Musings on Capitalism, Individual Choice, and Corporate Responsibility

Throughout my internship I’ve asserted that I really have no experience or even true past interest in the “business world”. The rumors are true, I did take Econ in Arabic this year and can tell you all about the complex theory of “supply and demand” (العرض والطلب ) which built off my one day of Econ 101 well. But that’s really the extent of my academic pursuit in the area. However, as I approach my final week of my internship, I’m challenging myself to dig into this “newbie” assertion.

In reviewing essays from syllabi of my past courses, I’ve found a number of titles that seem to hint at an economic sub-subject. Hooked, I decided to re-read articles from a course I took my sophomore year, “Sex, Politics, and Feminist Philosophy”.

With a reading list that includes names like Friedrich Engels, Michel Foucault, Karl Marx, and John Stuart Mill; but also, Angela Davis, Emma Goldman, Bell Hooks, and the Combahee River Collective, a mainstay of the course was absolutely economic theory, specifically the deconstruction/revision of much of it.

Curious as to how I interpreted these readings, I reread a few of my essays from the course and decided to share an excerpt from a paper I wrote, “Capitalism and Choice” and comment on how my thinking remains constant, changed, and why – since my semi-entrance into the “business world”.

*Warning, the excerpts analyze themes of capitalism and agency through two readings by Virginie Despentes: Sleeping with the Enemy and She’s So Depraved You Can’t Rape Her. Both of these readings center around themes of rape and prostitution.

Important introductory point: “Due to the necessary brevity of the paper, the ‘prostitute’ under discussion is assumed to be female, and the buyer/consumer is assumed to be male.”

“Virginie Despentes concludes “She’s so Depraved You Can’t Rape Her,” quoting Gail Pheterson: “The paradigm of women serving/men paying corresponds to an unequal social exchange—an exchange I have decided to label ‘prostitutional’” (She’s so Depraved You Can’t Rape Her, 9). Despentes then proceeds to argue in “Sleeping with the Enemy” that prostitution is a decision that “must remain free” (Sleeping with the Enemy, 1). However, conclusion of the article reveals—counter to her enduring thesis—that prostitution, clearly rooted in the capitalist system, serves to further subject women. Leaving “Sleeping with the Enemy”, the takeaways reveal that prostitution may be an act of choice but cannot be deemed one of free choice. Aligned with Pheterson, due to the structure of markets—the base function of supply and demand—the prostitute cannot enter into a contract out of pure free will. The demand of the man births her existence, and the exchange of money—innately coercive—robs her of agency.

To start, I wanted to re-analyze my thoughts on  because I believe it’s one of the most ethically challenging instances of exchange our world has. On the one hand, given present-day systems of power that award certain people and harm many others, sex work often lays extreme harm on those whose bodies are approached as the commodity. I say this to introduce (not assert!) the idea that sex work may not be inherently harmful. Rather, the context in which it exists and scenarios in which it encounters may, in a sense, poison a person’s agency and right to earn a living.

That said, I won’t try to write about the ethics of sex work in this blog. I believe such public analysis needs to be thorough, thoughtful, and well-informed so as not place harm or contribute to negative tropes, stereotypes, and misinformation. As I’m not confident in my ability to completely avoid such impacts right now, I’m going to skip the conversation about the ethics of sex work itself, and focus on the elements of markets, supply, demand, and free will.

Now, returning to excerpt two paragraphs ago, I’d like to focus on the ideas of agency. Specifically–

“… prostitution may be an act of choice but cannot be deemed one of free choice. Aligned with Pheterson, due to the structure of markets—the base function of supply and demand—the prostitute cannot enter into a contract out of pure free will. The demand of the man births her existence, and the exchange of money—innately coercive—robs her of agency.”

Though systems of enslavement and human trafficking exist and at times run parallel to sex work, sex work is unusual in that the actual “commodity” necessitates the presence and action of a human being and may even be seen as the individual – body – itself. It’s also difficult to say exactly what the commodity is. Is it sex, power, companionship?

Regardless of the actual “commodity”, there exists an argument that asserts individuals’ right to not only determine how they make a living, but how they use their body.

And absolutely, the right to earn a living is certainly ingrained in the psyche of our country, at times even weaponized to defend systems that perpetuate inequality. However, free will/true agency is in question when one has few or no other options to make money and survive in a capitalist system.

