The new humanitarianism: Q&A with Ellen Gustafson

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Before her talk from TEDxEast posted today, Ellen Gustafson had a quick chat with the TED Blog to give us more insight into her ideas about combating hunger and obesity through The 30 Project. She also gave some background on her initial foray into social entrepreneurship, the FEED bag created with Lauren Bush, and explained why she thinks products like this are now so successful. A new brand of philanthropy seems to be emerging — one that’s cool, hip and maybe even a little sexy — and Gustafson is one of the young idealists shaping the movement.

Your first project, the FEED bag, is very successful and has even turned into a bit of a fashion item. How did you achieve that kind of success?

FEED started when I was working at the UN World Food Program as a US spokesperson, and through a confluence of factors I ended up leading the US communications office for a brief time. My business partner Lauren was working with them as an honorary spokesperson, kind of like a goodwill ambassador, for a number of years. She came up with the bag idea as a way of getting younger people to understand what school-feeding is and why it’s important. From our perspective, it really is the simplest and most sustainable way to address hunger around the world — giving kids a free school meal drives them into school and provides the nutrition they need to focus on their education. Lauren really thought it would be great if there was a way that young people could buy into that. It only takes $20 to $50 to feed a child in school for a year, which is a really inexpensive investment long-term.

When she designed the bag, she brought it to my predecessors, who were for the most part not young women, so they didn’t immediately see how a fashion item could work to raise awareness and money. But, being a young woman living in New York, I thought it’d be pretty neat if this was something that people could wear on their arm to show their desire to address poverty issues. The RED campaign had already been out for about a year, so we’d seen examples of people using fashion to address dire problems around the world.

We worked together to get Amazon.com to agree to sell the bags, which was a huge boon, but the UN wasn’t able to be a vendor on Amazon.com. When I realized we couldn’t do this through the UN, I still wasn’t ready to give up and I said, “I think we could literally just create a company to buy bags from the factory and sell them to Amazon.” Lauren agreed to the idea, and we created and a skeleton company. At the same time, we negotiated with Marie Claire magazine to do the first story and host a launch party. Having been in the fashion industry, Lauren understood that when a fashion brand launches something new they have to have a magazine story, as well as a party that generates more press. So we went through all those steps that other companies go through and acted as if we were a burgeoning fashion brand, but we were working out of a little apartment and only had one product to show.

I think two things on Amazon.com were really helpful: It was so accessible and we could tell the whole story because they created a boutique page for us, which meant that before the actual purchase there was another page that explained FEED. To create that page we went to Honduras and took pictures and video so that we were really able to talk about what this product was and what it was going to do. The more people understood the beginnings of FEED and its underlying roots, the more they were able to get involved in the brand and really want to see us succeed. Whole Foods has been one of our biggest supporters as well. So many people have seen the bags at the checkout and recognized the brand. Whole Foods customers bought so many bags that we were able to feed all the schoolchildren in the Rwanda program for a year.

So, I think it was understanding both the fashion industry and understanding that people wanted a meaningful, humanitarian product that they can feel good about buying.

In the last 5-6 years, we’ve been seeing a rise in the popularity of philanthropic products, from the RED brand to your bag to the “I’m not a plastic bag” bags. Why do you think the market is so ready for them? Is this some reflection of a change in the world?

Yeah. Now that I have a little perspective on this, about three and a half years of being in business, I think we rode three major waves. When we launched in April 2007, it was the first April that every magazine had a green issue and it’s not coincidental. Consumers wanted green products, they wanted eco-friendly products and we really rode the beginning of that wave. The second wave was the do-good product movement, the idea of conscientious capitalism and the buzz term of social entrepreneurship, which by default we’ve become some of the godmothers of — that sounds so weird! But, a lot of companies started in our wake, TOMS shoes started at the same time and charity: water as well. We all used some sort of sexiness in advertising to raise awareness and all started around the same time, so I think we all rode the front of the second wave. The third wave has been food. Obviously, there was the organic movement, but I think even moving on from that people have been getting more involved in food. On college campuses, you see kids cooking more and wanting to know where their food comes from. So, I think that’s the wave we’re riding now.

Going back to the fashion thing, I think that now that this is in the zeitgeist, people are expecting it and I can’t imagine that it’s just a trend. Once you start thinking about where your products come from and what they “do,” that’s going to be an inherent part of your choice as you purchase products throughout your life.

Also, it became sexy to be a humanitarian. Every Hollywood celebrity wanted to go to Haiti right after the earthquake. And, you can buy into that sexiness by buying one of our products.

