Ethikus offers a Groupon-like service to find ethical, sustainable businesses

New York City startup Ethikus provides vouchers for small businesses whose practices embody principles of sustainability.

Jessica Rinaldi/Reuters/File
A shopper looks at a map while leaning against a store window in New York CIty last November. The startup company Ethikus is trying to help consumers find stores with a strong commitment to ethical and sustainable practices using a Groupon-like voucher system.

The idea that change starts small isn’t new. But in an age when large corporations seem increasingly ubiquitous and powerful, small businesses have become an important locus of sustainable economic movements.

From May 3-10, hundreds of New Yorkers will participate in the first Shop Your Values Week, a project of the New York City-based startup Ethikus. The aim of Ethikus is to generate more business for small enterprises whose practices embody certain principles of sustainability in the realms of product-sourcing, employee relations, community engagement, and environmental impact or mitigation efforts. By looking at those four criteria, Ethikus identifies businesses they want to invite into their network, which functions as a sort of ethics-focused Groupon by providing consumers with vouchers to use in those businesses.

“We look to see that they are engaging in decent business practices. It doesn’t need to be all four of the criteria. And it’s a somewhat subjective judgment,” an intern at Ethikus, recent college grad Justin Jahng, told Dowser. “We’re focused on inclusion, not exclusion, as a means toward creating change.”

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But Ethikus is more than just a “green Groupon.” The organization also helps companies improve their sustainability practices if they don’t meet enough of the aforementioned criteria. The energy auditing company Sage, one of Ethikus’ partner organizations, works with willing enterprises that don’t quite make the cut for Ethikus’ network by offering free energy audits and recommendations that will make businesses more energy efficient.

Additionally, Ethikus exists to help consumers find small businesses that match their interests in environmental and social sustainability.

“We want to build more ethical consumption in New York City by linking businesses that do good with consumers. We do this by giving consumers the information they need to choose where they spend their money,” explained Jahng.

Jeff Hittner founded Ethikus in mid-2011 after six years of leading IBM’s corporate social responsibility department. He was looking for a more intimate work environment, and a more direct way to effect change.

“I was tired of the bureaucracy, of working through many layers in a big corporation,” he told Dowser. “With Ethikus, the amazing thing is that you can create change just by walking into a small business. It’s incredible how receptive they have all been.”

Since last fall, Ethikus has been able to sign up around 200 businesses throughout New York City. At the time of writing, nearly 1,000 people were signed up for the Shop Your Values Week pledge, where people state that they will only shop “locally, ethically, and sustainably.” During that week, Ethikus is hosting a series of events in conjunction with their partner organizations, including an outdoor dance party with food trucks on May 4th , and a bicycle tour of restaurants in Ethikus’ network on May 5th . Additionally, Ethikus has paired up with Bard College’s MBA in sustainability program to offer a scholarship competition.

Partnerships are an important element of Ethikus’ mission and approach to social change. They work with numerous community organizations, like the aforementioned Sage, the Lower East Side Ecology Center, the environmental crowdfunding site ioby, and more.

“This is about succeeding through collaboration,” Hittner said. “We need to get nonprofits sharing in this vision.” And even within Ethikus, collaboration is the work ethos. Hittner admitted that, despite founding the organization, “around 85 percent” of the ideas it runs on had come from his co-workers during meetings at their makeshift office in his apartment in the East Village. 

So far, Ethikus has yet to generate a profit, and it has plans to expand its revenue sources in the near future beyond its voucher offerings. The main vision for that expansion is to create what Hittner calls “experiential events with ethical themes” that will make it fun and easy for New Yorkers to enjoy themselves while spending their dollars in small, ethical enterprises.

“Shop Your Values Week is an easy way for people to say, ‘yeah, that makes sense, I’m signing up,’ ” said Hittner. “With Ethikus, I can feel change at this level that I couldn’t feel at IBM.”

This article originally appeared at Dowser.org.

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