At the Grommet, Shoppers Purchase with Purpose

the grommetGrommet co-founders Jules Pieri (left) and Joanne Domeniconi. Photo courtesy of the Grommet.

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What do a vegan nail polish, a minimalist bike rack and a bluetooth-connected guitar have in common? How about an automatic ball launcher called iFetch, Mrs. Meyer’s earth-friendly cleaning products and the popular crossword-style game Bananagrams?

Each of these products—from bike rack to ball launcher—first came to life thanks to a spunky little website known as The Grommet.

The Grommet is the brainchild of co-founder and CEO Jules Pieri, who saw, years ago, how the web was altering our socioeconomic landscape. Internet commerce and social media were far from fledgling services in 2008, but they weren’t yet ubiquitous, either. (Spotify was just getting off the ground in ‘08; Instagram wouldn’t exist for another two years.) At the same time, the web was giving once-fractured groups the opportunity to form their own communities. “I was watching citizen journalism and citizen science—all these movements where regular people were permeating a professional sphere in a positive way,” Pieri explains. “I thought, ‘Business is the most powerful entity on earth. Let’s let people permeate that and make it easy. Make it bite-sized and actionable.’”

the grommetSo Pieri introduced an idea she calls Citizen Commerce. People know, she explains, that they should vote if they want to have a say in government, that they should show up to rallies if they want to shake up the status quo. Wouldn’t it be nice to give them the option to speak as loudly in the consumer sphere? No single person can research every company to make sure its morals are sound, but what if a website took that guesswork out of the game by providing the resources socially conscious makers need to launch their products?

Pieri believed that, given the choice, people would opt to support businesses on ethical grounds, even if that meant the price point was a little higher. But this was during the peak of the financial crisis. Tensions were high, investors were wary and purse strings were tighter than they’d been in decades. No one with capital was willing to risk it on an online platform that wasn’t meant to save people money. “It was really, psychologically, kind of… what’s the word? Terrifying,” Pieri says. “They all wanted us to be Groupon.” She couldn’t quantify people’s desire to shop ethically; there was no data to support her thesis.

All she had was a hunch. She’d been watching the explosive growth of organic foods and farmers markets. Even in 2008, when organic produce tended to be both far more expensive and harder to find than its non-organic counterparts, people were seeking it out. Using that movement as a barometer, Pieri persevered. Seven years and thousands of product launches later, it would appear that her faith in Citizen Commerce has been confirmed.

Online shoppers are familiar with the sorting options typically offered by ecommerce sites. Items can be listed from lowest to highest price, for example, or organized to show the newest arrivals first. The Grommet takes that idea and applies a social impact filter to it, letting its shoppers browse the site’s wares based on their personal values. Want to shop brands that were started by underrepresented entrepreneurs or support a company with a social enterprise aspect? There are filters for that. Maybe you only want to see items that were made in the USA? There’s a filter for that, too.

Over the years, people have taken notice of The Grommet’s ethical point of view. Today, the site has more than 175,000 Facebook fans, and 22,500 people follow the Grommet on Twitter. With more than 5,000 Twitter followers, Pieri herself is a bit of an Internet celebrity. She’s also an Entrepreneur in Residence at Harvard. In 2013, she was named one of Fortune’s most powerful women.

Pieri and her staff don’t always have it easy. Each week, they’re narrowing a field of more than 300 project proposals down to just seven. They’re testing every last item; Charles McEnerney, The Grommet’s director of communications, says he’s often bringing potential Grommet launches home to get his kids’ feedback. They’re shooting photos and videos for every product’s page in their studios, and they’re hosting a live discussion between maker and online community the day each product launches. It’s a labor of love, sure, but that doesn’t make it any less labor-intensive.

While the company could probably save some time and cut costs by automating a few of these processes, Pieri isn’t here to slash spending or make short-term financial gains. In an era of instant meals and instant messaging, she’s bucking traditional business models—again—by playing the long game, banking it all—again—on wisdom that doesn’t quite hold as conventional. The Grommet is working with startups of all sizes and all sophistication levels, and they need a broad spectrum of resources to help bring their dreams to life. “You can’t put that into an algorithm,” Pieri says. “You can’t put that into an automated response for their needs.” She knows that these products are their makers’ babies, knows how needy babies are, how different each child can be. And she’s willing to bet that taking the time to really get to know each one—to hold its hand, to guide it to market step-by-step—will pay off in the long run.

If the last seven years are any indication, it looks like she just might be right.