by Geri Stengel
President of Ventureneer

Ethics_iStock_I admit it: I judge people by the way they behave, with me and with others. Which makes me think that, despite the lofty environmental goals of Green Garmento, I won’t be doing business with that company any time soon.

Why? Because the owner, Rick Siegel, appears to have stolen credit for his business idea — not the idea itself but credit for the idea.

How you react to his story depends on how you define both good business practice and social enterprise. I’ve tried to define “social enterprise” before but let’s revist the subject.

In a New York Times article some weeks back, Siegel was lauded for social entrepreneurship, innovation, and environmental good works inherent in his business, Green Garmento. Green Garmento is a reusable dry cleaning bag that eliminates the need for all that flimsy plastic headed to landfills.

Just one month later, The Times ran a second Green Garmento article, laying out some new information. In the original story, Siegel had credited his product to his own frustration dealing with hangars and plastic and dry cleaning. He recounted his struggles perfecting his product, the failures along the way, and noted that after his product was well into development, he learned of a similar product called Converta Bag.

Not his inspiration. Not a problem.

But he failed to mention yet another eco-friendly cotton dry cleaning bag, Clothesnik. This is a problem because, as he and Clothesnik’s founder Jane Wyler agree, Siegel attempted to invest in Clothesnik after seeing the product at a trade show … before he “invented” his bag.

In fact, Siegel’s emails to Wyler indicated that her product was enticing precisely because “it could be replicated by potential competitors” and a strong competitor “could undermine your uniqueness and reap the available rewards.”

Which is what Siegel did.

(I’m not sure why an easily replicated product is an attractive investment but to each his own.)

Entrepreneurs often see a product, tweak it, improve it, and make it their own. That’s just plain good business: Build a better mousetrap.

But Siegel did something else. He specifically claimed that the idea sprung fully formed from his brain; when asked, he failed to give credit to the real innovator.

Legally, he is probably on solid ground. How about ethically?

I think a better business man, with good marketing and ethical sense, would have acknowledged the inspiration of Clothesnik and then detailed why his product was better and what problems it solved that Clothesnik hadn’t.

He’d have given credit where credit was due and he’d have promoted his product nicely.

How you treat other people, other businesses, your clients, your employees — it all matters. At least it does to me.

Do you think his behavior was ethical? Is it more disturbing because he was touted as a social entrepreneur? Is there a higher standard of behavior for social enterprise? Should there be?

Geri Stengel is founder and President of Ventureneer, an online education and peer support service