5 companies that make business ‘beautiful’

Jun 19, 2013
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"It's tempting to think of business and pleasure as incompatible, just as it seems logical to think of art and science as antagonistic," writes Jean-Baptiste Danet in Business is Beautiful: The Hard Art of Standing Apart. "Why not a bit of both?"

Danet is CEO of global design and branding firm Dragon Rouge, headquartered in Paris. For their new book, Danet and his team identified 20 companies from around the world (none are Dragon Rouge clients) whose innovative products and services are not only profitable but also good for people and the planet. They, and other enterprises like them, "make us want business to be part of our lives," Danet writes. Here's a look at five of Danet's picks.

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Rabobank

Founded 114 years ago by a small group of farmers in the Netherlands, the bank is a cooperative whose branches worldwide set policy and fund local startups, including many food cooperatives in developing countries. "We want to add value to the society we are in, not just with our money but with our network and our knowledge," says governance chief Vincent Lokin.

Rabobank does that by acting as a go-between. "We have direct access to large traders, processors, and distributors of food," Lokin explains. So the bank connects farmers in poor rural areas with global food supply chains "by linking them to our other customers, the larger companies." Although relatively small, Rabobank is both profitable and financially stable: It ranked 26th on The Banker's 2012 list of the Top 1000 World Banks, ahead of giants like France's Société Générale and Spain's BBVA.

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Autolib

Backed by French industrialist Vincent Bollore, who invested 1.5 billion Euros in the project, Autolib was started 15 years ago when the Paris City Council sought proposals for a fleet of zero-emission vehicles that could be rented for short jaunts.

The tiny electric cars, which run on polymer metal lithium batteries developed in Brittany, made their debut in 2011, and thousands of Parisian subscribers now zip around town in them. Something similar may soon be coming to a city near you: CEO Morald Chibout says Autolib has gotten a flood of inquiries and is now consulting with officials from around the world eager to start car-sharing services of their own.

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Icebreaker

A chance meeting with a sheep farmer 20 years ago led founder Jeremy Moon to start this Wellington, New Zealand-based line of high-performance outdoor clothing made of 100% merino wool, rather than the petrochemical-heavy synthetics that then dominated the industry.

"It seemed counterintuitive at the time, but I was using the same superfine merino wool that was in a $3,000 Italian suit to make thermal underwear for people to sweat in," Moon recalls. Prices were (and are) steep, but the brand message, which Moon calls "kinship with nature, rather than conquering it," was an instant hit, making Icebreaker as profitable as it is earth-friendly.

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Interface

In 1994, Ray Anderson, founder of the Atlanta-based carpet-tile manufacturer, set an ambitious goal: reduce the company's environmental impact to zero by the year 2020. Toward that end, Interface invented a 100% recycled nylon carpet that is made partly of old fishing nets collected from the world's seashores. "Discarded fishing nets are a big problem," notes sustainability director Ramon Arratia. "So we are partnering with some non-governmental organizations, cleaning the beaches in the Philippines, India, and Africa" and turning the nets into carpeting.

Interface's latest invention: A new type of nylon made mostly of castor oil, a major cash crop in India that is "a source of income for farmers, and it grows in land of poor quality, so it isn't competing with food," Arratia says, adding, "We have tried numerous things and maybe 80% of those have failed. But failure is part of learning."

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The Zetter Hotel

Ever stayed in a hotel that was so chic it intimidated you? Mark Sainsbury did, on a visit to New York, where "I walked past the doorman and he was better looking, taller, and better dressed than I was. I remember feeling that I was not quite making the grade in a way, and feeling slightly uncomfortable." So when he and business partner Michael Benyan opened the Zetter Hotel in London in 2004, they were determined to make it stylish, but accessible, affordable, and, in Sainsbury's words, "not too cool."

Conde Nast Traveler has since numbered the Zetter among the world's "50 Coolest Hotels" for its eclectic décor and cozy atmosphere, but Sainsbury and Benyan have achieved their goal of proving that elegance doesn't have to be uncomfortable -- or overpriced: A room costs less than 200 British pounds per night. "[Financial] success is important," says Sainsbury. "But success at the expense of people's happiness is hollow to me and pretty valueless."

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