Is to make money right? Absolutely yes, but let’s not kid ourselves – there are rules. It’s not as if you can just do what you want to do. The “free market” might sound like a pretty neat idea but that only exists in theory. If markets were truly free we wouldn’t have all the subsidies, incentives, trade limitations etc that almost all companies benefit from or lobby for in some or other way. All markets are regulated to ensure that they serve a purpose. A social purpose that goes beyond shareholder gains only.
Do companies seriously want to debate this? Then give back your subsidy. Drop the demands for more favorable trade rules. Your business is about making money within a set of rules. Live with it even when all those rules don’t slap you on the back and give you money.
Some rules are written into law and you have to comply to them. But some rules are unwritten – the social contract you have with society as a whole.
Let’s put it in another way. We have laws regulating individual behaviour. These laws did not come from nowhere. Before they became written law, they were the unwritten rules we had as a society to organize ourselves and somehow get us to live in some sort of pact – harmony being a dream only. Before we wrote down a law that said – don’t kill, murder etc – we had that as part of the societal contract. It was a societal contract governing our behaviour. One that organized how we lived with and amongst each other and the roles and responsibilities each of us had towards each other and ourselves. We “gave up” our freedom to pillage and burn to gain from living with each other. A societal contract that defines and creates society. One that helped us move forward as a specie instead of going off driving individual gain only. There are and were many of these societal contracts to help drive cohesion. Stealing, murder, property rights, trade etc.
It’s the same for business. There have been unwritten rules of engagement – the societal contract to ensure that they serve a broader positive societal role and not purely out for personal gain. For example – Rule one, don’t sell me snake oil. And eventually that made it into law. Don’t sell me food that will kill me. That eventually became law. All of these regulations are there to underscore the societal contract that existed before the actual law was written.
And like any law, it became more complicated the longer we lived together as a society. Those who don’t value the societal contract will try to find new ways to break it to stay within the written law or even change the written law. But because they are breaking the unwritten societal contract, we need to rewrite and bring in new written laws. Take killing for instance. It was pretty simple, you shouldn’t kill someone else. Well, what happens if it was by accident? Or in self-defense. Oops, let’s expand on that law a bit. And it becomes more complicated each day as people and companies try to find new ways to break the societal contract by finding ways to undermine the written law. (I wonder if these ‘complications’ with writing the societal contract into law were the first example of lobbying as well?)
Business cannot just operate the way it wants. It serves a societal need whether it is bringing the goods we need to us via a retail shop or provide us with the fuel we need to keep us warm or just get around. It does not have the freedom to do what it wants to do for the sake of itself. It must serve a purpose (real or perceived – thank you advertising) and play within the written and unwritten rules. You can’t exploit workers for the benefit of your bottom line. You cannot dump toxic materials into the water streams used as drinking water just because it is better for your bottom line. You can’t knowingly sell a product that will kill people even if it does help your bottom line. You can’t lie to people about what your product does just to increase your bottom line. You can’t use your bottom line as the sole reason why you do something – legal or illegal. That bottom line is not always in the interest of the bottom line of society – to live and prosper.
The unwritten rules and social contract with society is based on trust. People trust that you will do the right thing. It’s why people tend not to like government regulating behaviour – it not only creates the perception that it limits freedom but it goes against the principle of trust. And, of course, government will argue that these laws are there to serve the societal contract and ensure (consumer) protection from those who refuse to work within the spirit of the societal contract. The societal contract is based on trust. But lobbying behind their backs to “get away with it” because of greed or any other reason breaks that trust. The trust is broken when companies lie about their impact and when their impact is not beneficial to society – today or tomorrow. Especially if the company does it on purpose – knowingly. When you break that trust you break the societal contract. Then you cease to have a reason to exist. It’s not in the interest of the societal bottom line.
So, the business of business is to make money but only within the confinements of the societal contract – written or unwritten. The next time you lobby for something that is in the best interest of your company or you hide your true impact or your falsely advertise the benefits or impact of your product or service, do ask yourself if you are breaking the unwritten contract that you have with society.
Do you serve a purpose that is beneficial to society? And please refrain from drinking the Kool Aid. Think before you drink. Consider the truth before you answer. Because you are also a member of our society.
The business of business is to serve a societal purpose. We love it when you make money while doing this and we see this as the reward we provide you because you are one of us and doing something good for all of us. Now go and have a purpose. A real one.
So the next time you use the line of “the business of business is business” or argue against CSR or sustainability – please think again. Your responsibility might lie with your shareholders but your licence to operate lies with us. The people. CSR and sustainability is our way of defining the rules for you. We don’t expect you to like it but that’s the way the cookie crumbles. Live with it. Implement it. Embrace it. Or maybe we’ll just have to revoke your licence.