Modern Slavery

Over the last couple of weeks, following the end of my internship with SAS, I have been listening to a podcast about human trafficking. It’s been eye-opening and heartbreaking. In several episodes, the podcast references modern slavery often and I was drawn back to the research I did with SAS regarding modern slavery and supply chain transparency. Broadly, I often considered the various aspects of corporate behavior (ex. negligence, unchecked commitment to profit, etc.) that contribute to the perpetuation of human trafficking, modern slavery, and other unethical practices. 

As I think about my time with SAS, and my weekly reflections, I continue to reckon with the complexity of corporate social responsibility and the various aspects of society that influence corporate behavior, and vice versa. This time however, I think I have more clarity on the questions I proposed over the last eight weeks.  

This podcast that has captivated my attention has made it abundantly clear that there is no room for error or leniency when it comes to unethical corporate behavior. It seems to have transformed my through process – I no longer want to forgive companies for engaging in modern slavery or other unethical practices; I do not want to give companies the benefit of the doubt for ignoring supply chain transparency recommendations; and I do not want to treat corporate interests (usually completely financial/fiscal) as relevant in a discussion where human lives are at risk of being trafficked, exploited, and abused.  

To be clear, I understand that there is ethically ambiguous or questionable corporate behavior that I might be able to reckon with in a more forgiving manner. However, in a way that my own extensive personal research and commentary from corporate employees failed to do, this podcast seemed to undo the ways in which I became numb to constant reiterations of human suffering and exploitation. In explaining the ways in which human trafficking and modern slavery destroy lives, unleash unimaginable human suffering, and exploit people, the podcast forced me to grapple with the horrible reality that even humans have become a commodity and commercial objects to several actors (companies included!). I guess, and assume, that corporate leaders are not sitting at a table deciding to exploit children as labor and force them to work in horrifying conditions, but their complacency speaks volumes for their prioritization of money over people.  

It seems possible that in my attempt to gain a more comprehensive and robust understanding of corporate decision-making and understand why they continue to engage in unethical practices, such as modern slavery, discrimination, and environmental negligence, I lost my commitment to, and concern for, the impact corporations have on people. I am embarrassed to ever think that I thought that certain corporate prioritizations/actions could be excused or were necessary. I am confused as to why I ever believed that certain companies’ shallow and performative efforts to salvage their reputations or conceal unethical behavior could be authentic or a step towards social change.  

At this point, I return to my original questions. If I am unwilling to excuse companies for engaging in unethical practices, is the only way for reform to dismantle corporate structures and economic policies as we know them? Is my seeming loathing of corporations and their leaders who are complicit in the continuation of human rights violations and unethical practices furthering the divide between those who want reform and those who are in power to be able to reform (I think of how staunch political divides and hatred create unsolvable gridlock). I am wondering if there has to be a willingness to compromise. But, in this case, does there need to be the consideration of compromise; should we loosen our grip on wanting to completely eradicate human trafficking and modern slavery-esque corporate practices? If we do, maybe, at least we will see incremental progress? Is this something we should be okay with? Can we effectively partner with corporations and their leaders while holding their fully accountable for their misdeeds? Should we acknowledge any positive changes they make, or push them to go farther and reprimand them for not doing enough? 

As I return to Duke, I look forward to my classes that will continue to provide me with greater understandings of political and economic structures, both in the US and globally, that will better equip me to dig deeper into these questions. For now, I think I am back to being someone who harbors “great disdain toward large corporations”; and I reject my initial hesitation that I might be “exaggerating corporate malfeasance and discrediting their potentially vital role in driving social change”. That being said, I am confident that this is a perspective I will not maintain for long (as it changed throughout the course of my internship). I wonder how it will shift, or mutate, as I keep making decisions and choices, like educating myself with this podcast and books exploring human trafficking and modern slavery, or comfortably abandoning any desire I previously had to work in a corporate environment.

