By Alex Mulcahy
Can a business succeed if it puts its values first? In the cover story this month, we look at three cacao-plant businesses that focus on the welfare of the farmer as their primary goal. (The Philly Foodworks ad on the inside back cover has a similar message, and it’s worth reading about their creative strategies designed to help local farmers succeed.)
Conventional wisdom says that a values-first business is a bad idea, or at least a risky one. By and large, this is true in a capitalist economy. Leading with values doesn’t mean you won’t be successful, but it certainly can be a hindrance. (Some would say it offers a marketing advantage, a differentiator in the marketplace, but for this approach to work, the majority of competitors must not share your values, and that does not bode well for the future.)
Better to make sure that your own business is profitable, this line of thinking would continue, and then after achieving stability, you might investigate ways to improve what you do, and pursue the triple bottom line of people, planet and profit.
The New York Times opinion writer David Brooks began a recent column about the growing detachment of working class men from work, family and church, with this assertion: “A society is healthy when its culture counterbalances its economics.”
His argument seems to be that at work, we should be self-interested and competitive, but outside of that, our culture should celebrate “cooperation, stability and committed relationships.”
This idea strikes me as counterintuitive, that our lives can be compartmentalized, that despite participating in a highly individualist and competitive setting, we can, at the end of the work day, suddenly feel a swell of benevolence for our fellow man. It seems far more realistic that we will succeed when we align our economy with our values.
The argument for the central role of values can be extended in other directions. One of the strategies offered to encourage people to change behavior is a financial reward. You can save the planet and save money. But in his most recent book, “There Is No Planet B,” British journalist Mike Berners-Lee advises that we should “not try to win an argument by appealing to unhelpful values.”
“Whilst you might get some immediate behavior change, more importantly you have strengthened the idea that all actions revolve around money. So, if it doesn’t feel financially worth it to take the next step, there is less overall reason for doing so. In the same way, it doesn’t work to sell environmental strategies to businesses purely on the basis of increased product sales. The reason has to be, without embarrassment, that it is the right thing to do.”
The conversation has to be shifted. It can no longer be, can a values-first business succeed? The real question is: what values do we need as a society, as a species, to survive?
Dorothy Davenport Alexander, age 100, featured in our story about black women centenarians on page 6, offers this wisdom: “The whole purpose of life is to experience love.” Can’t our economy be about that, too?
Alex Mulcahy, Publisher