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Chad Hamre, CEO of Ethical Ocean (INTERVIEW)

— May 3, 2011 — Social Good
Chad Hamre is the CEO of Ethical Ocean, an online marketplace for eco, organic, fair trade and ethical products. Social Business interviewed Hamre on the evolution of Ethical Ocean’s innovative business model. We got a glimpse into the mind of a social entrepreneur and how he’s able to stay creative and inspired. Chad Hamre also shed some light on some of the struggles he had coming up with the perfect model for what came to be known as Ethical Ocean, as well as his goals on transforming consumer choices and increasing product awareness.

Four Questions with Chad Hamre

1. How did the idea for the business model come about?

While on a road trip, we started brainstorming ideas for social businesses. Our first idea was to import drums from Africa, sell them in the U.S. and return as much profit as possible back to the producers. Our dreams quickly faded when we realized the cost of shipping would kill the business before it got off the ground. Next idea: import small, valuable objects from Africa. Diamonds? Art work? Perhaps digital images by African artists? We could set up a t-shirt shop that printed shirts with these digital African artworks and then pay royalties to the artists.

Then we started looking around and found that for every company we dreamed up, someone was already doing it, and in fact, doing it quite well. Moreover, we weren't sure that creating another product line or ethical brand would create the tipping point we wanted to see.

But if all these great ethical companies existed, why didn't we -- a group of socially aware and engaged individuals -- not know about any of them? And bang, there it was, the idea for an ethical marketplace that would bring together a myriad of great ethical companies to connect with the growing base of ethically-minded customers. Before we reached our destination we had formulated our original vision for Ethical Ocean.

2. How did you decide to join this sector?

A number of experiences have influenced my decision to make Ethical Ocean a success. I grew up in Western Canada, in an economy driven by the oil and gas sector. While pursuing a degree in Mechanical Engineering, I landed a summer job in a large oil company. After a single summer working there, I was convinced that there had to be a better place for me to apply my abilities and passion.

That's when I discovered Engineers Without Borders, a budding NGO that set out to end global poverty. Over the next few years I became involved in the organization and took on prominent leadership roles, and finally volunteering for a year in Zambia. Working and living closely with small-holder farmers in Africa, I began to see that consumer choices at home in Canada were inextricably linked to the livelihoods of people in developing countries. This experience remains my primary source of inspiration.

My desire to see consumer choices transformed was reaffirmed during a year I then spent in London studying at the London School of Economics. I was delighted to see fair trade bananas piled high in grocery stories and organic tea steaming in the mugs at cafés. Ethical shopping was becoming the norm in the U.K., yet back in Canada, the market was really in its infancy.

3. How do you get your inspiration?

Inspiration finds me when I follow my heart. I've seen the difference that ethical shopping can truly have on people's lives, as well as the immense potential for mainstreaming ethical shopping. This inspires me and the current reality in North America challenges me to find a solution.

For instance, while 90 percent of Americans are concerned about the environment, 20 percent about labor practices, and 34 percent about animal welfare, only 5 percent always consider sustainability when shopping. This is a massive challenge to overcome, and I am committed to being part of the solution. I don't just want to make ethical shopping easier and more accessible, but I also want to help spark a dialogue and increase information sharing, helping people get the information they need to make choices they're proud of.

4. How do you reset yourself to be creative? Do you have any rituals?

Our team does a lot to spark creativity -- we work in different spaces often and we go off the grid for team retreats. We don't just work together, but we play together and hang out outside of working hours. And I try to expose myself to creative people and ideas all the time -- asking others to tell me about their ideas for social ventures, brainstorming with friends and asking about what other companies are doing.
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