Abridging Marx – in an economic system based off of mass supply and demand, does anyone truly enter a contract based off of free will? Or is it a constant case of maneuvering and re-aligning to reach enough of a consensus to fuel a profitable demand?

Again, I give – we live in a communal society so such sacrifices and compromises are essential to our mutual existence. However, what if the working goals of our society isn’t mutual existence, at least not in an equitable monetary sense. Rather, what if we give Marx and Engels the green light and any capitalist system is ordered to benefit an elite few at the expense or exploitation of the larger mass? We certainly see this across our world, but does it have to be this way?

The Ryan of two years ago wrote–

“Despentes mores her argument of the prostitute’s freedom within the prostitute’s contract by placing it relative to the marriage contract. In a form of ‘what-about-ism’ she argues for the prostitute’s preferential position as she is able to profit from sex, procuring currency that supposedly pads and paves freedom. However, the argument is inherently flawed. Within it, Despentes asserts that wealth is absolutely freeing. However, given the coalescence between patriarchy and capitalism, the amassing of wealth furthers an innately unequal system. Being more active within a flawed system doesn’t equate to a scenario of free will, but rather informs a plane of choice that will inevitably benefit the system more than the agent.

I think this Ryan is right, but I can also see where the argument is limited. Throughout my internship I’ve heard that social and corporate responsibility organizations work to help businesses do better, but they’re not burn-it-to-the-ground advocates. Many such organizations look at ideas like redistribution and restoration to approach equitable, livable, and just scenarios.

Are corporate and social responsibility organizations “part of the problem” because they work within the “system”? I don’t think so. Does corporate responsibility put band aids on cancer? I don’t think so.

Rather, an adage I’ve heard throughout my internship rings true – “we must work with the world as we find it.” I think similar to having tough conversations with relatives about issues racial justice and lack-there-of in the U.S., we have to meet and work with the perpetrators of harm.

I suppose this is a long way of saying that I don’t think my thinking or individual ideology has changed since my internship, but that is also because I hadn’t and still don’t have any concrete answers or absolute opinions on business, capitalism, etc.

I’m proud and very grateful to work for an organization that analyzes, identifies, and combats inequity and harm in business. And that can exist while entire systems are flawed.

Leadership Profile: Dunstan Allison-Hope, VP of Business for Social Responsibility

Dunstan Allison-Hope oversees BSR’s human rights, women’s empowerment, and inclusive economy practices. Previously, Dunstan led BSR’s information and communications technology and heavy manufacturing practices. Dunstan facilitated the multi-stakeholder process of developing global principles on freedom of expression and privacy, which led to the launch of the Global Network Initiative. He also helped create the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition, a collaborative initiative of more than 100 ICT companies improving conditions in their supply chains. Dunstan participated in the process of creating the Global Reporting Initiative G3 guidelines, and is a regular commentator on issues of corporate accountability, reporting, and human rights. He also co-authored the 2010 book, Big Business, Big Responsibilities. Prior to joining BSR in 2004, Dunstan was part of British Telecommunications’ corporate responsibility team.


Would you please share a bit about your background and how you came to BSR?

I joined BSR 16 years ago. Prior to that, I spent five years with the Sustainability Team at BT – British Telecom – and that was between 1999 and 2004. So that was when corporate responsibility, business and human rights, was a very, very new and recent agenda. So, I was fortunate enough to work at a company that wanted to experiment, wanted to try things out for the first time. And then, when a technology and corporate responsibility job at BSR became available sixteen years ago, I applied for it and joined, sixteen years ago. I was very fortunate to have worked for a company that was doing things at the cutting edge and so that lent itself to joining BSR

Prior to BT I was a student activist in the British Student Movement, campaigning on issues of climate change, labor rights, and human rights and business.


At BSR one of your titles is Vice President. Would you please share a bit about what that means in terms of your work and responsibilities?

There are three things. I’ll start narrow and grow broad. The narrow bit is my area of expertise, which is technology and human rights. I spent a lot of my time working with our larger technology companies like Facebook and Google, but also Microsoft, Salesforce, and a number of telecom companies, on their human rights due diligence, policies, and clients.

