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Equality Is Good for Business

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Taking a stand: part of New Living’s business platform “is creating social equity in our production platform,” says Melissa Eason, co-owner of the two Houston locations, this one in Rice Village. Inset: the store’s interior.
Taking a stand: part of New Living’s business platform “is creating social equity in our production platform,” says Melissa Eason, co-owner of the two Houston locations, this one in Rice Village.

Local B-corp stands up for gay marriage and HERO.
by Karen Derr

New Living co-founder Jeff Kaplan and girlfriend/partner Melissa Eason say they bring their whole selves to work every day, including their beliefs. They can do this because New Living, which has two locations in Houston and sells healthy and sustainable items for the home, is a Benefit Corporation, or B-corp.

B-corps are for-profit entities that pledge to achieve social goals in addition to their regular business ones. Many B-corps choose to commit to a specific social mission, and their social and environmental performance is monitored and certified by a nonprofit called B Lab. For New Living, Kaplan has chosen equality as one of the business’s main focuses. “I’ve always been very passionate about gay rights,” says Kaplan, who sent out a mass e-mail urging his customers to support the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO). Eason confides about herself, “I actually am really open, and I dated only women for many years, so I’m really aware of the hard times people go through involving their sexuality.”

Being open about human rights is fundamental to the couple’s mission at New Living. They spend much of their time at the upscale location on Kirby Drive in Rice Village, where they have not only a showroom and retail space but a full workshop for making custom home furnishings from reclaimed wood and fallen timber. “New Living’s mission is to use our business to create healthier homes and healthier communities,” says Kaplan, “and we believe that having respect for equal rights and human rights is a fundamental part of creating a healthier community.

The store’s interior.
The store’s interior.

“I’m really passionate about using New Living as a platform for social and environmental change,” he continues, “and I’m proud to say we were, I believe, the first brick-and-mortar retail store in the country to be a certified Benefit Corporation, which is a legal mechanism that is all about using the power of business to do good. So it’s a way for us to use our business to effect social change.”

Like Houston’s HERO ordinance and same-sex marriage in Texas, Kaplan says B-corps are facing legal challenges. He says only 26 states recognize Benefit Corporations. “A B-corp exists to solve problems and do good.” Regarding equal rights, Kaplan says, “This is one of the problems we choose to focus on.”

The couple explains that their e-mail in support of HERO received several replies criticizing the stand that the B-corp took. Although Eason realizes that some of the negative responses came from those who are truly opposed to the ordinance, she hopes that most customers just took issue with the use of the retail store’s mailing list for such purposes. “People know that we are a progressive business, and it might just be that they are like, ‘Leave me alone. I just want to buy something.’”

Undaunted, Kaplan says, “We believe that the more of a stand we take, the more right it feels to use our business to solve problems and do good. Part of our business platform that we are most passionate about is creating social equity in our production platform. We try to be a model community-based business and support local production of products. We work with independent labor and make sure they’re paid a fair living wage, so everything we’re doing is about changing the way you think about the role of business.”

According to Kaplan, being a B-corp is an activist approach to being an entrepreneur. New Living’s one-of-a-kind pieces produced by local artists are priced comparably with mass-produced furniture lines like Restoration Hardware. They use non-toxic stains and finishes on their custom-made furniture.

Eason, an artist herself, is making rings she calls trings out of the wood of a heritage tree that was felled by a Heights-area developer despite protests by neighbors. The tree had been recorded as the second-largest sycamore in Harris County. The couple says people often call them to save materials that otherwise might end up as landfill.

Since its launch in 2008, New Living has been a driving force in the push to make non-toxic paints readily available to consumers and painters who were suffering the effects of using products with VOCs. Now that non-toxic paints are readily available in big-box stores, New Living is evolving to take on other voids in the market by offering healthier and more sustainable home furnishings, including non-toxic and organic mattresses.

Kaplan goes on to say, “Typically, business tends to neutralize your personal beliefs. I think that happens a lot in Houston, because we have such a robust business community. The good thing about being a B-corp, and what we’re so excited about, is that I get to bring my whole self to work. Every day, I get to bring everything I believe in when I show up. And we encourage team members to “buy in” [to that conviction] and take risks, too.”

And it’s clear Kaplan and Eason are risk-takers. They have planned a performance-art event they’re calling Open that will take place in New Living’s high-profile Rice Village display windows. “We are doing a project with HRC—a performance-art show with different variations of couples watching movies in bed. Every movie will relate to human rights. We are thrilled that HRC is behind us,” explains Kaplan. Eason adds, “Everyone, no matter who you are, has at some time watched movies in bed.” The event is planned to debut in early 2015 and should run for six days. Both the couple in bed and the movie will change nightly and will be visible from the street. The couples will be different ages, races—both straight and same-sex couples. “We want to neutralize judgments about what is acceptable on a mattress. I mean, what is more intimate than a mattress?” asks Kaplan, adding that 60,000 cars go by their location daily.

Karen Derr is a frequent contributor to OutSmart magazine and a broker associate at Boulevard Realty.

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Karen Derr

Karen Derr is a Houston-area Realtor and the founder of Karen Derr Realtors. She writes and speaks about home and small-business topics and is a frequent contributor to OutSmart.

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