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Yonah Lieberman: Just (and) good business

BY YONAH LIEBERMAN

Published February 22, 2012

Let me just start with this: I am not a big fan of huge, for-profit corporations.

There are many reasons why I feel this way — and I would love to discuss these at length with any of you. Yes, even you, College Libertarians.

Don’t get the wrong idea. I understand the benefits of capitalism, especially in this technology-rich age. Capitalism incentivizes new and better ideas. In turn, those ideas improve our society in major ways.

But frankly, anyone who doesn’t find fault with at least some aspects of capitalism needs to step back and look again.

To me, capitalism's main fault is that it’s a system where companies define success entirely on their bottom line — have they made more money than their competition. This leads to an approach where profits often take priority over people.

But this column is not meant to simply bash corporate greed. It is meant to show how the system can function morally.

With the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement, there has been a heightened awareness of many of the corporation’s immoral actions. As someone who both identifies strongly with the Occupy movement and has rallied against large for-profit corporations for years, this news is refreshing to me.

I recently came across an article on the website wakeup-world.com entitled, “Five Companies that Did Something Positive for the World in 2011.” Needless to say, I was skeptical.

Most large corporations these days have some sort of social initiative or charity fund. While some may argue that this reveals the true morals of the leadership, I realistically view these meaningless initiatives simply as ways to win social capital and improve their reputation.

And yet, I was impressed with the article. Ice cream chain Ben and Jerry’s released a statement in support of the Occupy movement way back in October. Outdoor outfitter Patagonia introduced an anti-consumerist campaign called “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” The trendy clothing store H&M pledged to have all of its cotton come from sustainable sources by 2020. The computer giant Hewlett-Packard has used its power to lobby against the use of conflict minerals in their products. And Method Products has released the greenest laundry detergent to ever hit shelves.

These five companies are by no means perfect. They are, however, changing — or attempting to change — corporate America. I find hope in the efforts in these companies.

It may seem obvious, but with the exception of Patagonia, whose campaign to literally not sell their products is either suicidal or incredibly inspiring, these corporations are only seen as “good” because their competition is so damn bad.

For example, while HP paved the way to advocate against conflict minerals, major companies such as Toshiba and Canon came in last place according to the organization Raise Hope for Congo.

I shed light on these initiatives not because I am getting paid by them (though, if you’re listening Ben and Jerry’s, I would appreciate a few cartons of Phish Food), but because I want to do my part to shift the conversation around corporations.

As socially conscious consumers, it’s all too easy to spend all of our time exposing immoral practices of large corporations and screaming about it. I do it all the time. Let’s not beat around the bush — there is a lot to expose.

However, we cannot just criticize bad policies, we must propose an alternative. These five companies shed light onto the world as it could be.

If we spend our time promoting these great initiatives, large corporations will see this and — in their own self-interest — begin to adopt similar programs.

There is the danger of being co-opted for our ideals. As I stated earlier, most major corporations already have social initiatives, albeit meaningless ones. There is a fine line between those and the truly productive ones highlighted in the article.

But if we stay educated and keep the pressure on these companies, we can ensure that programs and initiatives have meaning.

Yes, we must hold corporations to higher standards. We, their consumers, hold all the cards. But we must also be able to point to specific policies that these companies should adopt.

We need to build up what we seek to break down. Only then will a just society exist.

Yonah Lieberman can be reached at yonahl@umich.edu. Follow him on twitter at @YonahLieberman.