Moving out broader from that, I oversee the people cluster. That includes the human rights, inclusive economy, and women’s empowerment program areas. That third one, women’s empowerment, is in the process of being broadened out to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

At the highest level, I sit on our Engagement & Leadership Team that sets the direction of BSR’s programs, budgets, and strategy. That role involves thinking broadly across all of BSR. Rather than thinking about what we need to do on human rights, inclusive economy, or women’s empowerment, it is “what is the rights strategy for BSR overall, where should we be making investments, where should we be focusing on program areas in order to achieve impact and be a successful organization, how do we think about that geographically, or global footprint” – all the types of things that come with running an organization.

So, I think of it in sort of three levels, getting less specific with each step.


Since BSR is a non-profit, albeit one that’s organized somewhat differently from most, what does it mean to be a part of the leadership team?

That’s a good question because being part of that leadership team means managing the organization for both impact and financial sustainability. And sometimes it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking the two are somehow in tension with one another. So, for example, that there are low-impact, high-revenue activities, and high-impact low-revenue activities. Our job is to bring the two together and find ways to maximize our impact through activities that are also financially sustainable. And in fact, what we tend to find, is that we generate more income, more revenue, more sales, from our higher-impact activities because companies and others are willing to fund things that achieve impact.

That’s how I think about it – in terms of our overall theory of change and business model to achieve impact. So that means looking across a range of performance indicators for the organization. So, impact indicators as well as financial ones, employee ones, and that type of thing.


Prior to coming to BSR, as you said, you worked at BT’s Sustainability Office. How does the impact of these in-house offices differ from that of BSR’s relative independence?

There are some similarities. Both working at BSR and working inside for a corporate responsibility/sustainability team at a company, both are change roles. You have to thing trhgoth impact, you have to think through how to make change, you have to understand the subject matter you’re working with but also how to make things happen inside a company.

So those things are similar. I would say one major thing that I feel is different is when you work in-house at a company, it’s very easy to see the world through the lens of that company. So, you’re looking at everything that’s going on in the world around you, but you’re really looking at it through the lens of that company. I find at BSR that’s flipped on its head. So, we’re looking at the company through the perspective of the world around it.

So, that for me has been the major thing that’s different. I guess it’s a more dispassionate view, it’s a broader view, it’s a view where the company is placed in a broader context. Versus when you’re working inside a company, the company is very focused on how to achieve success at that company, and you get very focused on that particular company’s business model.


At BSR and working in-house for a company, is the idea of achieving for a company’s business model the same? Does BSR match a company’s goal of improving their revenue?

In terms of how we think about our own planet?


More in terms of when you’re working with a company. I understand that increasing revenue may be one of a company’s goals for working with BSR, but does BSR have that same level of interest in increasing a company’s revenue? Or is that perhaps another difference between BSR and in-house corporate responsibility offices?

So, when we work with in-house offices, in-house teams, we definitely need to frame our recommendations in terms of the business case for that company – how they can achieve business success. However, we also need to frame our recommendations in terms of what is absolutely the right thing to do. So, what would the UN Guiding Principles say the company needs to do.

I think when you’re inside the company, the balance between those things is a little bit different. The business success of the company weighs a little more heavily on your shoulders because that’s who your employer is, that’s who you spend every day with. Obviously, companies make decisions because it’s the right thing to do, often, not just because there’s a business case, and I think that’s an important to highlight about the culture of a company. But the pressure is different. It weighs more heavily on your shoulders when you’re inside the company.

There was something else I was going to add…It escapes me. I think, at BSR, we absolutely need to give advice that’s consistent with the business model of that company, but we’re also not constrained by the internal politics of that company.

Sometimes, inside companies you may have different departments and different teams that are more or less wedded to different business models. At BSR, we can be a little bit dispassionate to that. So, a company may change its investment priorities from season-to-season or from CEO-to-CEO and we’re less attached to the interests one particular apartment, one particular person within a company.


Since BSR operates in this niche where it’s both a business consulting organization but also a social responsibility advocate, can you speak to the strengths BSR has or benefits it brings to this niche? Also, are there any specific challenges?

One of the things that’s really struck me, having been at BSR for sixteen years and is really easy for me to say – and it will sound like – “Dunstan would say that, wouldn’t he?” But I genuinely believe it, is being a non-profit, having been founded as a non-profit, creates a certain culture, a set of values, and a purpose for doing what we do, that is different than if we weren’t a non-profit. If we were just a for-profit consulting organization that worked with companies on sustainability issues, I don’t think we’d end up with the same culture that we do now.

