Business baiting is back in fashion. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a firm believer in hassling corporations mercilessly until they meet their obligations – to societies, communities and economies – but I’d like to see some balance and maybe a less dogmatic appreciation of the benefits of the corporate model too.
Sure, if you eat nothing but McDonalds for a month you’re going to get ill (in my follow-up I’m going to eat nothing but lettuce, get malnutrition, win a Golden Bear and single-handedly bring down the evil salad cartel) but when was the last time your local macrobiotic cafe gave $5M to UNICEF to combat neonatal tetanus? Starbucks may be big and boring (I mean really boring) but how many microcredit loans to South American smallholders were underwritten by your favourite independent coffee shop last year?
There’s a serious point here: businesses like McDonalds, Nike, Starbucks are not islands. They are continually changed and deflected by outside forces, including shareholder and customer activism (a fruit Happy Meal?). In fact, businesses are better able to respond to these forces than almost any other institution. Businesses are good at change – it’s what they do best. The structure of the modern corporation organises resources and capital to produce maximum change (new sources of excess profit) while protecting income from long-term assets (property, ideas, people). A business is really a machine for holding in balance constant change and necessary stasis. Compare the rate of change at your bank or telephone company to that in, say, a Government department or a church or a charity, all of which have a much greater investment in staying the same than any business. Compare Nike now, after decades of pressure from the sweatshop campaigners (and now competing, anti-corporate sneakers), to the bad old Nike of lowest-cost production and child labour.
I’m not arguing for a more forgiving attitude to business – constant pressure from activists and Governments is a vital driver for this new kind of business, part of the contemporary consumer landscape – but I do want us to at least notice when businesses do good things for the environment, promote social change, support communities or improve the circumstances of their workers.
If we can celebrate the good companies as much as we condemn the backward, damaging and greedy behaviour of the bad ones, we might harness the immense potential for change that business embodies and, while we’re at it, trigger the kind of virtuous circle that produces more corporate responsibility and improves things for everyone.