October 13, 2019

The Water Network: Jonathan Greenblatt mixes commerce and giving

If you can count on a Starbucks on every corner, you can also count on finding a bottle of Ethos water inside. They are the plainly packaged bottled waters promising that, simply by purchasing one, you can help make a global impact. Ethos ensures that 5 cents from every bottle sold in the United States (10 cents in Canada) will go to improving both the water supply and sanitation standards in developing countries.  To date, those pennies have created a combined pot of more than $6.2 million.

The money flows from the stores into the Ethos Water Fund (part of the Starbucks Foundation), where it is distributed in grants to various nonprofit, water-focused organizations. One grant, for example, paid to build a gravity-fed water system in a rural, mountainous region of Honduras. Newly installed pipes now bring water from rain and natural springs to the homes of people in need, as well as to their community center.  Locals, for the first time, have hygienic latrines and a basin with a spigot.

“The whole idea behind Ethos is how we could link a consumer product to this need, so we could engage many, many more people and make the activism really easy,” explained Jonathan Greenblatt, the co-founder of Ethos and an accomplished social entrepreneur.

In 2002, Greenblatt signed on to help develop the ethical brand after being recruited by his friend Peter Thum, whose idea for combining a common consumer product with social activism had been turned down by a reported 150 potential investors (“probably more,” Greenblatt said). The two business partners finally found “a really good fit” with Starbucks, to whom they sold Ethos in 2005.

“We were only willing to do the deal if they would remain true to our focus, which was helping children get water,” Greenblatt said. “They agreed, and I don’t think we could have found a better partner.”

After selling the company, Greenblatt came to realize the importance of asking one key question in regard to philanthropy: “Now what?” A desire to take the next step should, in his opinion, override the sense of finality that often comes after finishing good work. He has worked on a variety of projects since Ethos, teaches at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, writes for the Huffington Post Web site and serves as a water.org board member.

Greenblatt speaks with particular passion about All for Good, the organization he launched last year. Its open-source Web site (allforgood.org) offers a database of volunteer opportunities and service listings in cities around the world. In an attempt to spread the word about specific local volunteering efforts, people can use the site to link to their own Web sites, Facebook pages and blogs. A tagline on the site seems in step with Greenblatt’s overall philosophy: “Small actions add up to a big difference.”

With his clear view of many different charitable causes, the world’s water crisis still calls out to Greenblatt. He believes it to be one of today’s world’s largest and most critical challenges.

“There are billions of people in need: 900 million who lack clean drinking water and 2.6 billion who lack adequate sanitation,” he said. “Adequate water access and sanitation is like the adhesive that glues together healthy societies and functioning markets. The absence of it contributes to medical problems, social upheaval, political unrest and insecurity.”

Greenblatt said he owes much of his humanitarian concern to how he views the world as a practicing Jew.

“All these things are informed, in part, by my own Jewish identity and the values that I think are intrinsic to our Jewish tradition,” he said.  “I think there’s this longtime commitment to tikkun olam. I try to live those values as much as I can.”

Greenblatt and his wife keep a kosher home and celebrate Shabbat dinner every Friday night with their three young sons. Except for when a sporadic soccer practice pops up, the family attends Saturday morning services at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.

While enjoying his active home life, Greenblatt keeps working toward increasing the popularization of ethical consumer products and the innovative people who create them.  He hopes that by making these people and products as accessible as possible, consumers will be inspired to take further action. When this ideal can’t be reached, he’s happy to know that even single bottles of Ethos bought out of, well, thirst, can help heal the world.