So that has an impact on who we hire, the types of people who we attract, the types of values they bring to their work, the kinds of recommendations they make to companies. So, I think it’s a big advantage in terms of creating a purpose-driven organization, and one where we have a sense of direction.

In terms of a challenge, I think there are some things we would like to do for reasons of impact that we can’t do because we simply don’t have the time. A good example would be: there are lots of consultations on things. The United Nations might run a consultation on Human Rights and conflict-based approaches. The Global Reporting Initiative might run a consultation on the future of the Global Reporting Initiative’s standards. We cannot possibly participate in all of those. So, we have to pick and choose how we spend our time.

Now, a for-profit organization would go through the same thing, but our think our big non-profit values are our instinct is to always to be everywhere. We want to be everywhere; we want to have more impact. So, there’s this sort of instinct to say yes to everything. So sometimes we can spread ourselves to thin by taking on too many things and do everything not nearly as well as we could if we focused on a few things.

Some things, like the UN example I just gave, are a yes. Other cases like the GRI are at times a “maybe”, other times they’ve been a “no”. You just end up having limits on how much you can do.


Compared to organizations that are more grassroots or organization that deal with government and social issues, what advantages does working with businesses have?

We had a call this morning – for the purpose of this public blog it’s an unnamed organization – and what was particularly interesting was the complementarity of what we both bring to the table. So, they were saying “we know a huge amount about racial equity and racial justice in the United States. We have a very strong opinion on changes we want to see happen in the United States” – a much better-informed opinion than BSR’s.

They’re having a huge surge in interests in companies but aren’t necessarily informed or savvy enough on how to create change inside of companies to make the most of this moment. We don’t have the insights into racial equity and racial justice that *this organization* has but we know how to create change indie of companies, and that’s the great advantage we bring: “how do you work with policies, teams, culture, management systems, inside of companies, to create change.”

Just to finish the thought, the story I just told I could’ve said for pretty much any human rights or privacy-oriented organizations. The story keeps coming through that we’re not necessarily the subject-matter experts in everything, but we know how to get stuff done inside companies, and that’s the role that we play.


As you mentioned, since 2011 or thereabouts, BSR’s work has been heavily influenced by the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights. I’m wondering if the work at BSR substantively changed since the writing of these principles? If so, how?

It’s changed quite a bit in the sense that it’s become much more deliberate and methodical. Prior to the UNGPs, a lot of what’s now in the UNGPs existed but just as a sort of – informal is the wrong word – but it was a practice that hadn’t been written down. It hadn’t been specifically codified in a set of principles or guidelines.

So inevitably in 2011 when the UNGPs were first published, it took some time for us to move from the way we were doing things before, to everything being done strictly in accordance with the UNGPs. And I would say – to be strictly candid – that’s a decade of work to really understand every dotted ‘i’, every crossed ‘t’ to really understand about how to apply the UN Guided Principles, and we are still learning. But it has been a process of being more consistent and formal in our processes and in our analysis. So how certain terms are used, how certain contexts are used, and how human rights are becoming much more deliberate as a result of using the UNGPs.


I think in terms of my experience and basic knowledge, it seems the UNGPs on Business and Human Rights are unique in that they come from the UN and do address, specifically, an entity outside of the states. Do you see this kind of address to businesses being built upon in the future, or even a different, non-state and non-business entity being addressed in a similar way moving forward?

So, one thing I think is especially interesting is the UNGPs were written partly for government, partly for business. But it was an entirely voluntary set of guidelines. It doesn’t alter the legal framework in which companies operate, it doesn’t give new legal requirements on business, it’s just a set of guidelines.

But what’s interesting is overtime the way in which that is being and will be built into law. So, there are discussions in the European Union to make due diligence a requirement of business. A number of other entities like the OECD and GRI have integrated the UNGPs into their standards. And so, what started off as “here’s a voluntary effort that doesn’t change the legal framework for companies” will be built into law in ways that will change the legal framework for companies. And so, I think that’s one particularly interesting element, and a testament to the UNGPs – that those laws are being drafted based on what the UNGPs actually say.

