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Philosophy Tuesday

July 7, 2015

This is a philosophical statement. It is intended to spark thinking and examining.

It is also a conversation about the context in which companies can operate, and the context in which they are currently operating.

“How do we love all the children, of all species, for all time?”

— William McDonough

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, and about the ways that companies and our businesses act, or don’t act, how we judge companies, and how that influences their decisions on how to act. There’s a lot to say here, a lot of interconnected pieces, I’m not sure how to say it all succinctly, or how to encompass it all.

Still, if I were to start from first principles – from intentions – then I would state my view this way:

A company ought to provide a great service/product while providing a great living to as many people as they can.

That, I would say, is and would be a wonderful metric by which to judge the performance a company.

I assert we as a society have gotten myopic in our assessment of companies, especially as they get “bigger”, looking primarily through the lenses of how “profitable” they are, or whether they are “growing”, as the measure of their success. Further, we have misjudged what profitable means: A company needs to produce enough revenue (money coming in from sales, etc, thus it needs to have a customer base to supply this revenue) to cover its expenses (salaries, production costs, taxes, location costs, R&D, loans, etc).   If a company has been in business for 20 years while employing and providing a good living to 10 people , while enough of the populous likes its products enough to support the company and its operations, then I doubt most of us would ever hear about it, much less hear it touted as a “successful” company. It isn’t growing its market base. It isn’t being more “profitable” year in and year out. It isn’t “crushing” the market.

But let’s look at this.

This is a company that employs a gaggle of people, people who may well love what they do, enjoy the product or service being provided, and are being supported in their livelihoods. And if the company’s been around for 20 years, then whatever it’s providing is clearly wanted, even if it’s not on the front page of every paper.

Inside the view that a company’s sole metric ought to be, or if by law it should only pay attention to, turning the maximum amount of profit, year in and year out, many things, such as paying minimal wages, externalizing costs into society or into the environment, making shoddy and disposable products, having lousy customer service, egregious contracts, low pay, slick marketing, and etc, make perfect sense. It is what we are demanding they do, because all else is supposed to be secondary to making the biggest profit or biggest gains possible.

That race for the bottom becomes weird: you pay your employees as little as possible, but then you have to externalize costs as much as possible to make the products cheap enough to actually let those same employees be able to buy things, so that the profit can be made. Low, lower, lowest. Meanwhile, the profits all get drained off to… somewhere. At best, to the workers; at worst, not the workers, or the consumers, or society.

But if life is for the living, then why can’t our companies operate that way as well? There’s nothing that says (and indeed historically they haven’t operated this way) that a company need muck over as much as possible to get the biggest buck as the only way to operate or survive. They could survive quite well without that.* And still thrive and still endure and still provide.

Rather than this zero-sum game, what would it be like to have companies operating where they are maximising the honouring of its employees? Maximising the honouring of society and the planet? Maximising the honouring of its clients? Companies focussed on living and making a living and providing (a) living/life? **

 

* – And, in fact, might well be much better off…

** – And I know there are some companies that do indeed operate this way (and hats off to them!), and I also get that, due to the current context, there is less money flowing which makes it difficult and more of a context of survival for many businesses.

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