THE RISE AND FALL OF POLITICALLY CORRECT BUSINESSES
Anne Murphy
"The Seven (Almost) Deadly Sins of High Minded Entrepreneurs" is the title of the Inc. Magazine July 1994 issue cover story. The subtitle: "A generation of countercultural entrepreneurs struck out to change the world in the 1980s by building socially responsible businesses and made getting filthy rich look like good clean fun. Here's what they never told you about the high price of principle." Naturally when we talk about socially responsible businesses, this is a code word to mean pleasing to the media elite and we are certainly not talking about solid Thomistic ethics here, nor anything even remotely close. But the lessons that these businesses and their founders which set out to give lessons to the world, especially to the guardians of western world civilizations, in their quality of self-declared countercultural illuminati, learned in the process are interesting also to us in many ways.

The four companies mentioned in the article were the $130 millions, publicly traded, Ben & Jerry's ice cream business, founded by hippies Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield; Anita and Gordon Roddick's the Body Shop business based in England; Patagonia, the high scale outdoors outfitter founded by Yvon Chouinard; Smith and Hawken founded by Paul Hawken.

The core of the article sought to demonstrate that these entrepreneurs "were apologists for the notion that you can do the right thing—care for employees, suppliers, customers, and indeed the planet—and still turn a profit to please the most capitalist of pigs." We will see in this article that they just got "do the right thing;" determine how far they were from Catholic social teachings and what got them in trouble.

First we have to establish that these companies are solidly on the Politically Correct side of the cultural divide. In particular at least three of them have taken clear position on the pro-abortion issues. It is a fatal flaw in their claim to be agents of good.

Their declared pristine ideology helped them build a considerable amount of publicity with the help of the media who are all hippies at heart and allowed them to do well during the economically good years of Reagan and Thatcher era. But when the economy took a dive, this publicity did not help them. All the more, according to the writer of the Inc. magazine piece, "doing the right thing" has a cost and the companies mentioned had to pay the cost of their strategy at the worst time. "Doing the right thing can be risky business" she writes. All the more, when this right thing is not entirely right by Catholic standards.

Here are the costs.

The World will Never Be the Same (Of course, It Won't Be Entirely Different Either)

A company no matter its good intention will never be able to meet its own standards. In spite of its $650 millions in sales last year and its 1050 shops in 45 countries, the Body Shop whose charter objective is "changing the world" find that it is not making much of a dent in the way the world operates. "This hasn't changed the way the rain forest is being destroyed or created a vibrant economy in the Indian subcontinent" regretted a Body Shop manager. They find that the politics of saving the rain forest or of trading with its native inhabitants is itself a jungle.

The author of the article states that for companies which measure success only by the bottom line have an easier task at measuring success. But for our "good" companies who have loftier goals, we never completely succeed; they may only be able to "change the lives of a few hundred people at a time."

Comments: A Christian company is not expected to tackle the fundamental problems of the world. A Christian company is expected to 1) supply society in general with valuable goods and services which it needs at prices it can afford, while 2) providing a job to its employees and allow them to exercise their right and duty to work, 3) while respecting the dictates of justice with not only these employees but also suppliers and other "stakeholders" or participants, groups, with which the company is involved in its daily operations. The responsibility of a good Christian corporation come from its core activity and progressively spreads out to involve everyone that it deals with. This responsibility does not jump cases to try and help the rain forest or solve third world poverty if it does not come naturally as a pursuit of its operational functions. Then, if reliance of third world sources is made to be an important operation in a company like the Body Shop, it is not because there are not other better sources, but because it is part of a publicity effort and should be treated as such.

Extra! Extra! Real All About Us...

Another problem of these Politically Correct companies is that they have to deal with the Politically Correct press. "The press creates icons and then destroys them" as the article author puts it. Roddick of the Body Shop has no qualms with benefiting from the press: "You have to declare your vision publicly if you want others to support it." But dealing with the press after the first moment of glowing friendship tends to sour. "Once you raise the bar and urge business as a whole to raise its standards, you paint a bull's-eye on your back" writes Craig Cox of the also very Politically Correct "Business Ethics" magazine—on the board of which Ben & Jerry sit or sat at one time. "The press will watch closely for signs of hypocrisy."

"You create a legend or a myth about your business. But the press ultimately grows bored with you and starts looking around for deficiencies" says Roddick. The Body Shop has been found violating its own animal-testing ban, and charged with misleading customers about testing practices.

Comments: One should know what one does when one is going in bed with the media. Once the story that a corporation has a "noble" objective—whatever the definition of noble—is out, it is no longer news. What will be news then is if this corporation is not as pure as it is cracked up to be. The logic of the media is to find something different to report (it should really concentrate on what is important but it is not very good at that; it is much easier for the media to look for stories in what is "interesting", that is interesting to shallow, emotional, brain-less readers and audiences as they estimate theirs to be).