I do think…this was a set of guidelines directed at a non-state actor, particularly business as the actor, but we’ve been asked questions like “how might universities apply the UNGPs?” And we haven’t really found an answer to that question.

“How might research institutions apply the UNGPs?”, “What’s the role of civil society organizations?”

You can imagine other discussions happening. There’s an idea that’s been mulling around in my mind that’s – “should there be a fourth pillar of the UNGPs, which is the “shared opportunity to promote the fulfillment and realization of human rights. So, it’s not about the role of government or the role of business, it’s about things in combination.


One of BSR’s public lines is “the business case for human rights”. Would you please explain what this case is and if it’s a viable case in the long-term?

First thing to say is that ultimately there shouldn’t need to be a business case for human rights. Human rights should be a sort of a prerequisite to doing business. SO, ultimately, we should always rest on the ethics case.

However, it is important in business terms to have a business case for human rights. One framing point, I would say, is there’s not one single business case. There are lots of different business cases and it varies from company to company, depending on which industry they’re in and what products they sell. So, in the technology industry, user-trust might be a significantly business case. If you don’t do the right thing by way of privacy, by way of content standards, you will begin to lose the trust of your users or your advertisers. Right, we can see what’s going on with Facebook.

On the other hand, if you’re a heavy manufacturing company, the business case might be very different. You might think in terms of health, safety, and wellness of your workforce and the notion that a healthy workforce whose rights are being respected are going to be more productive over time and the business case is going to vary from company-to-company.

I think the business cases will get stronger over time. So, as we move towards a world where there’s more disruption as a result of climate change or governments change policies in ways that increasingly respect human rights – I hope that we move in that direction – then that should strengthen the business case. So, if human rights due diligence does become a mandatory requirement, that changes the business case because companies that don’t comply with that law might receive finds, lose reputation, lose user trust, that kind of thing.


Some people working within the human rights field seem to avoid working with businesses, at times advocating against them and arguing that core human rights principles like equality can’t exist in a capitalist system. I’m wondering what you think of these arguments. Can you create system-wide change while engaging with businesses?

I think engaging with business is essential to have system-wide change. I like the fact that we have lots of different organizations that play different roles in creating change. So, BSR works with business, our hand is significantly strengthened by the fact that there are advocacy organizations that won’t work with business.

So, I tend to think that they can work in combination. However, I do tend to think that we have to deal with the world as we find it. You can’t wish business to disappear. It is here and it’s with us. So, to create the change we want to see, we have to work with business.

I also feel that it’s easy to criticize business and not appreciate the way in which products we use every day, jobs we have as individuals are created by business. And that there is this constant role that business plays in society.

Who is it who says, “my job is to save capitalism from itself?” Is it, did Elizabeth Warren say that? I’m kind of in that school that I want to see a very different type of capitalism, but I’m still a capitalist. I still believe in the role of business in creating value, products, services, jobs – but in a way that is much more forcefully regulated than the world in which we live – today.

I would love to see free healthcare for everybody and a better education system and addressing the homeless issue and the more even distribution of wealth and a more progressive tax system. And I’m a capitalist. I think all those things can exist and be.


To close, what would you say to people like me – and probably many people in the U.S. – who grew up believing that Human Rights and Justice are at the core of our society but are continuing to learn and encounter that these principles may actually not be given and must be fought for?

I would say keep fighting. I think those principles have to be at the center of everything we do. I have been in this field for – what -depending on how you count, twenty to twenty-five years, right? There are things that seem obvious today and accepted practice today in business that did not exist when I started. So, it’s easy to forget the progress that has been made.

So, pick climate change activities by companies. Think of labor standards in supply chains, think of the work companies are doing to address hate speech…none of that was happening twenty, twenty-five years ago. Some of it wasn’t safe to challenge either. But there’s a heck of a lot going on now than twenty-five years ago, and a lot more still needs to change.

So, I would just emphasize that long game – that there are going to be ups and downs along the way, but we need to keep fighting for what we believe in and keep advocating for that.

I guess the point is that it’s easy to get dispirited in the moment, when a particular change doesn’t happen, or we see change move backwards. But actually, over time, the trajectory has been a positive one.