Do you ever worry that your consumers don’t understand what they’re really buying into or the severity of the problem of hunger?

I think that’s a smart question and I do think that some people buy the products because they look cool. But there a few things that are important to us and help us sleep at night: First, we’ve never given a product away to anyone. We don’t give them for free to celebrities, trendsetters, nobody. Every single person who has ever walked down the street with a FEED bag has purchased it. I think that’s really relevant because it means that you have got to make that choice to spend that money on that product. Now, a couple of times we’ve had the product used as gift bags, but somebody has still paid for those bags and paid the donation that goes with those bags. We’ve never lent products to anyone for free.

The second thing is that it’s been really important to us that our hangtag tells a much longer story and we’ve found that most of our customers keep the hangtag. Some even put it up somewhere and are really proud of it, and that helps us convey the severity of the problem. We mention the numbers to give people a sense of the scope of the problem and to help them understand that the fund that the bag profit are going to is simply a part of a bigger solution. Also, in all of the marketing that we do — although there are picture of Lauren and I wearing the bags at fancy events — the pictures that we publish are the ones of us in places around the world that we’re donating to. We go to all the countries that we’re giving money to and we make sure that we see the schools that are getting the money, and we take pictures. We take pictures of those kids to show our customers where their money is going. So, I think there’s a lot we try to do to prevent that.

On the other hand, we are the gatekeepers of where this money is going so that as long as people keep buying products, we’re making sure the money goes to the right place. So, if they’re buying them just because they’re a cool trend, that still may not be the worst thing in the world.

What’s going on with FEED’s project in Haiti? With several disasters across the world right now Haiti’s been somewhat forgotten by the media, so can you give us an update from your perspective?

Well we have our FEED Haiti bag, which is made in the United States, and we were able to get that up for sale one month, to the day, after the earthquake. Our quick turnaround meant we were really able to get people engaged when there was a lot of support behind Haiti. Unfortunately, as you were alluding to, that does go away. People get fatigued and forget. If it’s not right in front of them every single day, they don’t remember the incredible devastation that’s still going on there.

What we decided was that instead of making a big donation up front to the emergency relief efforts, we’re accruing the money and donating it at the start of the school year. A lot of organizations have done an incredible job helping people through the immediate disaster follow-up, but what we want to do is help those Haitian kids who just want to get back to their normal lives. They need to get back to school, they need to get back to a safe place and continue their studies. We’re donating to the school-feeding program so that in August and September they can actually start up again. It’s a little bit of a different way to invest in disaster relief, but that’s how we’re helping ensure that kids can get back to school.

READ MORE: Why Gustafson decided not to visit Haiti, how she ended up working for a think tank, the UN and becoming an entrepreneur before 30, details on her long-term vision for food and how you can get involved with The 30 Project.
Have you been there yourself?

Not yet. We certainly could have gone already, but I feel like there’s a weird rush right after a disaster where people go and take a picture of themselves there and take pictures of how devastated it is. To be honest, I think that if I were a doctor I would have gone immediately because I could have acutely helped the situation, but as a humanitarian donor I don’t feel like I’m all that useful until I’ve raised a good amount of money and can give it where necessary.

We did recruit some help though. The spokesman for the UN World Program who usually works in East Africa, and was now the disaster spokesperson for Haiti, is a really good friend of mine. We had him take cameras and get some pictures that ended up on CBS News in connection with FEED, and they talked about our Haiti bag. He went to some of the schools we’re going to help rebuild and took footage for us and was speaking outside of the school on our behalf. To me, that’s just as good as me going. We’re just trying to bring the reality of the situation there back to people at home and I didn’t feel that I had to do that by flying down there to be an additional body on the ground.

Young women like you and Lauren function as role models for the next generation of girls who also want to change the world. How did you personally achieve what you did and how can they do the same?

I appreciate that. We’ve also had great support from an actress named Marcia Cross and she said a similar thing a few years go. She has daughters, and she said, “I really hope that it’s you and Lauren who are the kind of women who are role models for young girls going forward.” I definitely appreciate that.

For my own story, I grew up in suburban Philadelphia, nothing out of the ordinary. But, I was an only child and my parents both traveled a lot, so I was able to go to Egypt as a young person and Israel, the West Bank, Russia — more interesting destinations that the normal vacation. I think that opened my eyes to the idea that first, the world is quite small, and also that there are amazing disparities between what we have in America and what other people have around the world. So that just got me engaged in wanting to learn more about the world.