Leadership Profile: John P. Sall, Founder of SAS Institute

Dr. John P. Sall  is an American billionaire businessman and computer software developer, who co-founded SAS Institute and created the JMP statistical software. Dr. Sall grew up in Rockford, Illinois and earned degrees in history, economics and statistics. In 1976, he joined others from North Carolina State University in co-founding SAS Institute, an analytics software company. Dr. Sall currently owns about one-third of SAS Institute. Dr. Sall is heavily involved in conservation, international health and development, and environmental issues through the Sall Family Foundation. In this interview, we discussed his path to founding SAS and its transformation over time – specifically focusing on business ethics and corporate social responsibility.


Bhamini: Where did you grow up? What were your early years like?
Dr. Sall: I grew up in a small city in northern Illinois. I tended to be a science nerd as a kid. Then, in high school, I became interested in athletics. But, I returned to my science interest a little later. My early years were nothing remarkable. I attended a number of colleges and I struggled for many years in higher education early on. I didn’t have the discipline higher education demanded until much later.

Bhamini: What is your education background and what point did you decide to found SAS?
Dr. Sall: After I graduated, I realized I had no marketable skills. So, I went back to university to get skills for a career. I focused on economics, statistics, and computer science. I eventually got really good at the last two — statistics and computer science. At NC State, I landed a job as a helper to do data analysis for professors. I quit this program and landed a job as a programmer for the SAS project in 1974. My background in statistics and my extensive coding practice made me a good addition to this team. SAS started and grew out of academia. But, quickly, it became clear that it outgrew the research of professors and scope of academia. The software was adopted by agricultural researchers and we had general consumers. We realized we needed to expand because this is was more of a business than a university project. We secured a separation agreement from the university and moved across the street to start selling licensing agreements. It’s interesting looking back on this now, because when we were at NC State, they didn’t really consider themselves an incubator. But now, it’s cool to see the environment that NC State and other universities have fostered in terms of encouraging those entrepreneurial ventures.

Bhamini: SAS was originally founded to analyze agricultural data. How did it transform into the company and range of services that it provides today?
Dr. Sall: Yeah, SAS was originally part of the department of statistics at NC State, with a focus on agriculture. Initially, we had the support of the USDA when we were concerned solely with agricultural research. I think SAS grew and expanded because we decided to go where the opportunities were and line that up with what our expertise looked like. Specifically, there were two things that led to our growth. One, corporate research in the area of pharmaceuticals. We were really well-versed in and good at mixed models and repeated trials. This opened us up to gain a lot of customers in this area. The other thing is data processing — which we became very good at. In fact, one of our earlier customers was State Farm. They had a lot of data and we were really good at analyzing it. So, I think we followed the customers and became more popular. We obviously went through lots of evolutions — partly guided and led by customer opportunities and partly by the technology and partly by what we were good at. It was a sequence of opportunities.

Bhamini: As one of the leaders of a very large multi-billion-dollar corporation, how do you make decisions in a way that satisfies stakeholders and corporate financial interests while maintaining/ensuring ethical practices? How does this translate to your personal life and vice versa?
Dr. Sall: I think one of the most significant things is that we are a privately held company. Because of this, we don’t care so much about quarterly reports and we don’t have the same pressures that a public company does. Especially the reporting pressures and such. Because we are a private company, we are in somewhat of a unique situation in that we can do things that are much harder for public companies to do. For example, we value serving the interests of employees and we have always been a great place to work. Even in the beginning, a YMCA membership was part of employee benefits and this eventually led to our recreation and fitness center when we expanded and got our own campus. As that services we provided to employees took off, I think we definitely became a pioneer in many areas. For one, we started corporate daycare in the early 80s — which was quite unusual.

Bhamini: In your opinion, how should corporations (from conception) and corporate leaders approach ethics and human rights throughout their lifetime?
Dr. Sall: I don’t think we think about ethics in the right way. In terms of ethics, we have to try to have managers that treat their staff well and robust training programs. Treating our employees well is part of what characterizes us as a good place to work. We also don’t discriminate, and we hire people that have high respect for everyone else. We support women, racial diversity, and sexual orientation diversity. And, we don’t impose political views. To be fair, I am a technical guy on the more technical side of things. I don’t think about this too much, but we have lots of people who advise us on how to create the best work environment for our employees and ensure they’re taken care of.