And it’s easy to sort of blame business for everything and not think about the broader context in which business exists. So, thinking in terms of the entire system of justice and the role of business in that system of justice, rather than thinking that it’s business alone that we need to worry about – all we need to do is fix business and everything else would be okay.


A quick follow-up question – I wonder, as there is some division in how people see the best way to go about achieving things like justice and human rights, if you have any insights or recommendations for – anyone – but especially college-aged students – on how they can stay engaged and – in a sense – educate themselves so that they are in effect working in a way that can be impactful.

So, I’m a big fan of experiential learning – so learning through experience and seeing the world through a wide variety of different perspectives. So, I would, even though I ended up in a business and corporate responsibility profession, most change in the world is not going to happen in my profession.

Most change is going to happen by people taking their values into all the other professions that exist. So, my advice would be to follow the area that you are passionate about in terms of subject matter, product, industry, geography, whatever it might be, and try to bring the values that you have to that place. Because the people in the corporate responsibility world, business and human rights world, need those partners elsewhere in order for change to happen.

And some of the most effective change agents I’ve seen are not people in corporate responsibility world at all, they’re people in other roles that have the resources to make things happen.

Time to Flip the microscope, class!

While studying abroad last fall a friend expressed “there are so many people eager to study human rights and say they want to stop violations, but they never look at the US!!”

We were Americans (that is, from the United States) in Amman, Jordan studying geopolitics and human rights – the quintessential ‘American abroad’ topics. After a day of passionate debate over the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Israel/Palestine and de facto apartheid state created by the Israeli government, my friend felt our 95% white cohort spoke hypocritically.

In the moment, I thought my friend was right…BUT. I had a “but.” I thought it fair that our classmates (myself included) have international interests, and okay that our focus was, broadly, abroad. I thought – “We can’t do it all!”

This conversation came to mind randomly over the past few months, but I can’t say my perspective moved much. That is, until this week.

This week I started working on a new project. The project’s aim is a growing one in the word of social and corporate responsibility. Specifically, this growing theme works with renewables companies to expand on their environmental impacts, and investigate potential social and human rights risks, with the hopes of mitigating them.

Not only are more environmentally conscious companies realizing that environmental due diligence doesn’t equate to human rights due diligence, but after the past two weeks’ reckoning on racial justice in the US, more companies are beginning to realize that human rights aren’t just something that need to be accounted for in their ‘abroad’ context.

As I’ve taken the time to do some independent reading about companies’ recent histories in focusing on human rights abroad and failing to turn the microscope inward, terms like “missionary work,” “white man’s burden,” and “colonialism” popped to mind.

I need to be clear; I don’t think organizations in the corporate responsibility field are doing missionary work, nor do I think they’re colonialist, BUT (again, but) I believe the trend to look for human rights abuses abroad is one that engulfs many and is at times dangerous.

To be honest, over the course of my time at Duke I’ve taken only one course that explicitly studied the grossly long, deep, and violent history/reality of racism in America. Much of what I learned shocked me in the same way “Israel/Palestine”, a course I took my first semester at Duke, shocked me.

Absolutely, my basic privilege of being shocked by systems of violence and discrimination that are not only historic, but very present, is something I endeavor to acknowledge and actively combat. However, these past few weeks especially, I’ve come to really recognize that I can’t put these two instances of “shock” in the same category.

Both are horrific. Both are systemic. Both are based in racist ideologies used to control land, people, and wield power.

BUT in relation to the daily life I lead, the systems I uphold, and the systems from which I benefit, only one of these crises exists in my home country.

Only one exists in the country where generations of my family lived. Only one exists in the country where I went to a “neighborhood” public school. Only one exists in the country where black women are four times more likely than white women to die from pregnancy-related complications like my mother had. Only one exists where black friends and family are five times more likely than me to be incarcerated in a system where black people make up more than a third of prison populations, but less than a sixth of the population.

The list is long.

Not to veer too off-track, but I believe it’s wrong to solely focus on the dangers of being black in America. That is, despite the racist policies that keep so many black people from the voting polls, securing jobs, receiving a quality public education, having a fair trial, and simply living as long as their white counterparts. (In 2018, the life expectancy of black males was 69.1 years, compared to 78.7 white men’s 78.7. For women, black women were expected to live 76.2 years, while white women were expected to live 81.1 years).

