Companies are usually driven by maximization of profit. Increasingly, though, the social responsibility of companies is becoming a concern for societies and consumers alike. People enjoy buying from companies selling good quality products at affordable prices, but which also have a positive impact in the community.
Portugal boasts of one of the oldest examples of this notion. Vista Alegre is currently the oldest porcelain brand in the Iberian Peninsula, and always primed for the quality of its products.
But how did this company come to being? And most importantly, how did it completely change the face of a small Portuguese town?
In 1812, a Portuguese businessman named José Ferreira Pinto Basto, bought a property in the town of Ílhavo, near the Ria de Aveiro — a shallow inlet of seawater spanning 45 Km, formed by the mouth of the Vouga river.
Pinto Basto, however, was not satisfied with merely buying a property. His entrepreneurial spirit pushed him to create a porcelain factory there.
Yet, it was not just entrepreneurship that drove him — he also sought to make a difference for the local population. After all, the local residents were mostly poor fishermen, accustomed to sail to the far north in search of codfish.
At a time when the term “corporate social responsibility” did not even exist, Pinto Basto’s acumen was already going beyond what that concept entails today.
Beside the factory, he built a Workers’ Neighborhood (“Bairro Operário”) to house the factory workers and their families. Whereas most factory owners of the time would just give their workers mere dorms, Pinto Basto wanted his workers to live comfortably, even with access to drinking water and sanitation. The rent was only one day of salary.
He also built a kindergarten and a school for the workers’ children, a health center, and a private firemen corps. The property that Pinto Basto had acquired also became a community farm, where the workers could get fresh fruits and vegetables, paid with a discount on their salary.
But Pinto Basto and his descendants did not merely take care of their workers’ material needs. Spiritual and cultural needs were also addressed. A very beautiful theater would eventually be built, where cultural activities would be hosted, like balls or movie projections. The workers also created a football club, the Sporting Club Vista Alegre.
Also, even before founding his factory, Pinto Basto had acquired the neighboring Chapel of Our Lady of the Penha of France. After the establishment of Vista Alegre, this chapel would be used by the workers for religious worship.
Factory, chapel, theater, and farm, all existed as a complex, flanking a very pleasant plaza that still exists today, and where one can have a very peaceful stroll. The Workers’ Neighborhood would then extend outwards from the plaza, until the Ria.
Even though Vista Alegre no longer belongs to Pinto Basto’s descendants, having been acquired by the Visabeira group in 2009, social responsibility remains one of the brand’s concerns. Either way, its historic importance cannot be overstated.
Vista Alegre shows that there is no contradiction between social responsibility and product quality, or company success. If one day you pass by Aveiro — the Portuguese Venice, as it is endearingly nicknamed — be sure to set aside a day to visit Ílhavo and learn more about Vista Alegre. And also be sure to browse the products of this historical company. We will publish another article soon explaining how to visit Ílhavo and the Museum of Vista Alegre.