In early 2011, Louis-Jean Teitelbaum and Jean-Charles Dufeu embarked on an innovative project. Combining their interests in technology, the arts and e-commerce, they created Microcultures, an online company that provides strategic, operational and financial support to independent music artists. Teitelbaum and Dufeu, the company’s founding partners, are among the first entrepreneurs to promote an important and recent trend in France: the sustainable development of culture.

Ordinarily, the concept of sustainable development covers three areas: the environment, the economy and social impact. In France, the private and public sectors have initiatives dedicated to sustainable development in all of these areas. This background, combined with the presence and importance of culture to French society, creates room for the insertion of a fourth area in France’s sustainable development framework: culture. Microcultures is new company giving credence to this phenomenon.

Microcultures is an artisanal and participative art production house that links consumers and music artists. Consumers, or microcultivators, have the opportunity to donate funds to up-and-coming artists listed on the company’s website. Acting as an intermediary, Microcultures manages these funds for the artists, while the consumers, through their funding, feel they are part of the creative process for their favorite artists. “We want to make the link between the artist and its public the most direct possible,” says Dufeu. “Following the same model as that of agricultural cooperatives in which producers sell products of higher quality and freshness directly to consumers, we want the cultural transaction to happen with the least intermediation possible, with a transparent financial relation between artist and public.”

Microcultures’ approach is to promote new music creation and to allow microcultivators to play an integral part in this process. To make all of this possible, the company adheres to the two main pillars that make up its business model: It provides support to selected artists, and it facilitates public involvement with, and investments in, these artists.

For the first pillar, Teiltelbaum, who studied philosophy and freelances in web design and development, and Dufeu, who has experience as a web editorialist and in the music industry’s production and distribution areas, have chosen to work with a select number of music bands in a qualitative and quantitative way. Qualitatively, the company works as the band’s strategic agent and operational manager, whether launching an album or staging a concert. Quantitatively, Microcultures helps artists gain access to a public willing to invest in their creative ideas. The company accomplishes this by offering the public a pre-sale of each band’s music and other products, thereby generating a cash flow that is used to support the artists financially. Here, Microcultures’ goal is to guarantee the development of independent art that otherwise may not have had the means to grow.

Microcultures also seeks to facilitate public involvement and investment in the arts. “Although we had an American website called Kickstarter as an inspirational model, we wanted Microcultures to go further,” notes Dufeu. “Rather than just raising funds, we wanted our customers to join us in the creation of art itself.” Microcultures’ second pillar reflects this idea. By offering the public constant updates on each band’s development and by providing each band with real-time feedback from the public, the company seeks to keep the microcultivators and the artists as connected as possible during the creation process. This set-up allows the artists to remain cognizant of their pre-sale success while seeking to respond promptly to the preferences of the public and maintaining their creative integrity.

The idea of allowing consumers to contribute to the company’s sustainable efforts already exists in other sectors — for example, buy one pair of shoes and give another in the apparel industry, or purchase organic, environmentally friendly products in the food industry. In the same way, Microcultures satisfies its role as a promoter of the sustainable development of culture by establishing a relationship between artists and the public, based on the process of creating the art and not only the end-product of the art, such as an album or a concert.

Microcultivators have even begun to recognize their role as participants in the sustainable development of culture. In a recent survey, they voted that Microcultures’ mission (90%) and its direct support to artists (97%) were “important” or “very important” in their decision to invest in the company’s artists. “Actual products offered” on the website were voted as “important” or “very important” by 76% of the respondents. In addition, 95% of the respondents voted that their need to be culturally responsible was “important” or “central” to their participation in the projects. “We play under the idea of ‘sustainable commerce’ because we promote the same values as the traditional sustainable commerce: valued remuneration to artists, purchase act transformed into responsible act, proximity between artist and consumer, lack of intermediaries, and quality products” says Dufeu.

Cultural Sustainable Development in France

One major reason for Microcultures’ success is the existence of a unique phenomenon: French society ascribes significant value to sustainable development and to culture. The distinct combination of these two values allows for a crossover whereby different stakeholders in the society are willing to take responsibility for culture development and culture sustainability. Microcultures presents itself as an alternative vehicle for this conscientious consumption and sustainable development of culture.

In addition to valuing sustainable development, French society fundamentally values culture in the day-to-day activities. Along with the U.S., France places eighth in total spending on recreation and culture. The French government plays an active role in supporting cultural activities, financing or managing 1,212 “Musées de France.” Support from citizens is also outstanding, given that more than 30% of the French population visit at least four cultural venues a year — e.g., movie theaters, museums, historical monument sites and street performances. Finally, the French spend from 8% to 15% of their household budget on cultural activities.

Apart from culture and regarding sustainable development on its own, the French government, through the public sector, has shown a commitment to environmental sustainability. For example, as a result of government incentives and campaigns, France has already reduced 7% of greenhouse gas emissions, exceeding the Kyoto protocol’s agreement for 2012. In addition, the government plans to increase the renewable share of the country’s total energy consumption from 7% in 2004 to 20% by 2020.

France’s governmental policies are known for their supportive approach to social issues. The country spends a higher percentage of its GDP in this area compared to other members of the European Union. Finally, the government’s efforts to include sustainability as an integral part of its strategy can be seen through the creation of the “National Strategy of Sustainability” for the period between 2010 and 2013. An interministerial committee monitors the development of this strategic plan within each ministry’s program and assures the integration of a sustainability action plan.