Bhamini: What are the most rewarding and challenging parts of your current work?
Dr. Sall: As a highly technical product, we have pretty smart users and customers. So, being close to them and getting to know them and having a lot of correspondence with them is a big source of delight for us. It’s amazing to be able to see how valuable our product is in their lives — to see it make a big difference. Particularly, like in my division, my product is more personal and affects people more directly. We get a lot of delight out of their delight. It gets us motivated for our work — all of our staff are highly motivated. It’s interesting — many of our sales and marketing people are former customers we recruited because of their background and experience and who loved our products. I really do enjoy the close connections we develop that help us formulate the right tools. Additionally, I care about a lot of causes philanthropically, that are not necessarily directly related to work — like energy initiatives. I am excited that I get to work on these issues that are personal passions of mine. For example, I am happy to see that we adopted the 2050 carbon-free goal. And, the Goodnights are champions of education. We have departments formed to serve that and we have our own educational lobbyist. I’ve supported areas more in the environment, conservation, international development, health, and science. Our foundation supports those very vigorously — but it’s more directly part of the company. Nonetheless, it’s something I enjoy getting to contribute to and be a part of.

Bhamini: In what ways has your mindset towards corporate social responsibility and business ethics to promote social good changed throughout your time at SAS, and with the growth of SAS and its capabilities?
Dr. Sall: It has been a gradual change for sure. For example, we didn’t care so much about energy efficiency in the first 20 years, mostly because we couldn’t. In this aspect, we have really grown and I think that’s true of most companies. Initially, we didn’t care if it wasn’t relevant to our bottom line.

Its been gradual — we didn’t care so much about energy efficiency in the first 20 years I think this trend is true with all aspects of corporate social responsibility. For example, with diversity in our company and endeavors. We have embraced and supported the LGBTQ+ community and hire nuerodiverse interns. The real pioneer in this aspect — for hiring nuerodiverse interns — is SAP. The pioneer for corporate social responsibility in general is Unilever. So, we have definitely taken inspiration from companies. For many years, we have been recognized as a leader in CSR in many different ways. I have twice been to Walmart HQ because of their work with NGOs that I am involved with. Walmart may not be respected for some tings, but they are respected for their energy initiatives and for their supply chain initiatives and better cultivation practices. There are a lot of corporations that I have huge respect for that I think have contributed to my changing mindset and approach in these areas.

Bhamini: What advice do you have for other students interested in engaging with the intersection of business and human rights?
Dr. Sall: I think, primarily, it should be a part of all business curricula to develop a mindset on improving you Human Resources department and employee and corporate culture — specifically, I think having a culture of respect and good CSR and environmental responsibility and accountability and transparency. While I was not trained in business, because I was trained technically, I think this is really important. Right now, the Black Lives Matter movement has emerged really strongly, and policing reform has been huge. I’ve had to look at that issue and understand it to educate my staff and make a speech about it. I have had to look at that issue and think about what I can do because I care about it — so we started analyzing data immediately. I think this is generally true, when we are either forced to confront issues or look at them out of our own passion and interest, we tend to formulate a new set of priorities and attain collective progress.

Boycotting Brands

As my group chats are flooded with infographics, links, and lists prompting me to boycott hundreds of brands and businesses in light of their abhorrent responses to the Black Lives Matter movement or their gross negligence to promote racial diversity and equal treatment, I felt overwhelmed.

Over the last few years, I started to develop my own short list of brands and stores where I refuse to shop. Chick-fil-A, because of their donations to anti-LGBTQ organizations. Walmart, because of its horrific workers right violations and labor conditions (among countless other things). Nestlé , Mars, and Hershey’s, because of exploitative labor practices (this one was hard – I do love chocolate, but human rights seemed far more important).