That’s to say that black people in America don’t exist as the victims and survivors of our country’s racist policies and citizens’ racist violence. Rather, we as white citizens of the US who are bound by our shared benefit from, continuation of, and complacency in racism. It is our whiteness that creates, spreads, and spurs racism. Not blackness. This is something we must fight within our own whiteness. It can’t be eradicated from outside.

Does this mean I’m abandoning my interest in international relations and fighting human rights abuses in other countries? No. As an American, is it useful for me to go abroad to ‘help’ where my country created humanitarian crises? Is that my responsibility, my privilege, or a righteous want – the white woman’s burden? That’s a conversation for a later blog post.

Regardless, my friend was right.

I’ve seen a tendency both within myself and my ‘internationally-oriented’ peers to believe that if we’re fighting some kind of human rights abuses—whether that be in our home countries or abroad—then we’re doing our due diligence. “We’re playing our part in creating a safer, more just, world.

*Read dramatically* “We’ve done enough.” *Puts hand to forehead*

Now, I don’t think that’s true. As loudly as I’ll debate the existence, use, and implications of borders, they create the microcosms of life within our shared world. They cordon us off and protect us from some actions beyond them, but they also carve us in. They delineate a swath of land on which we not only live, but share.

As long as we’re living, sharing, and benefiting from inequalities that run within our borders, to look only abroad is not only wrong, but dangerous.

Befriend thy ‘enemy’ or keep thy distance

When I was younger, my parents had two rules about the clothes I wore. One – I could choose one item from the top two drawers where shirts were kept, and one item from the lower two drawers where bottoms were kept—no more, no less. (Dresses were in the closet as an alternative.)

The second rule was that the clothes “couldn’t have words on them.” In addition to not loving the implications of “cutie” slogans on children’s clothing, my mom didn’t want my sisters or me to be “walking advertisements” for any brand or company.

Thanks to this third guidance, I learned to equate association with support, and even endorsement—a valuable but not absolute lesson. However, as I dug into some of BSR’s ideologies and policies, I found a context to challenge this position.

During one of my first “onboarding” Zooms with a manager at BSR, I learned that employees may “opt out” of working on certain projects. The culture at BSR (which I’ve found very impressive) allows employees to share that they are uncomfortable working with a certain company, brand, or industry, and that’s that. They won’t be assigned to an affiliated project.

Not to say I believe this policy was implemented lightly—on the contrary—but it deserves some thought. In truth, when I was first told about the policy, I didn’t think much of it. Thankfully, the manager who shared it did the initial bit of thinking for me.

She shared that BSR’s portfolio includes companies like those in the defense, big soda, and tobacco industries—industries that face a lot of pushback and controversy.

She went on to candidly share the industry that she chooses not to work with and explained her reasoning. However, she encouraged me to ask the tough question: “Does more good come from working with your enemies  in hopes of influencing their actions and writing their policies, or is it better to stand against them in opposition?”

A cat and a dog sit at a table conducting businessAs I write this, I see a swirl of contexts where my answers to this question are very different. Therefore, I want to be clear that I’m only approaching this question from BSR’s context. That is the “corporate-responsibility-organizations working with businesses” frame.

I’ll spoil my own ending and admit that I still don’t have a definite stance. Protest can be powerful, but customers may wield more protest power than professionals who work in the corporate responsibility space. Further, the ability to divest and protest often comes from a privileged position—one that BSR wields well, but towards which it has a responsibility.

With that, I’d say by the end of last week I was still 50

I thought “hmmm well…if you have the opportunity to influence big corporations from the inside through a position like one at BSR you absolutely should! Then when you hang up your apron and punch out, you remain an obstinate consumer and avoid, avoid, avoid. Perfect! The best of both worlds.”

Luckily, I didn’t close the book there. As I continued to ponder, I was fortunate to have a few virtual coffee break Zooms with members of BSR’s Human Rights team. Not only were these welcome opportunities to fill some solitary work hours, but I was able to ask about the opt-in/opt-out policy.

I say this to introduce the fact that each person I spoke with had a slightly different stance on the idea of opt-in vs. opt-out. One person’s stance ran through BSR’s organizational method, saying that they would simply never work under the ‘consumer product’ industry focus.

I found not only their perspective, but their reasoning particularly thought-provoking.