The Truth is Our Lord Jesus Christ. The same distance the media put between themselves and Our Lord is the distance they put between themselves and the truth in the stories they report. Only Christ is constructive; His nemesis, the Devil is destructive.

Second remark, these Politically Correct corporations and media do not operate within a philosophy which understands fallen nature. A Christian company and its managers will acknowledge that they are sinful and that, however Christian their ideals they will fail to reach these ideals. When you announce that you expect to fall short of your ideals, you change the expectations of the on-lookers and should you fail this should not be news. A Christian company, logically, should not have the same problems with the media as the Politically Correct companies.

We're Just One Big Happy Commune

People come to the Politically Correct companies with high expectations: expectations of happiness, political and social self-fulfillment as well as financial success.

"Employees expectations are often so high, they're impossible to manage" says Business Ethics editor Cox. "If you come to work for a socially responsible company, you expect to have more flexibility, more informal relations with supervisors, the autonomy to fashion the job the way you choose. It can be quite a shock to find out that the visionary founder is not an attentive manager or that there's still a hierarchy and still some lousy grunt work that somebody is telling you to get done."

Meredith Maran a former editorial director at Smith & Hawken: "Many of these companies pay less, expect longer hours and offer harder working conditions." Out-moded equipment and a high level of workers injury was the lot of Ben & Jerry for years.

When employees where laid off at Patagonia and Smith & Hawken, the shock was so strong that there was a very serious morale problem even in top management and decisions were very poorly made.

Comments: Politically Correct companies will attract politically correct employees with a lot of non-Christian expectations on the nature of work, of authority, of business. They believe work can be made to be pure fun, ignoring the teachings of Genesis where Adam was told he would have to toil as a penalty for eating the fruit. They are against all forms of authority, because the prototype of all authority is God. They think business is purely a matter of making profit whereas it is only a sensible way for individuals to come together and fulfill their responsibilities to work and produce things that others will find valuable but there is no guarantee that people will buy what you offer them.

The Oath to Office: Now Lean to the Left and Repeat After Me

The author of the article wonders whether, if it is alright to attract ideologically compatible employees, to make it a policy may be a little too restrictive. Should they turn down Republicans, Pro-Lifers (mentioned explicitly in the article).

The danger is for the company to weaken itself by turning down human resources which could be an asset. The other danger is to turn away customers and even employees who do not agree entirely with explicit policy statements. The Body Shop vocal opposition to the Gulf War was opposed by employees who had family members in the intervention forces and felt solidarity with them.

Comments: Some Christian companies may have the same problem of alienating non-Christian employees and customers. But then, we are told that support of Our Lord is like the edge of a sword some people will fall on one side of the edge others on the other side.

Who's Minding the Store? (Oh, That)

The genius is the aforementioned business is to be found in the marketing and design. A Chouinard is in love with the style of his clothes and with the "salvific message packaged along with it". But inventory control and other hard-nose managerial skills are not really their forte. "A passion to do the right thing may not translate into a passion to do things right." writes the article author. "One of the problems at Smith & Hawken" says Maran "was that you had a bunch of people walking around with this nonprofit mentality, acting like they were working for Greenpeace instead of a direct mail business."

Comments: Christian businesses may also have the tendency to favor their messianic vision. However they can be better saved by the fact that "doing things right" is also part and parcel of being good Christians. Second remark: the leftist understanding of business at these PC companies is a built-in element for ineffective management.

Since When Do Nice Guys Finish First?

The success of these companies breeds competition. They have to fight back. Ben & Jerry was criticized for trying to shut down its competitors and being the new big bully on the block.

Comments: Envelops to get readers for Business Ethics magazine claims that it is the "only business magazine for the Good Guys." They basically have the definition of Good Guy wrong. A Christian Good Guy businessman knows about the reality and necessity of competition, even though he understands there will be no longer any competition in the Kingdom.

The Costs" What You Don't Count Won't Hurt You?

"Virtues does not come cheap" claims the article author who after all this still finds virtue in these Politically Correct companies. The pay off of virtue is in the free publicity according to the author. But there are plenty of costs. They include: pollution-control equipment, day-care subsidies. The Body Shop lists costs center such as the Environmental Department, the Fair Trade Department, the Against Animal Testing Department.

Comments: The pay-off of Virtue for the Christian businessman is not in the publicity advantage delivered by the media. It comes from dealing with reality in direct grip, the reality of markets, the reality of customers whims, the reality of the good and weaknesses of employees and managers, the reality of work, its tediousness and its person-fulfilling aspects, the reality of business and of competition.

The author of this article, Anne Murphy, states in conclusion that you can succeed as a reform movement while failing as a business. For a Christian business, if it succeed at being a good Christian business, it will not fail as a business. The advantages and costs of Politically Correct and Christian businesses are not at all symmetrical. There is a much greater advantage at being, or striving to be, a Christian business.


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