With my personal decision to boycott these brands, I developed and understood my rationale for doing so. I was, personally, coming to terms with my priorities (self-interest vs denouncing disgusting practices). I spent hours researching each issue and company, ultimately deciding I could live without Chick-fil-a chicken or a Hershey’s chocolate bar for the rest of my life, because every time I made the decision to eat one, I knew I would be reminded of what I was contributing to. This decision calculus was not, and is still not, easy. I am constantly tempted, which is kind of embarrassing. I feel ashamed to admit that I struggle with making the decision to not support a company that uses hundreds of thousands of vulnerable children as labor or one that feels comfortable continuing to perpetuate homophobia. Recently, I have been forced to confront these decisions and my general thought process on this matter much more.

Over the past few weeks, I have been forwarded and sent lists of hundreds of companies to boycott for a variety of reasons (see end for somewhat comprehensive list). From Whole Foods, Starbucks, Target, and Nordstrom to Wendy’s, McDonald’s, Reformation, Urban Outfitters, and Bounty to Neutrogena, Advil, Tylenol and Chap-Stick, I have seen hundreds of brands and products that I use appear on boycott lists. These companies have been accused of everything from child labor, prison labor, racial discrimination, LGBTQ+ discrimination, to insensitivity and intolerance, modern slavery in supply chains, etc.

In light of this, I struggle to parse though everything in this information overload. It seems as if I have to start sewing my own clothes, producing my own household products, and concocting my own medicines. I don’t mean to be insensitive, because I believe that these companies’ practices should be called out and their leaders should be reprimanded; but, I am lost as to what I can do to still conduct my life as usual and take a meaningful stance on these human rights issues that I very strongly believe in.

I am unsure as to whether it makes me selfish that I stopped doing research to find alternatives for some of these products and companies – for the sole reason of inconvenience. The classic argument we often hear, or at least that I often hear, is why bother? “Why bother because your $5, maybe $1000, maybe $10,000, of lost business isn’t going to drastically change the company’s ways.” And, I guess that is true.  I am too comfortable with this way of thinking in light of the all the information I receive. I genuinely care about the issues these boycotts are calling out and I want to contribute, but I am unable to process how. I feel lazy and selfish, for not willing to put in the work. At the same time, I feel overwhelmed and anxious about all the new information.

While I have identified other ways for me to contribute to the issues these boycotts address, I am definitely still in the process of imagining when and what would be enough? How many companies and brands would I have to boycott if I was steadfast in my commitment to human rights, and other personal beliefs? How many other people would I have to join in this commitment to impact decision-making and policies at a corporate or legal level? Is this an effective method of pressuring and incentivizing corporate change?

The Line Between Ethical and Legal

Growing up, it seemed like my mom criticized my every move. Every time I did something “wrong,” I would receive the same disapproving lecture from her, like clockwork. Her scolding sticks with me to this day: “Just because you’re not breaking a law doesn’t mean you’re not doing something wrong”.

At that time, my mom’s reaction to my “wrongdoings” seemed like a sheer overreaction. I rolled my eyes when I received this lecture for forgetting my water bottle at school. I plugged my ears and hummed as I was berated in this way for missing a call from her. I was irked; why was I getting chewed out as if I had just done unthinkable, illegal things! Why was I getting yelled at so intensely!

Each time, as I got a stern talking-to about the dire consequences that I would endure as a result of my irresponsible behavior (wearing mismatched socks or not replying to an email immediately), I would, in teenage fashion (aka a sassy nightmare) shriek something along these lines: “Mom! Stop overreacting! It’s not like I’m breaking the law or anything!”

In hindsight, these interactions seem humorous. Our ridiculous quips were nothing more than spur-of-the-moment, emotional responses. Obviously packing an unbalanced lunch or forgetting my dance uniform was not ethically equivalent to breaking the law! And, obviously refraining from illegal behavior (ex. robbing a bank) is not ethical or laudable behavior! It’s just not bad.

If for no reason other than hearing it on a repeated basis, the sentiment my mom expressed haunts me to this day. As I make decisions, especially when I am tempted by the more ethically ambiguous or questionable options, her moralizing echoes through my head – that doing good and being good are not necessarily synonymous with just refraining from breaking the law. More practically, it encourages me to see ethical behavior as more than just a question of legality.

