For a few years now, we (the Salem company I work with) have been dues paying members of the regional branch of the national Business for Social Responsibility (BSR). Struggling to communicate both my heartfelt support for, and total disenchantment with, high falootin’ concepts like “ethical business,” it dawns on me: Salem just doesn’t get involved in such descriptive forms of name-calling. She doesn’t latch on to media hype (we really don’t have much of our own media, so maybe we’re out of practice). But rather than bemoan our lackluster environment, I am coming to realize the essence of it. And it is good!
Salem is not flashy, she doesn’t appeal to our need for endless and ever-changing drama. In fact, she more resembles a form of meditation. Life just goes on here. And in so doing, the expression of people helping each other and supporting their mutual success is more a description of her own true nature than something that needs to be touted. One doesn’t advertise that one is breathing. The general public of Salem hears more about people contributing to someone whose house has burned down, or rescuing someone from an accident, than the more esoteric concept of socially responsible business practices. I keep hearing from a friend who moved here from faraway Portland that people in Salem are just so nice! The teller at the bank, the cashier at the store, the guy standing next to you on the corner: they ask how you’re doing and mean it. They willingly engage with interest and concern.
Salem is still an expression of small-town humanity. Each person is still an individual to be treated with respect, regardless of politics or social interests. Businesses in Salem are largely comprised of people who live in Salem. As I have asked about local interest in forming a branch of BSR, I’ve received enthusiasm....but it just doesn’t get off the ground. What’s going on here? Salem is communicating her message. Why create more “clubs” with their ensuing need for organizational attention? Maybe all we need is a few meetings each year to talk about what’s really going on in our own businesses. And I begin to see the value in simply sharing creative approaches to doing business, with compassion for employees (without whom there would be no business to do).
Glamour or Meaning?
Maybe it’s just me that got caught up in the drama, thinking that without the flashy headlines and the name-association of a national organization, people might not share my concerns. Embarrassing, but true: glamour is a strong motivator.
It’s our need for drama that turns “ethical business,” a basic human concept, into a marketing phrase with which businesses want to be associated, often losing its meaning as it gains in popular acclaim. It seems that, for a concept to be desired by mainstream culture, it must take on qualities of the lowest common denominator, becoming an epitome of mediocrity. It must be comprehended and made easy to achieve so we can all feel good about our affiliation with what’s au courante. But then it loses the beauty of its true meaning, like a piece of fine art or music that has been sold to be used for commercial gain. If I have a touch of cynicism about organizing human clubs around high moral purposes, it derives from this paradox. Let’s examine these concepts from an unjaded perspective, and then take a look at some of the dangers inherent in the paradox.
Social responsibility, as it pertains to the business community, involves finding a balance in serving needs of the community, environment, customers, vendors, employees, and shareholders. We refer to a double bottom line: business must reflect monetary profit and it must make a positive contribution to society. Socially responsible firms are proactive in doing what they can to fashion a better world. Examples of these business practices include provision of: alternative employee healthcare programs (including massage); a gym; daycare; educational opportunities on-site; flextime/telecommuting; financial counseling services; making monetary donations; and paying employees to contribute time/skills to charitable community programs. Social responsibility also involves holding suppliers accountable to sustainable environmental practices through periodic audits, and continually revisiting one’s own recycling and energy self-audit programs.
The essence of all this is consideration for our ecological environment, including recognition of the employee as a human being who has needs and a life of one’s own. Corporate America has not always recognized this (I know, you’re shocked!), as evidenced by the historic strife of the working public and development of unions earlier this century. Children were forced to work long hours in poor conditions for pennies, there was no concept of minimum wage, the working environment (especially in manufacturing plants) made no allowance for the fact that the workers were not part of the machinery. Changes have been made over time, with activism and legislative support, to provide for the health and safety of workers. Now we are ready to take another step up in evolution.
A Little Bit O’ Background
The first time I heard of the concept “socially responsible” was as it pertained to investing. In the early eighties, a couple of fledgling investment organizations established criteria against which they tested the practices of corporations before they would invest any of their clients’ funds in the corporate stock. This was cutting edge stuff! If a company supported the military complex, used or generated nuclear energy, or did not hire or promote women or minorities, your money would be directed away from their coffers. The concept took off. A measure of how politically/socially/morally correct an organization was became membership in any number of associations that cropped up with names including ‘spiritual,’ ‘ethical,’ ‘responsible.’ Social responsibility became the new green slogan.
