Will Work for Food

Having held a variety of jobs, including working on the line at Ford, cleaning houses, and writing technical manuals, Meredith Maran searched for work that would fulfill all her needs: political, social, spiritual, creative, and financial. She sought sanctuary in the promised land of socially responsible business.

BANANA REPUBLIC, San Francisco, 1987-1988

Much to my surprise, I love this job. Whatever qualms I had about sacrificing my freelance writing career--and my political integrity--for a paycheck have been overpowered by bottomless pots of decent coffee, three kinds of muffins on Fridays, days full of laughter--and a paycheck twice a month, whether I stay up all night working or not.

In return for this embarrassment of riches, I am expected to edit the Banana Republic travel clothing catalog and "supervise" the whiz kids who write it. I love editing a clever piece of copy, conceptualizing a catalog cover, and then finding it in my mailbox six weeks later. Amazingly, I even love being a "boss," which mostly entails doling out raises to the talented writers who "report" to me.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The only thing that isn't fun is the fear. A ripple of anxiety reverberates through Editorial every time we send catalog copy to Mel Ziegler, Banana Republic founder and ultimate authority, for approval. What if Mel doesn't like it? What if the customers don't like it?

But a bit of anxiety is a small price to pay for the education I'm getting here. Plus, there's this other thing I love about my job: The company has 92 stores across the country and mails catalogs to several million people. The unrepentant radical in me can't help imagining: What if we could sell all those Banana Republic loyalists political consciousness along with their khakis?

After all, every American is bound to do three things: pay taxes, die, and. . .buy stuff. Could we make our customers think about what's going on in the world every time they think about what to buy? What better place for consciousness-raising than in the marketplace?

A photo of two grinning hippies catches my eye in a current issue of Esquire. Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield have an ice cream company in Vermont. Unlike me, these guys don't think they've sold out by going into business. They think their business is a continuation--not a violation--of the social change we were all pushing in the '60s.

Right on, Ben! Right on, Jerry!

I rally the willing troops of Editorial behind our new mission. We name a nondescript garment "The E.R.A. Skirt," with a back vent "that allows there's still much ground to cover." An Indian cotton shift becomes "The Gandhi Dress. . .sense its peaceful revolt against constraint."

As self-appointed "Minister of Corporate Ethos," I write a "Conscience Report" describing the world-changing uses to which company resources might be put.

Banana Republic could be--should be!--raising money for community groups and nonprofits. Educating customers about current political issues. Mobilizing our 2,000-person workforce into an army of activists.

I institute a new ritual, "View 'n' Chew"--force-feeding my co-workers microwave popcorn along with the PBS series "Growing a Business." Its soft-spoken narrator, Paul Hawken, has visited companies nationwide to report on the emerging trend of people-centered, socially responsible businesses.

Witnessing the reports of Patagonia's on-site child care center, Ben & Jerry's "Joy Gang," and Springfield Remanufacturing's employee ownership program, my cohorts begin to grumble. Why doesn't Banana let us bring our kids to work, or have a say in corporate decisions, or own stock in the company? We set about transforming Banana Republic into a model workplace.

Banana Republic is to be transformed, all right. And quickly. But not in a Ben & Jerry's kind of way.

We go to sleep one night working for a booming business and wake up the next morning chukka-deep in doo-doo. The fall line isn't selling. Catalog and store sales plummet. Employee morale follows.

As the bottom line bleeds from black to red, Banana's once-absentee corporate parent, The Gap, becomes an angry, punishing tyrant. Mel and Patricia Ziegler are the first to go. Panic-provoking emergency meetings replace creative brainstorming sessions. The bakery that once delivered muffins on Fridays now delivers bon voyage cakes with equal frequency.

After sending my boss on a business trip, the new Gap honcho asks if I'd be interested in her job. "I could never stab Susan in the back that way," I say. The Gap executive's eyes glaze over.

I had it right in the first place. Capitalism sucks. There is no room to be a human being in this setup.

When Susan returns, she and I are informed that we are both being replaced. I surrender my parking sticker, pack up my souvenir safari helmet, and return to the jungle of the unemployed.