I was reminded of this tenet in my work at SAS this week. My position in the legal department, specifically the Ethics and Compliance Division, forces me to reconcile the nuances of corporate ethics daily. Specifically, I struggle to understand whether, for corporations, following the law and conducting business legally is the same thing as conducting business ethically

In my own decision-making, as an individual, this question is far less confusing or unsettling. This doesn’t mean I don’t struggle with maintaining a commitment to ethical behavior, it just means I have an easier time categorizing and labeling my behavior. I don’t have many questions about what constitutes what – I can distinguish between my 3 “levels” of behavior – legal,  , and altruistic.

I recognize this is an oversimplified analysis, but it’s a clear way for me to organize and understand my behavior. To me, acting legally, means complying with laws (ex. choosing not to murder someone or commit identity theft). Acting ethically means evaluating and choosing among alternatives in a manner consistent with ethical principles that I deem important to me (ex. Accepting that I did not contribute equally to a project, because I value honesty, instead of taking credit for someone else’s work). I perceive acting altruistically as holding the impact of your actions on others above all other considerations, often at a cost to yourself (ex. I am in debt, but I know a friend needs help paying their medical bills, so I help despite digging myself into deeper debt).

In considering these levels, I expect myself to adhere to most legal and ethical standards and view altruism as somewhat situational and optional, but I think I should engage in it. In my perspective, it’s not good enough to simply not do x illegal thing, because there is a pressure (whether self-imposed or internalized or otherwise created) that drives me to be ethical, sometimes in a way that is also altruistic.

But, when it comes to corporate behavior and actions – I am so much more confused in these three levels in terms of expectations, definitions, etc. In light of the justified outrage following George Floyd’s murder and increased coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement, I have been struggling with several questions. Upon reflecting, it seems like that leaders, allies, and activists agree that it’s not enough to simply not be racist (and I agree!). One must actively engage with subverting racism, confronting their own ignorance and beliefs, and partake in educating themselves and listening to black voices – essentially, one has to do more than just not engaging in “explicit” racism (ex. Using derogatory language towards black people). This makes sense to me; not being racist is not passive neutrality (or indifference or inaction), it’s about taking an active role in engaging in behavior that confronts one’s biases and tendencies.

In this way, as I was contemplating what to write about this week and everything seemed so insignificant in light of what is going on, I attempted to draw parallels between these two realms. In this regard, I am pondering whether it is enough for businesses to simply not be unethical or not engage in illegal practices. Shouldn’t we also expect them to engage in ethical practices (ex. Is it enough that a company adheres to the global standards of wages for labor or should we expect them to realize that paying workers the bare minimum (as legally outlined) is unethical and expect them to engage in practices that are actively toppling unsettling and harmful institutions and practices (ex. discriminatory practices that marginalize certain demographics). This is something I am going to continue to grapple with and my thoughts on the matter are far from complete. I look forward to gaining new insight over the next couple of weeks.

Can academia and corporate leaders work together to revitalize business ethics?

Academic institutions and corporations are headed towards a nasty break-up over the issue of business ethics? Can we use academia to inform corporate ethics practices and mend this unstable alliance?

Signs pointing to the rising popularity of business ethics are everywhere. Over 500 business ethics courses are currently taught on American campuses, 90% of the nation’s business schools provide training in this field, there are more than 25 textbooks and 3 academic journals dedicated to this topic, and there are at least 16 business-ethics research centers in place.

Despite this boom in business ethics, scholars suggest that a curious paradox has presented itself: the more this discipline is explored in academic spheres, the larger the disconnect between business ethics and this domain seems to become. In fact, ethical violations and misconduct have plagued the contemporary global landscape at unprecedented rates.

Recent scandals have brought the focus of corporate ethics to the intersection of academia and business practices. As I continue to explore the merits of corporate social responsibility and corporate ethics, I gained new insight over this past week at SAS, specifically about the way in which academia can influence corporate ethics practices. Upon attending a UN webinar discussing UN corporate sustainability initiatives, I was introduced to the unique role of business education and responsible management education in promoting sustainable, social development goals of corporations.

