Chris McCann, WhichPLM Expert and Director of Resilient.World, is a well-known figure in compliance and sustainability. Here, he shares his latest thoughts on the state of business.
There is a picture in the Louvre, painted by the artist Bartolome Esteban Murillo, titled ‘The Young Beggar’. Also known as ‘The Lice-Ridden Boy’, it shows the figure of a street urchin delousing himself, a scant meal of apples and shrimp at his feet as he huddles in a corner. Ironically, at the time it was painted Murillo was criticised for creating an idealised urchin that did not truly reflect the harsh realities of Spanish poverty. It was not graphic enough…
Whenever in Paris, I make a point of visiting the painting. It doesn’t draw the same crowds enjoyed by Mona Lisa, or Venus de Milo – maybe that’s part of its attraction. It was painted at the height of Spain’s Golden Age- that period in Spain’s history when the Habsburg’s Empire was at its cultural, political and economic height. And yet, even at its apogee, Murillo was commenting on the inequities of his society, the divisions between haves and have-nots. And ultimately it was those inequities that contributed to the decline of the Spanish Empire, evidenced in part by the Dutch, Catalan and Basque revolts at the injustice those people felt they had suffered.
Empires fall. That appears to be the lesson of history. And while the reasons for their decline and fall are often complex, the frequency with which inequality and inequity plays a part is notable. The Roman Empire, for example, suffered from government corruption and an over-reliance on slave labour. The collapse of the British Empire could be traced, in part, back to the depredations of the East India Company. Early 20th century Russia witnessed Nicholas II ignoring the plight of a hungry citizenry and, worse, sending troops to quell riots or end strikes. In each case they, no doubt, anticipated an uninterrupted run (Hitler’s 8 year Reich was significantly less than the 1,000 years promised), their end encapsulated in Shelley’s ‘Ozymandias’-
‘’Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away”
It’s also no coincidence that many of the attempts to codify rights through history have arisen as a direct result of the injustices experienced by their framers. The American War of Independence produced, 5 years after its end in 1783, the Constitution of the United States and its aspirations of majority rule and minority rights, of liberty and equality. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris, three years after the end of World War 2 in 1948. Its preamble begins with the words:
“Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”
Even the Magna Carta, although famously protecting only English barons from illegal imprisonment and access to swift justice (not, you’ll notice, universal rights for the peasantry!) nevertheless highlights an important point – that even apex predators (in this case, King John of England) can be brought down by sufficient numbers of dissatisfied constituents.
What does all this have to do with a business article? Well…everything. ‘Greed is good’ are the (often misquoted) words of Gordon Gekko from the 1987 film ‘Wall Street’. Arguably they have as their genesis the Friedman Doctrine, the theory stated by Milton Friedman which holds that:
‘A firm’s main responsibility is to its shareholders. This approach views shareholders as the economic engine of the organization and the only group to which the firm is socially responsible.’
So long as a company operates within the bounds of stakeholder expectations (primarily shareholders, management and the law), everything is golden, a principle taught in business schools across the world. And undoubtedly, in a competitive world, this argument is compelling – anything less runs the risk of ceding ground (market share, revenue, profit) to one’s rivals.
And yet, like the House of Romanov, are we at risk of missing the fact that potentially we’re at a global tipping point? Since early this century, society has witnessed Colour Revolutions, Arab Spring (1&2), Arab Winter, Umbrella, Tea Party and Occupy movements, Gilet Jaune, Extinction Rebellion, and most recently BLM. Indeed, the list is far longer than those mentioned. Whether one agrees with the sentiments of these protests or not, the fact is that sizeable numbers of people have a deep, visceral reaction to what they perceive as inequality and injustice. In the case of Black Lives Matter, at least a part of that reaction relates to the history of slavery suffered by African nations and the treatment of those peoples since. With regards to BLM the kicker is that today, at this moment, it is estimated that there are more slaves than there were during the period of the African slave trade. Moreover, there is strong evidence that many global, corporate supply chains are touched by the hand of slavery.
Is there value for companies in espousing Values? Moral relativism, the view that moral judgements are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint, may be attractive in some quarters and as a means of justifying particular courses of action (or inaction). For some time now, in certain circles, there has been a view that the ‘ethical consumer’ is a ‘myth’. In other words, that as long as consumers continue to be entertained by ‘bread and circuses’ such as cheap fast fashion, there is no need for the business sector to lend their weight in addressing issues such as child labour, modern slavery, climate change and so on. Granted, there are companies that engage, but this is by no means universal.
However, business does not operate in a vacuum independent of society. If global communities are reacting to injustice, is it only a matter of time before the spotlight falls on global, extended supply chains? Or company hiring practices? Or social practices? What, then, for companies that are unable to demonstrate authentic values at the core of their operation, built into their DNA? Will those companies be viewed as part of the problem? Nations have long memories, and understand that empires fall when their peoples are no longer secure. To what extent will governments, under pressure, be willing to look for scapegoats to ‘throw under the bus’?
It does not take much of a leap to create an alternative. Prosperity, wealth, and resilience are as much the product of the imagination as they are of industrious activity. Those who are able to understand that true wealth, true prosperity, and resilient communities are based on regenerative principles stand a very good chance of avoiding the disruption and imbalance of the industrial revolution and its 20th century offspring. Nations, organisations and individuals with foresight (and not a little courage) are undoubtedly about to demonstrate the value of Values.