SMITH & HAWKEN, MILL VALLEY, 1990-1991

I can hardly believe my good fortune: I'm working for Paul Hawken, the guy I used to watch on TV. From the moment I enter the wisteria-draped, beam-and-glass ark that houses the Smith & Hawken Art Department, I am dizzyingly, gratifyingly in love.

I'm in love with Mill Valley, this hidden-away foothill fairyland where Smith & Hawken narcissus bloom along redwood-shaded roads each spring. I'm in love with the 15 bright, gorgeous, high-spirited women who have created the work environment of my dreams at this garden catalog company.

Every day there are back rubs, Pepperidge Farm cookies, dirty jokes, and clean arguments that flare, are tended, and then extinguished. Special attention is paid to the person upon whom the bulk of that day's work has fallen--the one who has, like a python that's bitten off more than it can chew, "swallowed the pig." A pink pig is placed on that person's desk; the pig and the sympathy are relocated as the workload shifts.

As at Banana Republic, paranoia throbs through our department every time we await approval by the higher-ups, expecting criticism to follow praise. In fear and in joy our group grows ever closer.

I realize that Smith & Hawken's corporate culture is best described by one word: emotion. In this beauty-driven company, love--or its dark side--charges each interaction. Everything--job descriptions, salaries, hirings, and firings--everything--is personal.

The same brilliant, impulsive man who hired all these wonderful people has built a company as manic as he is. Smith & Hawken weeps, exults, sulks, coos, rages. It puts its arms around me and squeezes tight. For the first time I imagine myself working somewhere--working here--forever.

To offset the mundane tasks I knew I'd face as editorial director, when I took the job I negotiated a second role as the company's first social mission director, scouting new ways for Smith & Hawken to walk its environmental, socially responsible talk. Along with Paul, I represent the company at meetings of the Social Venture Network--an elite association of progressive entrepreneurs, including my heroes Ben and Jerry.

One day in a new product meeting, I notice the buyers are rolling their eyes at every suggestion I make. Paul stops returning my calls. Copy I've circulated comes back covered with scathing Post-its. My boss says there are questions (she can't say whose) as to whether I'm the best "fit" for the position after all.

I am terrified, enraged, distraught. My co-workers--who have been through this before--advise me to lie low. I take their advice, and sure enough, the muckety-mucks start frowning at someone else. I breathe a sigh of relief. My heart has taken root at Smith & Hawken. I am determined to survive.

A few months later, employee dissatisfaction reaches critical mass. While Paul accepts awards for environmental and social responsibility, his employees are working long hours for unglamorous wages; feeling insecure, unheard, unappreciated.

I muster my courage and tell Paul that people are afraid of him--too afraid to tell him so. He encourages us to form task forces, conduct employee surveys, create personnel policies. I start a committee that will allow staff to help shape the company's social priorities.

Suddenly, once again, there are rumors that someone "up there" doesn't like me. Two months after giving me a stellar review and a 10 percent raise, my boss tells me there is "concern" about my "priorities." The same unnamed people who once questioned my qualifications now worry, she says, that I'm too busy being the social mission director. "You need to focus on your editorial responsibilities. I understand that this may not work for you."

This is the Smith & Hawken crisis I won't withstand. I spend weeks arguing, grieving, looking for someone to reason with. Paul assures me that he wants me to stay, but the runaway train of my leaving is roaring down the tracks. I could duck for cover once again, but the work of making progressive business progressive is too much a part of me now. How ironic: All the affirmation I've soaked up while dodging bullets in this crazy company has had a positive effect. Thanks to Smith & Hawken I'm too healthy to subject myself to Smith & Hawken anymore.

A few months earlier at a Social Venture Network meeting, Peter Barnes had offered me a job at Working Assets. Working Assets markets three services: credit cards, a travel agency, and a long-distance phone service, all of which generate huge donations for nonprofit activist groups.

I call Peter now and tell him I'd like to be considered for the position.

WORKING ASSETS, San Francisco, 1992-1993

Unlike at Smith & Hawken, love and beauty are not priorities at Working Assets. Progressive politics and social activism may enter here, but hearts are best checked at the door.

What is familiar is the chronic buzz of discontent. Refugees from the corporate world arrive at Working Assets expecting an island of socialism. They don't understand: Why does Peter Barnes, the president, get to work at home, when everyone else has to be present Monday through Friday from 8 to 5--and then some? Why does Peter get to change his mind--and a week's worth of work--at the last minute? If Working Assets is socially responsible, shouldn't it be a democracy?

