Business can be so much more than business
I have this vision in my head of a scene from an ’80s movie (possibly all of them). There’s a cigar-chomping Wall Street guy telling some young idealistic person that “this is business”, the implication being that feelings/environmentalism/social goods/community interests are irrelevant. The young character is indignant and ends up proving the CCWSG wrong, and we all throw our popcorn in the air cheerfully.
It’s a nice Hollywood message, with the CCWSG getting his comeuppance and all, but in reality the “business is business” mantra is crazy entrenched in Western culture. We can identify with the idealist young character, but we’re more likely to live by CCWSG’s rules.
“Business is business” is an industrialist way of thinking focused on future wealth. It ignores present and future impact (both good and bad). It is short term, and intensely limiting.
In the short term, cheap labour and materials and fear-based marketing are effective. In the short term, they generate enormous quarterly profits. And if that’s all we’re measuring, since business is business, then we can give ourselves a pat on the back and go home.
But business doesn’t have to be just business.* Business is an opportunity, through the medium of enterprise, to incite change, to make a difference, to make someone’s day, to make someone’s work life meaningful, to do pretty much any great thing you can imagine. You don’t have to do those things separately from making money anymore.
What's great is that these ideas aren't new, but it seems that they are gaining traction. I’m not even an early adopter. The New Zealand Government is part-way through a pilot social impact bond investment programme with the Ministry of Health, following the success of similar programmes in the UK and Australia. The Government also issued a position statement in support of social enterprise early last year. Over half the states in the US recognise “Benefit Corporations”, being corporations with a dual mission of generating profit and having a stated environmental or social impact.
Seth Godin wrote a great piece on what it means to be “anti-business”. It boils down to whether you take a short term or a long term view. He makes the point, tongue in cheek, that anyone saying that a certain protection is “anti-business” will invariably by focused on the short term and not the long term.
I am pro-business, but with a long view. We live in a much bigger picture world than we used to. It’s difficult to know about climate change, low-wage workers in Asia, water shortages in Australia and California, and all the other crises competing for our attention, and not see the need and opportunity for business to be more than just business. Equally it’s difficult to see companies like Zappos and the ventures developed by Akina and not see what is possible (from a business and a human point of view), when we step fully into that big picture.
I look forward to the day my kids and grandkids will watch those same ’80s movies with a kind of bewildered curiosity, like I do with sexist and racist comedies from the ’50s and ’60s. “It’s amazing anyone used to be like that,” they’ll say, as they look for their hoverboards and eat their food pills.
Business really is so much more than business now, and what a relief that is.
* I think there is a moral imperative for it not to be, but that’s a different post.