In the private sector, successful examples of French companies’ participation in sustainable development are found in various industries. French automobile manufacturers produce cars with the lowest gas emission rates in Europe. Solidarity funds are also very popular in France and account for the country’s fourth-place position in the European socially responsible investment rankings.

In addition, over the last few years, both the public and private sectors have interpreted French culture as an important dimension of sustainability in France and have envisioned ways in which the arts can contribute vastly to the country’s sustainable development. According to Frederic Mitterrand, the French minister of culture and communication, “sustainable development requires a profound transformation of the relationship between men and their environment, to make the world livable while respecting its natural and cultural diversity.”

Mitterrand’s comment raises concerns about culture diversity and relates to the increasingly spreading idea of “culture exception,” discussed in depth by the World Trade Organization during the General Agreement on Trade in Services in 1993. According to this idea, because culture products embody so much of a country’s civilization and identity, the arts industry should receive supportfrom the private and public sectors, as do other spheres of sustainability (e.g., the environment). Integrating culture into the concept of sustainability actually stabilizes development, as culture can boost environment and social initiatives and vice-versa.

While this transformation can be pursued in various ways, some are already being deployed. For example, the dance event “Le Défilé,” which takes place in Lyon, integrates the cultural and social spheres of sustainability through its main objective — the social inclusion of professionally disadvantaged people. This event offers less-favored citizens a professional path into the arts by enabling them to participate in performing dance groups. At the same time, it assures that new artists’ productions are disseminated across all the social classes. This event creates awareness for, and interest from, a vast public to new cultural productions, promoting opportunities for new artists to succeed. Also, the ministry of culture and communication itself has been allocating 26% of its budget to broadening the access to, and the democratization of, culture. In addition to contributing to social welfare, this initiative also helps create market conditions by increasing the demand for culture.

In summary, the integration of culture in sustainability in France depends on two drivers: assuring market conditions for arts creation and providing the means for the public, government and other stakeholders to contribute to it.

Microcultures positions itself as an agent of change for sustainable culture, as it participates in both drivers. On the first point, as noted above, the company supports independent artists’ creations financially and managerially. On the second point, the company identifies a common sustainably responsible profile among its stakeholders and creates innovative ways for them to contribute to cultural sustainability.

Based on a survey of its stakeholders, Microculturesstates that consumers of art products are conscious of the sustainable development of culture and are willing to participate. When asked what prevented them from being more participative, only 20% of the microcultivators mentioned a lack of interest. However, the survey results indicate that the 80% who are interested do not participate more actively because they still do not have the means to do so. Among the reasons they mentioned are the lack of more affordable ways to participate, the lack of time and limited access to the artists’ creations.

Microcultures is, therefore, positioning itself to provide the tools consumers need to act as stakeholders in the phenomenon of cultural sustainability by offering a range of products in terms of price, content and format. Connected to this relationship with consumers, the company closes the circle among other stakeholders: the independent artists searching for support and the government willing to ensure culture production.

Three Avenues to Growth

Even though it is advancing at a rapid pace, Microcultures is still a start-up that needs to solidify its position and grow its presence. The company’s growth is a benefit both to its owners and to the French society, since its success boosts the promotion of cultural sustainable development in France.

In what ways can Microcultures strengthen and grow? Conversations with the owners and analyses of the client base and the market have shown three main avenues: first, to increase the participation of the already culturally responsible public; second, to make culturally responsible the public that already acts in a sustainable way in the three traditional spheres of sustainability; and third, to transform into a culturally responsible group the public that is not yet responsible in any of the other spheres.

To increase the participation of the already culturally conscious public, including the microcultivators, Microcultures can increase its offerings by adding projects in different domains of art, such as writing, and by adding different offerings to the arts with which it works already. This last activity would not only increase the revenues for bands, but would also increase the connection between the artists and the public. Products such as meetings with the artists, private chats or participation in rehearsals and tours would enable consumers to remain connected.

To attract environmentally or socially responsible consumers to act in concert in terms of culture, Microcultures can leverage the means used by the other spheres to present new ideas and products to the public. One example would be investing in marketing partnerships with companies closely related to sustainability, such as Whole Foods, a retailer that attracts already-responsible customers who may not yet know about the possibility of participating in cultural sustainability as well. Through these partnerships, the company would be able to offer its products in a gift card model, for example, that would spread the cultural sustainability concept.

Finally, to attract those who are not concerned about sustainable development, Microcultures may seek to attract consumers based on pure product features and content, to then increase their awareness of sustainable development and to then promote their active participation.

Expectations of a First Mover

Microcultures positions itself as a first mover within an innovative business model of art production and cultural development through funding and support. The company promotes itself as a promise of success for its proximity to, and positive response from, the target market.

The company’s current client base is already formed mainly by conscious sustainably responsible customers. Their interest in participating in arts development is a crucial element in the phenomenon of integrating culture into sustainability. By expanding its horizons to environmentally and socially responsible markets, the company’s goal is to not only solidify its operations, but also to set itself as an example of a successful cultural sustainability supporter to other private companies.

More than focusing on business performance, Microcultures takes this unique opportunity to lead by example and influence other stakeholders in the private sector to develop solid support for the integration of culture as a main pillar of sustainability in France.

This article was written by Lindsey Laveaux, Paula Martinelli and Camila Penazzo, members of the Lauder Class of 2013.