My taste for the aesthetic and the genteel, nourished at Smith & Hawken, is seen by my workmates as proof that I am superficial, snobbish, uncommitted. My few failed attempts to improve the office ambience--serving meeting muffins in baskets instead of plastic bags; hanging a wreath or two on the walls--leave me feeling foolish, vulnerable, lonely. I'm finally working with people whose politics match mine, and I can't find more than one or two who want to go to lunch with me.

On the other hand, my new job--creative vice president, they call me--has eliminated the biggest problem I had at Smith & Hawken: the effort to imbue high-priced, nonessential items with social value. Working Assets' product is social change; its services are merely tools to accomplish that end.

I am given a high-stakes task with a measurable outcome. In its first year Working Assets Long Distance has signed up 50,000 customers; my mission is to invent a direct mail package that will convince 50,000 more to join. My first challenge is to come up with a small-ticket, yet consummately cool bribe that will convince people to switch--while clearly communicating the difference between AT&T and Working Assets. Some kind of expensive yummy treat that screams socially responsible business. . .of course! We'll let them eat Ben & Jerry's!

Ben Cohen agrees to let us give a coupon good for a free pint of Ben & Jerry's to anyone who joins Working Assets. We agree to pay B&J's the going rate for each coupon redeemed. Ben writes an irresistible endorsement on his own letterhead; my favorite designer creates an irresistible direct mail package into which we insert Ben's letter.

The mail drops. The package is wildly successful. Working Assets hires new customer service reps; leases a second floor of office space; launches a new commercial long-distance service. We sign up nearly twice as many customers as projected. Working Assets is dubbed "The Ben & Jerry's of phone companies."

Still. . .I have yet to experience the collaborative breakthroughs or loving laughter that made life worth living at Banana Republic and Smith & Hawken. My bright ideas are conceived at home, alone, or on the phone with Peter--who also works at home, alone. One day, in the middle of a fax-and-phone brainstorming session, Peter shares his vision of the ideal workplace: a room full of modems. I know he isn't kidding.

Despite my "successful career," my juicy salary, and my dedication to Working Assets' lofty mission, despite knowing that most people who are fortunate enough to have jobs at all do them under far more onerous circumstances for far less money. . .this company and I don't fit. I believe in the product, but the process is bringing out the worst in me.

Sadly, I haven't escaped the harsh reality I thought I was leaving behind when I fled Marxism and the Ford assembly line 10 years ago. My big mistake was expecting to find spiritual, economic, creative, social, and political gratification in the workplace: a bizarre idea, but one endemic among those who seek sanctuary in the promised land of socially responsible business.

Companies like Smith & Hawken and Working Assets offer their customers a real alternative: a chance to "vote with their wallets." But when it comes to their own employees, the best Paul or Peter can do is tweak the formula. The laws of capitalism still apply.

Just like the guys who started these companies because they were too twisted by the '60s to work for anyone else, I am not cut out to be an employee. I'm incorrigibly rebellious, unmanageable, chronically discontent. The older I get, the less willing I am to be "supervised," "reported to," "reviewed."

I plot my next career move, feeling there is nowhere to go.

Then a miracle happens: I get a book contract. I can quit my job.

FEBRUARY 1994

These days I'm doing some work for companies that make things my family and I like to eat: Odwalla, Stonyfield Farm, Ben & Jerry's. The slogan of my part-time consulting business is "will work for food." When I can, I arrange trades: juice for a catchy phrase, yogurt for a brochure, ice cream for a consultation.

The hippies--now millionaires--who started these companies think it is funny that I swap labor for food, because that's what they were doing years ago when they started squeezing oranges in a garage, or milking cows in a barn: trying to simplify their lives, get back to basics.

But my slogan is more than a joke. It's also a statement of intention. I want to feed the socially responsible business movement, because these are the companies that will teach business--if it can be taught--how to feed its employees, its customers, its communities.

And I want to be fed--to find joy and camaraderie and meaning in the work I do.

Adapted from "What It's Like to Live Now" by Meredith Maran. Copyright © 1995 by Meredith Maran. Reprinted by permission of Bantam Books, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.

Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.