Considering the discourse at the UN webinar, I intend to highlight the way I grappled with the following questions:

  1. To what degree, if at all, should academic institutions be held responsible for ethical debacles committed by business leaders they educate?
  2. What capacity and functions do academia have in promoting ethical corporate practices?
  3. How can we align the interests and research of academia with the goals of corporations in the arena of corporate ethics?

Business or corporate ethics refers to the study and/or implementation of appropriate business policies and practices concerning conceivably controversial subjects. Discussions of business ethics include corporate governance, insider trading, bribery, discrimination, corporate social responsibility, and fiduciary responsibilities.

The UN webinar explored the complex gap between academic understandings and professional management/corporate execution of business ethics. Scholars and leaders in the webinar emphasized that companies are seeking assistance in resolving ethical dilemmas and navigating competitive and institutional pressures that might lead corporate leaders away from making the right and ethical decision. In fact, recent surveys suggest that over 3/4ths of corporations are actively building ethics into their organizations.

This startled me; I believed that corporations simply made conscious decisions to be “evil” and were consistently and intentionally choosing to circumvent policies and procedures and engage in unethical behavior to maximize profit. Rather, it seems that companies desire to maintain ethical practices, but require further guidance to do so. This drove me to look at academia’s engagement with business ethics.

In my research, I found that the discipline and study of business ethics has the potential to cultivate better corporate policies and practices. However, in its current state, the insight provided by academia is inadequate and needlessly theoretical. Business ethics, as taught and researched by academia right now, occupies an idealistic moral high ground, one that is removed from the real-world concerns and problems facing business leaders. During the webinar, various scholars proposed that academia’s notions of business ethics are often absolutist and oversimplified, leaving little room for the nuances and “shades of gray” that most business leaders encounter in ethical dilemmas.

At this point in my understanding, I was confused. My original approach and attitude about the nature of corporate ethics seems to be the prevalent mindset in business ethics discussions in academia. In creating binary, black-and-white labels of “right” and “wrong”, academia dichotomizes ethics and profit.

However, as I dove deeper into this area of study and the webinar progressed, I learned that business ethics as applied and presented by academia are not solely responsible for the woeful state of corporate ethical practices. Company leaders should also be held accountable for their inadequate application of the enterprise of business ethics. The webinar argues that corporations should adopt the expansive view of the law and market adopted by business ethics’ curricula and research in academia. This view would be able to help corporate leaders avoid viewing ethical behavior and profit as solely mutually exclusive, and provide guidance in situations where they might actually be mutually exclusive. It emphasizes the short-term vs long-term effects of ethical practices for businesses. Essentially, it acknowledges that ethical behavior may prove costly to a business’ bottom line in the short-run; however, in the long-run, the market will reward a corporation’s commitment to ethics.

In attempting to understand this concept, I was reminded of the recent growth of sustainable fashion brands. “Fast fashion” brands have recently come under scrutiny for engaging in destructive and unethical environmental and labor practices. At the same time, companies such as Everlane, Reformation, Rent the Runway, and Amour Vert have been lauded for instituting ethical practices in the full lifecycle of the product – from design, sourcing, and production, to purchase – and catalogs the effects of this process on the environment, workers, local and regional communities, and consumers.

In this example, the fast fashion companies were highly profitable in short run. Now, they are facing seemingly insurmountable challenges, including a decline in the volume of consumers, having to file for bankruptcy, and unsustainable and unadaptable models. Simultaneously, marking the decline of fast fashion, sustainable and ethical fashion companies have gained popularity, consumers, and are seeing increased financial success. Despite struggling to gain traction and maintain significant profit margins initially, due to the costly nature of maintaining a commitment to ethical practices, sustainable fashion has come out ahead. This demonstrates that ethical behavior can pay off! But, this also leads me to wonder: is that why it should be promoted and adopted? Is it ethical to comply with ethical standards with the intention of achieving success or gaining a reward?

