Dirty Water Will Put Out A Fire
Last year I wrote an article called Wrestling With Ethics, about some of the surprising choices that come with building social businesses (e.g. livestock, selling addictive substances, etc)
This article comes from a similar place, some questions that have been on my mind in recent months.
The overall theme is: Can you do good things with bad money?
Or to paraphrase a Jamaican proverb: Can dirty water put out a fire?
Who will I work with?
We naturally attach ourselves to brands that match our worldview.
It might be our choice of phone, fast food, car, newspaper, alcohol or even stationary.
When it comes to our employer, the process is similar – we want to work for a company that aligns with our values.
However, if you work for a large enough company, they are guaranteed to have done something horrible somewhere along the line.
Every airline has treated someone atrociously.
Every bank has funded something that damages the environment.
Every large business has had sleazy executives.
The question is, how bad is too bad?
Which companies would you refuse to work for?
Would you work for an oil company?
A tobacco company?
An investment bank?
A mining company?
A sports betting company?
I bet some of those were easy, and some were murky.
How did you make up your mind?
What went through your head?
For each of those examples, some people would call them the devil and others would see them as being forces for good.
Whose money will we take?
This is a slightly different question.
Let’s say you want to build a social enterprise or an inclusive business.
You have your own mission and your own plan, but it needs $1m of funding.
Fortunately, there’s an organisation who is willing to give you the money, since it will fulfil their social impact targets.
Who would you be willing to take the money from?
A fast food company?
An oil company?
A tobacco company?
There are two sides competing in my mind:
“It’s just money” vs “I don’t want this business to make an evil company look good”
Money is money, and how someone earned it has no impact on the people we’re trying to assist.
Families living in extreme poverty aren’t going to turn down financial assistance from De Beers if it means that their kids can receive an education.
Who am I to get in the way of that?
At the same time, we pour ourselves into these new businesses, and every social entrepreneur wants their baby to reflect their own values.
The idea of a good business being a form of “greenwashing” is distasteful and also undermines our message.
It’s also about the story we tell ourselves each day at work.
Do you want your salary to have come from a company whose actions you despise?
Whose dollars were made at the expense of the vulnerable people you're trying to help?
Spinning ourselves a good story
This week I’ve found myself switching back and forth as I debate what to do.
There’s a client whose business I really dislike, to the point that I don’t think I can accept the project.
A colleague was quick to point out that some of my recent clients have had their fair share of human rights violations, so why is this one so different?
Then I ask myself – am I willing to help an evil company do something good?
If I say no, they’ll give the job to someone who won’t build a sustainable business (genuinely what has happened when someone else replaces us on a project)
If the evil company wants to do something that will change lives, surely it’s good to help them out?
Or what if it’s helping the company switch to a less damaging product?
What if we can re-train their suppliers to grow something good for the world, rather something that kills people?
That story sits better in my stomach.
Ethics vs Virtue Signalling
While I’m doing some real soul searching, maybe I’m mixing internal ethics and my own reputation.
Am I guided by a moral compass, or am I worried about what people will say when they find out who pays for our projects?
If nobody found out, would that change which funders I’d say yes/no to?
And in that case, am I disguising an ego decision as an ethical one?
Dirty water will put out a fire
Something unappealing can still do something good.
We’ve built incredible businesses that transform entire communities, and these typically require patience and serious funding.
In 2018, the businesses with patience and a tonne of money are the ones who are trying to fix their reputation.
Charitable funders are oversubscribed, and therefore don’t have the time, attention or resources to invest in a long term project.
Meanwhile, large companies are desperate to throw their community funds on something sustainable.
I believe they’re doing noble deeds for a selfish reason.
The impact is still very real.
Past vs Present
I suppose I’m ok with companies that are genuinely trying to do better.
If they’re committed to helping others, we can magnify their impact.
If they’re still making predatory decisions, I won’t help them become more effective.
Nike’s practices in the 90’s were terrible, and they were rightly exposed.
Phil Knight committed to doing better, and today they’re influential leaders in environmental and social practices.
It’s the same reason why I love my Hugo Boss jumper my friend gave me.
Hugo Boss made Nazi uniforms, but they’re not still doing that today.
I absolutely get why people dislike them, but I’m not personally concerned about what they’ll do next year.
By contrast, Volkswagen were also heavily involved with the Nazi party, and recently were exposed for their systematic cheating on emissions tests.
That morally corrupt culture really bothers me, to the point where I couldn’t partner with them.
If a company is looking to change their ways and do something good for the community, I vote we help them build something special.
It might mean stepping down from the high horse when it comes to shaming others, but we’ll get to build better projects and change more lives.