Stakeholder Trends and Insights
When It Really Isn’t Business as Usual:
Can There be Principle Without 'Principle?':
Part 1

Can a mainstream company have a conscience? As ridiculous as that might sound, more common-than-realized examples of bold sustainable business actions over the past few years may come to soften reasoning against the possibility of this possibility. We will look at some of the evidence for a conscience and the implied fundamental shift in the role of business, as it may eventually be difficult to continue to explain the motivation for certain actions in any other way. Then, having explored and given evidence for the idea here and in part 2, in a third and final part we’ll clarify what we’re not talking about, as less radical versions of this framing question are no longer so controversial, although potentially instructive. We’ll also show the critics’ likely case against it, but not spend much time on a rebuttal.

And then we’ll return to our “Pitfalls of Sustainable Metrics” series to look at two main implications of this graying of the lines.

In “Pitfalls,” Part 12, we mentioned both a company and a foundation that copped at forums (perhaps first looking around for hidden tape recorders in the pre-iPhone era) to protecting lower ROI-performing, but socially valuable project proposals to get them through the internal approval process. We asked whether they should be “prosecuted” in “metrics court,” for what could have motivated this teen-like rebelliousness against the field’s gospel statement, “We only manage what we measure,” as there’s not much point in measuring something if you’re just going to overrule it.

So what is the emerging evidence of a conscience in the sustainable business press, and occasionally elsewhere – if one is open to seeing it (or, as all sides of my networks, environmentalists and even sustainable business participants, must be thinking, if you’re totally naïve)? Even futurists, who sketch out very non-conventional scenarios and difficult paths towards sustainability, don’t include it.

For the most part, the case for the existence of a conscience is the implication from increasing examples of companies playing a greater, proactive, welcome (depending to some degree on one’s politics), and totally surprising role in addressing often brutally difficult societal problems. This role may even be at the expense of maximizing profits, although most observers confidently state that is highly unlikely — albeit, always after the fact of the initiative’s announcement.

(Academic invite: it would be a great research topic to try to untangle their motives, or determine whether that is even possible.)

There are also a growing number of groups’ initiatives that, to various degrees—without necessarily using the “conscience” word, are trying to develop a contrarian role for mainstream business that is larger than that of conventional profit maximization.

Claire Sommer has called the buzz-creating actions reflective of the first reason "The CVS Effect". Following CVSelimination of cigarettes from its retail stores, we’re seeing a stream of company announcements and unexpected actions. These include, but are by no means limited to: (a) Apple telling shareholders who objected to its commitment to renewable energy to sell their shares; (b) Kroger and Safeway joining other retailers in committing to not buy GMO salmon; and (c) a biggie, that even made the mainstream press, was Walmart’s (successful) objection to Arkansas legislation “that critics say would allow discrimination against lesbians and gay men.”

Here is a Table, prepared for this Series, of many more of these announcements and initiatives. They’re called, for now, examples of “Beyond the Business Case Mainstream Company Actions.”

This list, while substantial, is certainly not complete. It doesn’t show when more than one company supported an initiative, and the number of biodiversity-preserving actions not shown is now much larger than the sample in the Table.

Anticipating one of the key points critics will make in Part 3 – one bold action, even if legitimate (as it is assumed it is) and praiseworthy, does not condone other possible actions by that company that may fall at the other end of the sustainability spectrum. That is of course true, but still highlighting their actions serves multiple purposes, including giving a piece of overlooked evidence that, along with other pieces, shows the possible existence of something new under the sun. And like a person, the presence of conscience within a company does not guarantee perfect conformity with its dictates, but can serve as a “Tell-Tale Heart,” exerting its pressure over time.

Some observations from this list, and from the articles in which most of them were taken:

  • There are more social issues than we usually see in a sustainable business article or forum
  • Most of these are not incremental; for a few, however, it could be argued the company did not go far enough
  • A few of the initiatives can be quibbled with as being nothing more than opportunistic, while wrapping themselves in a higher cause — but not most of them
  • A few might be seen as philanthropy
  • It is actually hard to see a bottom-line connection to the company with some of them, and even more difficult to see a linkage to a product pay-off
  • Not all of the initiatives succeed
  • Probably all are very surprising.

Other observations are welcome.

The suggestion is that while it is too early to declare a paradigm shift, it may be time to raise the Kuhn anomaly-detector meter a notch or two as we may be at a pre-tipping point, years or even decades (although, I hope not) before a new idea gains sufficient momentum to overturn its predecessor and become the new accepted mainstream. Maybe this time, given the urgency, we could jump-start the discovery and, if it meets the mark, the acceptance process.

In the next part, we’ll provide further evidence from nine groups’ initiatives that come to a similar place regarding the role of business.

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