consciously from a company that’s making something good, you know that you’ll love it. You know that it’ll last a long time and you know that, yeah, you’ll keep it for 5 to 10 years. So if you bought a $20 thing every year or you bought a $70 thing that you keep for five or ten years, the $70 thing is a better value for you in the long run. And of course, it’s better for the world. And it gets into then when we’re buying thoughtfully like that, maybe we’re not buying as much.” 

19:30 – (Ross) “My wife and I…we don’t buy new clothing anymore, just full stop. In fact, I got this shirt from Goodwill just around the corner. So we do a lot of Goodwill shopping, a lot of second life things. I think I’m a minimalist at heart and I have such an appreciation for a few products built well. And if people pay attention in their lives, they’ll notice there are a few things that have stuck with them through the years. I found a Leatherman on the ground when I was 15 years old. I still use that thing every single day. That’s over 20 years of use. It’s not rusting, it’s not falling apart. And sometimes I look at that and say, ‘My God, how many things have stayed with me for ten years? For 20 years? Very few.’ But those things that do, if you pay attention in your life, how awesome is that when something does make it and you don’t have to re-buy? I think it’s a beautiful thing.” 

20:43 – “I don’t own a ton of stuff. I like to buy second-hand as much as I can, but also I buy new more than I used to because I want the companies that are selling on DoneGood to be successful. And if every dollar we spend is a vote for the kind of world we want to live in and for the kind of businesses we want to succeed, well, then I want to give them some business, too.” 

22:16 – (Ross) “If we look at Whole Foods, the stereotype of the privileged people who shop at Whole Foods …you’ve got these products that are way more expensive and they’ve got so much packaging, they’ve got tons of gold embossed. So here’s a chocolate bar that’s going to cost you $15 and it’s gold embossed and very thick packaging. And I think so much of what I see in a Whole Foods store, for example, has the appearance of being ethical. But there is some fundamental contradiction in there, because why is it wrapped at all, or why is it wrapped in even thicker plastic than this other thing that’s supposedly a worse alternative…I think that’s where we’ve kind of missed the mark because that gives the movement a bad name.” 

23:15 – “Greenwashing is a thing, too, now. One, yes, you’ve got to be careful for the greenwashing and really look at what they’re saying. I have to know that ‘all natural’ means nothing. I mean, at least there’s no legal force behind that word…On DoneGood we’ve screened all these companies. You can look at the criteria on our website.” 

28:24 – “Instead of sitting down and writing a 30-page business plan, do a Lean Canvas in 20 minutes on one piece of paper, then go talk to ten people who you think are your target audience and ask them a bunch of questions about what really could make their lives better – what really would serve them well, what really is like a problem they’re having that you will be solving. And then continue through that process, get your MVP, that initial most simple version of your product out, then get feedback on that from real people who are using it. And then iterate and evolve and continue to make it better.”

*31:46 – “We even did some research around the shipping. But what about the environmental cost of shipping products to your house versus shopping local? Well, it actually turns out in a lot of cases shopping online is more sustainable because, let’s say you get clothing at a local store, the clothes are still shipped to that store. But the biggest carbon emissions throughout the supply chain, from that shirt going from cotton to shirt to the store to you, the biggest single piece of carbon emissions is you driving your car to the local store…So it’s actually more sustainable in a lot of cases to online shop and especially on DoneGood. We actually pay to offset the carbon emissions of every order. So every shipment is always carbon neutral.”

37:55 – “I know it can be hard for people…you got a family, you got a mortgage, right? Like, okay, so now you have bills and you got to pay those bills. And, it gets hard, both in terms of choosing where to work and then also you’re on a budget and what you can buy. But I think there are increasingly people realizing the full breadth of choices that we have, we don’t have to stay in these strictures. There are other opportunities…You can make your own path. I think people are increasingly aware of that…more social enterprises that that you can get jobs with. And that actually is one of the biggest reasons that big companies are changing their practices. One, is they see consumer sentiment changing. But two, they know to attract talent, especially in the millennial and Gen Z generations, they have to have some other purpose other than maximizing profit every quarter because people want something more out of their existence.” 

39:08 – “There used to almost be like a brick wall between my personal life where morality matters and then like economy, where it was all like, ‘Hey, man, it’s not personal. It’s just business.’ This sense, deeply rooted in American culture, that was like, if it’s for business, then yeah, you just do anything you can to maximize profit. You just get the cheapest thing. You just work where they pay you the most…Then in your personal life, yeah, you donate, you volunteer and you be nice to people. Morality matters here. But in the economy, it doesn’t matter. But in the economy is where we make the biggest impact in the world…And the brick wall between the moral personal life and the amoral business world is starting to break down.”

45:48 – [On the impact of some of DoneGoods partners] “Starfish Project Jewelry is helping women escape sex trafficking in Asia. They’re giving those women living wage jobs making the jewelry, but then also providing them skills training so that they can graduate to professional careers to become teachers or entrepreneurs or photographers or whatever it is that they might want to pursue. That opens up more jobs for more women. And then the profits all fund their non-profit wraparound services to help more women.”

46:25 – “Over $2 million has been diverted from multinational companies that are keeping people locked in poverty and destroying the planet and to companies that are paying living wages, empowering workers, fighting climate change, things like that.” 

48:36 – “I increasingly believe that operating from higher up on the consciousness ladder – when you are feeling energized, you tend to be more creative and thoughtful and a better leader and better to work with and help keep up everyone else’s energy and make it a more pleasant place to work, as opposed to when you’re stressed and worn out all the time, then you’re further down on the consciousness ladder.” 

49:14 – “I finally started realizing I needed to make a change personally and restore some more balance. As much as I believe in DoneGood, if it requires me to severely underpay myself, which I was doing, and kill myself, then it’s not working. The realities of capitalism – I need to make a decent wage, even if it’s less than I used to make. And I need to not kill myself. I need to work a reasonable number of hours…I’m not any less productive and probably more creative, and our team’s energy and culture is better.” 

51:31 – “Nowadays, our bullshit meter is so high we get bombarded with a million ad messages a day or whatever it is all over social media. And we’re just so sick of it that…today, really being real is the best marketing. Really just say something you think is true and that you believe in, the way that you would normally say it, but that actually that adherence to really just trying to be real and authentic and sincere.” 

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