The webinar ended with recommending a new perspective/mindset for corporate leaders and business ethics scholars, one that is aware of and accepts the chaotic world of mixed motives. The next task for academia and business leaders, the scholars explained, is to avoid abstract theorizing that pits ethical behavior against company goals, and to innovate, design, test, and scale new corporate structures, incentive systems, and decision-making processes that are more accommodating of conflicting interests and mixed motives. I understand that [if and] when academia engages in idealist moral critiques of corporations’ pragmatic strategies, they do little to encourage and help the adoption of genuine business ethics. So, if we can bring academia and corporate leaders together to reconcile profit motives and ethical imperatives (a lofty ambition in and of itself!), we might make headway on this issue.

For now, my takeaway is that business ethics as approached by academia would benefit from less demonization of corporate leaders and more practical analyses of where business ethics can fit into business structures. Concurrently, it seems that businesses would benefit from seeking partnerships with academic institutions and scholars and engaging in open-minded and straightforward discussions about the “gray-area” ethical dilemmas they must confront.

I feel oddly uncertain after this week. I understand a new problem and seem to have identified a few ways to address it. Nonetheless, overwhelmingly, I remain disoriented despite this newfound clarity. Specifically, I know that business leaders are human beings who display the normal range of ethical instincts. At the same time, I also recognize that business leaders wish to see great financial success for their company and have a responsibility to answer to their shareholders/investors/etc. At what point does this desire for constantly maximizing profit overtake the natural human instinct to not compromise ethical instincts? I am attempting to delineate between the following situations:

  1. A situation where you do not know what is “right” or what is “wrong”
  2. A situation where you do not know what is better (“right” vs “right”)
  3. A situation where you know what is “right” but fail to do it

My preconceived notions about corporate ethics postulate that company leaders know what is “right”, but deliberately choose to do otherwise (again, the idea of “evil” malicious actors). I now struggle to accept this as the reality of corporate ethics. Is there a way to separate the “evil” companies from the ones that struggle to assess risks in complex ethical dilemmas? Would this separation, if possible, give us the ability to see better business practices? I am left captivated by the potential in using academia to support and bolster companies that are ill-equipped or uncertain (like all of us are when deciding in an ethical dilemma/impasse) when tackling ethical predicaments. Furthermore, I notice myself becoming wary of the narrative that demonizes corporations for their decisions. At the same time, I find myself unwilling to let go of the critical, maybe overly critical, mindset I have toward corporate ethics. I hope to come to terms with a better way to classify the relationship between corporate behavior (ex. unethical behavior) and social progress.

Is Corporate Social Responsibility a Scam?

Cartoon of person yelling a businessman who has money plugging their earsCorporate social responsibility is all the rage. But, will corporations realistically confront the way profitability and ethical practices for social change are diametrically opposed?

The BP oil spill, FIFA corruption scandal, Turing Pharmaceuticals price gouging, Fyre Festival, CBS sexual harassment scandal, and Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data mining debacle. How many of these acts of corporate negligence and perversion of power are you familiar with? Over the last few decades, corporations have committed an unprecedented number of transgressions. To counter their transformation from symbols of American progress into objects of public derision and repulsion, firms sought refuge in touting their corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs.

From GlaxoSmithKline’s donation of antiretroviral medications to Africa to Starbucks’ high-volume purchases of Fair Trade coffee, corporations’ CSR initiatives are being met with unadulterated public support and applause. However, we must challenge the merits and premises of their efforts in promoting social progress. As companies funnel money into social movements, announce new green policies, and boast about diversity, I am hesitant to see CSR as anything more than a facade of disingenuous policies and practices to conceal the horrifying realities of corporate scandals tangled in greed and exploitation.

As a concept, corporate social responsibility is a self-regulating business model that encourages companies to move towards becoming more socially accountable to the stakeholders and general public. Ideally, by practicing CSR, companies can be conscious about the social, economic, and environmental impact they have on society. However, the reality of CSR undertakings is disappointing.

Numerous scholars perceive corporations’ shallow engagement with CSR as a duplicitous tactic allowing them to display bogus socially conscious values and practices. The CSR framework gives businesses the opportunity to curry public favor while prioritizing decisions that solely maximize profit (often at the expense of social concerns). As self-centered corporations continue to engage in exploitative practices, I remain skeptical of whether firms can authentically engage in CSR initiatives to inspire social progress.