“Environmental Studies” was new in the early ‘70s, when concerns for overpopulation and pollution were the focus. Earth Day truly brought our generation to thinking of the earth as a whole living being, needful of our compassion and attention in exchange for her continuing sustenance to our kind. Peace and love were also popular concepts. These days we speak of “the planet,” but do we really remember what we mean? “Green” has become a slogan to sell any item, from household detergents to toilet paper made with minimal amounts of recycled materials, and costing 25% more than the next item on the shelf. We politically correct creatures dutifully buy the “green” product. Do we know anything about the corporation that manufactures this toilet paper? Do we recall how intertwined we all are, we of “the planet?” Do we consider the energy, either the electrical power, or personal power or compassion of the owners and managers of that corporation toward its workers, the people-energy used to keep the company in business? Probably not. We just buy the “green” toilet paper.
“Co-op,” another hyped concept whose original meaning is tainted by marketing practices, referred to individuals working together to attain the synergy needed for a common cause. An early economic application of this involved the agricultural co-ops in the Midwest, where farmers got together to buy supplies, tools and seeds at quantity price breaks. Similarly, natural food co-ops started as food buying clubs when families would meet in someone’s house once a month to put together a large order for healthier food purchased at wholesale prices. Some of these evolved into small storefronts as the households and order sizes grew, and then turned into various incarnations of food cooperatives. Some of these have stayed true to their community roots, and others have become backdrops for food managers who get their kicks on vicarious supermarket magnate fantasies. Ahh, human nature, in all its attraction to glamour.
Image or Truth
All of these concepts: environmentalism, cooperatives, ethical business, are rooted in compassion, for each other and our interdependent world. Yet there are those who have found these roots suitable for growing profit trees having little to do with the empiric qualities from which they spring. These same business practices that give employees a sense that they are cared for are great promotional devices used to attract brain-power, and highly productive workers. If the employee is able to express him/herself, and feels appreciated, the company experiences low turnover and low retraining costs. Some companies provide free minor household repairs and arrange for someone to be at the employee’s home for the cable guy, or to pick up his/her car at the auto mechanic, in an effort to reduce stress in daily life so the employee can fully be dedicated to the firm’s programs and profitability. Full-size, heavily used basketball courts on-site build cohesiveness, teamwork, and fun. Some provide for laundry to be done at the office for the cost of the soap!
Perhaps the motives to provide these benefits are truly inspired and offered in the spirit of generosity and compassion. Maybe not. All I suggest is that we walk around with our eyes open.
On Sunday, Feb. 16th, the Oregonian ran an article called “Selling out morals takes big bucks.” It appears less socially responsible firms are forced to pay a “moral premium” to attract premium workers. According to Economist Robert Frank in the new book “Codes of Conduct,” the amount of additional yearly salary it would take Cornell University graduating seniors to accept certain jobs varies with the socio-political environment of the company to which they apply. Examples follow in the chart on this page.
So some firms use increased pay, others use incentive and benefit programs. This is not new. But what can be demoralizing is when less “ethical” companies use the programs they offer as evidence of improved moral code. This same tactic is used to increase or bolster product sales if they have declined due to image problems. Nike, for example, was discovered using children, purchased by factories in other countries to produce tennis shoes in those countries. First replies to this accusation referred to ‘cultural practices’ of other countries, (“that’s how business is done there”). As public sentiment grew against Nike for doing business this way, Nike joined BSR (Business for Social Responsibility). They now attend workshops in an attempt to learn more about human nature, and how to manufacture their products in a manner consistent with having a conscience about how we treat each other, even in business. Nike has also hired personnel to oversee practices in foreign countries, to keep abuse to a minimum and create standards ascribed to by members of BSR. In this example, at least, the result of poor image, and resulting decline in profitability, contributed to better (more ethical) business practices. Perhaps this form of behavioral modification, induced by less than pure motivation, practiced regularly will ultimately lead to changes in the soul of the company.
The Subtle Soul of Salem
So, back to Salem and her lack of glamour, yet surplus of soul. Consider those with whom you do business in this town: how many go out of their way for you the customer? How many are good to their employees, and contribute to good causes in the community, in their own quiet way? Is it important to exhibit the flash? Will we notice our social responsibility to each other without the hype?
It should be stated that pure social responsibility is an ideal, a goal, a standard to which few, if any, business citizens fully measure up. Yet socially responsive, socially reflective disciplines are achievable. It is important for us to at least talk more with each other, expand our horizons on this issue. We are social animals. We need to communicate more with each other to notice the support we receive even by just being who we are. And we need to have and express our self-confidence and be proud of what we each achieve. That’s what this new publication Alternatives is all about! Let’s just be sure that, especially here, in a very creative attempt to awaken ourselves to the life that surrounds us, we are ever diligent about staying true to the causes we espouse. There are plenty of others willing to use catch-phrases that now merely imply the truth they represent. Let’s stay real. Even if it’s done, as most things in Salem are, with subtlety.
Susan J. Cassuto, Co-manager and V.P. Finance of Kettle Foods, Inc., makers of Kettle Chips right here in Salem.