Hi, I'm Isaac.

I'm a consultant and advisor  for social enterprises - using business to change the world.

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Wrestling With Ethics

Wrestling With Ethics

I feel uncomfortable writing this post.
Normally I focus on things I’m good at, things with solid answers or about opinions I strongly hold.
This time is different.
I don’t have final answers, and I’m still grappling with the issues.

There are three things on my mind:

How ethical is it to start a livestock inclusive business?

This week, one of my main tasks is to create financial models for 14 different inclusive business options.

That sounds dull, and at times, it is.
But it’s also exciting, playing with “What If?” scenarios and eliminating ideas that aren’t viable.

Agriculture is easy, turning seeds and seedlings into grains, fruits and vegetables.
Everyone wins.
Livestock though, has thrown me.

A dried fish business?
Great – farmers fish in the local river and sell their fish to a central factory.

Fish farming?
Ok I guess - keeping large tanks of fish, feeding them with a crop like cassava or corn.

Crocodile farming?
That seems…weird.
Keeping crocodiles in containment for three years, feeding them each thousands of fish purchased from local farmers, then killing the crocodiles for their skin and meat.

Turning fish food into fish, then fish into crocodiles.
Nature sounds strange when broken down into cellular transformation.

I’d feel really uncomfortable feeding each crocodile hundreds of cats.
So why am I fine with feeding it thousands of fish?

For some reason, the idea of farming crocodiles feels cruel.
Killing animals so we can make designer bags and wallets.
But then, I have no problem wearing my favourite leather boots.

Farming animals for meat feels better than farming them for their skin.
So what’s the difference between skinning a crocodile and skinning a cow?
Does the taste of the meat change the ethics?

At the same time, I’m very comfortable designing a chicken farming business, so long as it’s not a battery farm.
But what if the beneficiaries don’t care about chicken’s lives?
If they want to start a battery farm because the margins are better, who am I to interfere?
Higher margins = more social impact.
At what point does the end justify the means?

Can an inclusive business sell an unhealthy product?

Betel nut, pictured above, is a hallucinogenic drug consumed across the developing world, especially in Papua New Guinea and India.
It’s chewed with lime powder and mustard stick, which combine to dye your teeth red and give you a mellow high.
It’s not good for you either, with a bunch of negative health effects including mouth cancers.

If this is popular, a cash crop with strong demand and can boost the incomes of families in extreme poverty, how bad does it have to be before it’s unethical?
If it were another drug, it would be out of the question.
But this one is socially acceptable.
Does that change the ethics?

I’d happily sell Coca Cola, but that’s also atrocious for you.
I think I'm OK with social enterprise beer too.
Cigarettes are out, but what about growing tobacco or medical marijuana?

The line is so blurred and my rationalisations are becoming bizarre.
At what point am I projecting my values onto another culture, versus standing up for what is “right”?

How Ethical Are My Investments?

Having just said cigarettes are out of the question, how can I own shares in cigarette companies?
I’d never buy shares of large cigarette companies myself.

But I love Vanguard and their low cost index funds.
They’re a great company with consistently good returns that favour investors.

The nature of an index fund is that it buys a bit of everything, so that you get the exact average of the market.
Which means you get the winners and the losers.
But also the ethical and the…unethical.

So when I look at the holdings of the fund, I’m uncomfortable seeing the list of companies that I’m indirectly purchasing.
In one sense, I did nothing wrong.
At the same time, I’ve financially benefitted from companies that I feel are evil.
How many degrees of separation do their need to be before I’m ok?
Does it matter if Vanguard technically own the shares instead of me?

What if the ethical funds have higher fees?
How much is this worth to me?

Conflicting Priorities

They say the definition of strategy is being able to say “No” to good things.
Our industry is going to have a hard time for the next decade, as different “Good Things” compete against one another.

We want to raise the incomes of the world’s poorest people.
Everyone agrees that’s good.
But where do we draw lines around alcohol, hallucinogens, animal rights, junk food or western media?

If the answer is “Betel Nut creates the best opportunities” or “Let’s raise and skin thousands of crocodiles, it will create the most jobs”, I’m not sure how I’ll feel...


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