Without significant exposure to – or experience in – the corporate world, I often wonder if my general disdain toward large corporations exaggerates their malfeasance and discredits their potentially vital role in driving social change. To grapple with the dilemma of whether large businesses can balance profitability with social impact, I embarked on this Pathways of Change internship. As an Ethics and Compliance Intern within the SAS Institute’s Legal department, I want to discern whether corporations can effectively encourage social progress, sustain ethical practices, and turn a decent profit.

SAS Institute established itself as a powerhouse in data analytics, offering a wide variety of innovative software and services to help customers make intelligent, informed decisions to stimulate social change. As I familiarize myself with SAS’ policies and CSR initiatives, I am struck by SAS’ continued commitment to corporate social responsibility since its formation over 40 years ago. In fact, I feel comfortable acknowledging that my prior perception of CSR was flawed, and my blanket vilification of large corporations lacks nuance. My mindset seems to obscure the social change that firms, like SAS, spurred and facilitated.

SAS’ commitment to authentic CSR is compelling. For SAS, corporate social responsibility not only focuses on building a sustainable workplace, but also social innovation that connects analytics and advocacy. From preventing life-threatening illnesses to protecting endangered species to launching comprehensive global education initiatives, SAS and its customers, harness data to make a difference. Specifically, SAS has improved care and informed better health policy for cancer patients while enhancing conservation methods with artificial intelligence. At the same time, SAS has generated 3.8 million kWh of clean, renewably sourced energy. SAS has embraced the opportunity to apply its cutting-edge technology and expertise to tackle several social, economic, and environmental issues. Instead of developing mountains of policies filled with flowery language or manufacturing and contriving initiatives as a PR tactic to cover up messes, SAS’ transparency and genuine dedication to CSR encourages me to explore the possibilities and impacts of authentic CSR.

In approaching the construction of effective CSR initiatives, I realize the complexity that comes with navigating the tradeoffs that must be made between the financial health of the company and ethical, social outcomes. While many companies consistently choose profit over principles, SAS proves that it is reasonable to expect corporations to maintain a deeper commitment to ethical practices and social impact. The more realistic attitude is one that encourages and promotes CSR practices because business priorities can be aligned with societal needs.

The problem is not corporate social responsibility itself, it’s the longstanding, and seemingly acceptable, ways in which certain companies exploit this principle. SAS’ practices give me hope that, despite the shortcomings and flaws in the current execution of CSR, a genuine and steadfast dedication to CSR, combined with a mindset that balances financial viability and social good, can catalyze cultural change among corporate endeavors.

During the rest of my time with SAS, I hope to further analyze the extent to which we should and can expect corporations to prioritize social change. Specifically, over the next couple of weeks, as I research human trafficking/modern slavery in corporate supply chains, I am excited at the prospects of determining whether it is possible for corporations to fulfill their narratives of saving the world while making a decent profit. While working remotely has presented its own set of unique challenges, I remain motivated by the persevering mindsets of my colleagues, supervisor, and manager and the forthcoming meaningful contributions of our work.

While I no longer view CSR as an absolute scam, I am still not ready to embrace it in its current form and practice. With predominantly negative stories of corporate misconduct and manipulation at the forefront of my mind, I am hesitant to concede that we can achieve a society in which companies magically hold themselves accountable to ethical and sustainable practices. However, I remain hopeful that there is room for progress in light of the evidence presented by SAS.

Now, more than ever, as our world and lives change in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is essential that we prioritize and foster social change and innovation. Maybe, with proper oversight, regulation, and standardization, CSR can become a powerful and constructive tool for societal improvement. So, how do we tackle the fundamental problems in the corporate exploitation of CSR? Can we motivate corporations to consider social impact and financial success in their operations and practices? What can or should we expect from corporation in terms of enforcing corporate accountability?  Who should be responsible for providing regulation and oversight for CSR practices or policies? What do sustainable strategies for executing effective CSR initiatives look like?