Then, my career story is kind of interesting. I was studying International Relations at Columbia when 9/11 happened, and it made me want understand the security dynamics of the world. I had been more focused on soft power issues — understanding different cultures and such — but once 9/11 happened I felt like I didn’t know anything about security problems. I started working, about a month after 9/11, at a think tank called the Council of Foreign Relations because I was writing a paper on security policy, but from a very uneducated position. As a result of that paper and that internship, I got a job under four active duty senior military officers who were undertaking a fellowship at the Council of Foreign Relations. They were all either Colonel or General-level military officers and this was my first real education in security issues. It was amazing. As a result, I ended up working at ABC News in their investigative unit, covering terrorism and trying to understand these various security problems around the world.

Eventually, this all led me to see was that a lot of the areas that are unstable and politically insecure and angry are also hungry. And, I said that in my talk. But, I also began thinking about all the food issues in America. As an American or Western girl, from the time you go through puberty you are constantly thinking about food because you’re constantly thinking about how you’re going to keep your weight down and not in a disordered eating way. In a very real way, young women have to think a lot about food because the unfortunate reality is that the way food is presented to us is so unbelievably unhealthy. You have to try very hard not to gain weight, instead of just eating three meals a day that are all pretty nutritious and it’s not a big deal. So when considering that there’s hunger around the world, but then in America we’re dealing with obesity as well as anorexia, I began thinking about how I could make some change in this. When I saw a job at the World Food Program, I thought the opportunity could help me understand a lot of the things that I had been thinking about.

And that must have informed The 30 Project. How has your latest venture progressed since you launched it in May at TEDxEast?

I’m trying to bridge the major disconnect between organizations that are fighting hunger and organizations that are fighting obesity. In the current political structure, they don’t get along and they’re on the opposite sides of the aisle. The main bone of contention between them is our subsidy system, because right now people that are trying to fight hunger are getting food because of the way our subsidy system is structured. People that are trying to fight obesity — sustainable agriculture advocates and such — are usually trying to end or dramatically change the subsidy programs. So, that means that big food and big agriculture are aligned with the anti-hunger world and sustainable agriculture is aligned with the anti-obesity world. My argument is that until we break down that edifice in the middle separating these two groups and get them to see that we’re all fighting to get people to eat nutritious food, no matter where they are in the world, we’re not going to make much progress.

Since my talk, I’ve spoken with about 20 different organizations, on both sides, and said, “Let’s talk. Let’s have a long-term food policy conversation. Let’s have a 30-year food conversation.” I think if you give people a long-distance goal, they’re not immediately placed in a position where they need to fight. I’ve found that most organizations find that conversation incredibly attractive because they’re all struggling with these issues. Everyone knows this is what’s going on, but framing the issues in this way has helped these organizations think about a different way to envision the food system. My goal is to gather 30 organizations, probably in the winter, from anti-hunger domestically and internationally, anti-obesity domestically and internationally, agricultural and farm-based organizations and get them all at one table to sit down and talk about a potential 30-year vision for the food system. Then, I would like to have that conversation at the government level. If this civil society, this NGO community, is more or less aligned in terms of a long-term vision, how can we make steps to get there?

For the average person watching your talk or reading this Q&A, what can they do to get involved in this movement?

There are two grassroots actions that go along with the higher-level summit I want to hold. First, I want to think about how we can change the message about food, especially here in the US. We as Americans can effect change around the world because we export so many of our systems. To do this, I’d like to lobby the media, to have a conversation with media about how we can present healthy food in a way that makes people want to buy it and creates demand. I’d like to recruit people from Hollywood to begin a more meaningful conversation about food. Recent studies have basically shown that if young people ate exactly what was advertised on television, they’d all be dead. I think that’s a big piece of it. It’s also making parents aware of what their kids are seeing when they look at these commercials, and making young people aware of what big companies are advertising to them.

I also want to organize a grassroots movement of dinners around America. I’d like to start with 30 dinners and eventually have it grow. And, at these dinners, I’d like people to really talk about food. It’s possible for every person to be an activist for food because we all have to eat, every single day. So, I’d like to engage Americans with questions like, “What did you eat as a kid? What do you eat now? Is it hard to find healthy food? Are you frustrated by that? Wouldn’t it be great if all the coffee we drank was fair trade?” If people felt empowered by their habits, spending and choices and the power they have as consumers, they could influence these changes. Most people don’t actually talk about their food, they sit down to dinner and talk about a million other things.