Cullen Schwarz has long pondered a simple question: What if, each time we opened our wallets, the world became a slightly better place?
That question is the driving force behind DoneGood, a Boston-based start-up co-founded by Schwarz and Scott Jacobsen. Their mission: to steer consumers toward buying from companies committed to making positive social impact, like paying living wages, protecting the environment and alleviating poverty.
“We . . . believe that the world’s greatest force for social change is the dollars that we spend,” Schwarz said. Trillions of dollars are spent every year by consumers in the United States, and “if only a fraction can go towards social change, that impact can be enormous.”
DoneGood launched nationally last November with a web browser extension and an app, both of which help direct shoppers to DoneGood-vetted, mission-driven alternatives to big retailer brands. Just this week, ahead of the big holiday shopping season, the company launched a new website, which Schwarz hopes will become “the Amazon for brands that do good.”
For Schwarz, 36, the roots of DoneGood trace all the way back to his college years. As an undergraduate at Western Michigan University, he worked for a group called United Students Against Sweatshops, which pushed universities to set minimum standards to ensure apparel they purchased was produced by sweatshop-free companies.
“That was exposure to the way that purchasing power could be used for social change,” Schwarz said. “It wasn’t passing a bill or starting a new program. It was simply that these companies wanted the universities’ money, and in order to get it they were willing to ensure that they had good standards . . . I thought, well, imagine if you could get a large number of individuals to wield their purchasing power for good.”
After college, Schwarz took a job in politics, and a few years later found himself in the District, where he steadily climbed the career ladder, eventually taking a job as the press secretary for Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture under the Obama administration.
While in Washington, Schwarz met Scott Jacobsen, 36, who was also working in politics. Both had lofty visions of changing the world, but both also started to question whether politics was the best place to do that.
“We felt the pace of change in Washington was a little slow,” Schwarz said. “We looked around and said, ‘What is the area where there is the greatest potential for impact?’ And we really believe this is it . . . harnessing the purchasing power of consumers.”
The two partnered up and decided to work on DoneGood in the evenings and on weekends, while Schwarz worked his full-time job and Jacobsen pursued a master’s degree at Harvard. In the summer of 2015, they took a leap of faith: Schwarz quit his job, and Jacobsen didn’t look for one after graduation. DoneGood became their full-time gig.
There are over 250 companies featured across DoneGood’s platforms, and they all share a common commitment to making positive social change. DoneGood is a public benefit corporation, a legal status that requires a company to focus on both its social mission and its profits, and to take public benefit into account when making decisions. Kickstarter and Patagonia, for example, both have this designation.
“We’re looking for companies that are doing good for people and the planet . . . brands that are making the world better through their everyday practices,” Schwarz said.
DoneGood vets companies by looking at their different certifications, doing their own research, interviewing company founders and seeking out expert opinions. As the company’s presence has grown, users have suggested companies, and companies have also reached out to DoneGood. DoneGood earns a commission from the brands they feature when a shopper makes a purchase from them after finding them through DoneGood.
Schwarz said he used to think one way to effect change was to abstain from consumerism.
“For a long time, I kind of just withdrew from the economy. I didn’t buy anything,” he said of his younger days. “Now, my outlook on consumerism has changed. I don’t view it as a negative or a dirty word. There are all these people who are starting brands with a core social mission, instead of just an urge to make a profit. And I really want those businesses to be successful.”
When Schwarz shops now, he feels he is contributing to “an economic paradigm shift . . . and supporting a movement to prove that business can be a force for good in the world.”
He also has dreams of growing the DoneGood user base into a force to be reckoned with.
“Once we have millions of people in the DoneGood community, that’s when we can march into corporate boardrooms and say, ‘In the next 60 days we’d like you to improve X, Y and Z,’ and we’ll tell our users whether you did that or not,” Schwarz said.
“The day that all companies operate in the way that DoneGood partners do, a lot of the world’s major problems will be solved,” he added. “Every purchase we make from a socially conscious brand brings us a step closer to that world.”