They recognized the obvious, stating that the consumer product industry runs on sales like all businesses. In literal terms however, unlike fields like finance, and partially fields like intelligence, technology, and even extractives, the consumer product industry also relies on production.

Particularly in the case of fast fashion, but true for virtually all consumer products, the necessity to produce more and more creates situations where harm is unavoidable.

Even if a company were to pay every single person involved in the supply chain a living wage, as long as it continues to produce and produce, the production cycle squanders billions of tons of natural resources like water, burns incredible excess of fossil fuels, and contributes greatly to the ever-dire climate crisis.

Add to that the fact that people of color who make up the majority of populations in the global south experience the great grunt of the harm wrought from the climate crisis, while the predominantly white global north constitutes the greatest creators of the crisis, harm doubles, triples—is endless.

So how does one stand in a context like this? One person’s reasoned that you can get the company to do better and better and be more and more ethical on some points, but the basic goals of production and consumption will never be actionably ethical. I  hope the cycle will one day become sustainable, but we’re not there yet and persistent harm necessitates that we consider and act on the current situation.

Therefore, ideas of corporate responsibility in contexts like that of fast fashion are difficult to define. Can a company claim to complete its due diligence, even though its bottom line and mere existence are harmful? In a juridical sense, my guess is yes.

I don’t think the definition of corporate responsibility is static (though I need to ask around to confirm this), but my guess is many companies bend the definition to fit their needs . By this, I suppose that companies have an end goal that allows them to turn and maximize profits. In the consumer industry, that end goal is production.

Therefore, it appears logical that a company defines this goal—plainly “what they do”—and on that they won’t compromise. However, when it comes to the process, they’ll hopefully do their best to mitigate harm.

Through my BSR coffee break Zooms, I learned that some people believe if the end goal is harmful and set, the improvements that occur up the chain can begin to look like PR work.

I didn’t hear this as an absolute and don’t say it as one, but believe it brings us back to the original question–“does more good come from working with your supposed ‘enemies’ in hopes of influencing their actions and writing their policies, or is it better to stand against them in opposition?”

Maybe it depends on your timeline. That’s the only “maybe answer” I can muster.

That said, I still don’t wear clothes with words on them.

From States to Businesses: Considering the evolution of regulation and violence in an increasingly economically-integrated world

A colorful world mapI don’t know exactly how long I’ve been wary of big businesses and large corporations, but as I reflect on the path that lead me to join Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) this summer, I realize that throughout my time at Duke I’ve essentially worn blinders when it comes to the influence—and at times existence—of businesses and corporations.

I’ll try to unpack that. I believe a large part of why I chose to study political science, doubling down on language study is because I believe war and conflict often results from a lack of understanding.

Of course, this is an incredible simplification, but I’ve long believed that separation and subsequent violence imparts—in the most very basic sense—from miscommunications and misunderstandings. Unfortunately, these concepts are weaponized to fight wars of greed and draw blood of innocence, but miscommunications and misunderstandings are often at the root of inexplicable harm and suffering.

From this, I think I’ve idealized the basic concepts and capabilities of international diplomacy, while scrutinizing the functions of international business.

Studying in Jordan this past year, I completed a research project that questions the current international regime’s ability to promise human rights. As the international regime’s framework is supposedly comprised of entities that follow the juridical nation-state model – that is a state whose population ideally identifies with a single ethnic identity—their ability to promise and ensure the human rights of minority populations often threatens the ruling/majoritarian population’s monopoly of power.

Pondering the nation states’ and international regime’s flaws, I began to consider alternative ways to ensure human rights. In truth, all the ‘solutions’ I proposed to my audience of one (me), were just iterations of the nation-state: confederative models, federative models, etc.

However, after reading about the Pathways Fellowship and the different organizations with whom the fellowship partners, I began to consider alternatives. Namely, these alternatives take the form of businesses’ adoption of social responsibility and corporate accountability objectives.

Unfortunately, I’m not able discuss the reasons why businesses choose to adopt such objectives and frameworks as I have yet to wholly understand. However, as I’ve reviewed past cases, projects, and proposals from BSR’s archives, I’ve begun to understand how corporate accountability measures may have the potential to take the place of—and at the very least augment—the international regime’s human rights principles, treaties, laws, and directives.

To start, I’ve really enjoyed connecting some of my knowledge on the evolution of the current human rights framework I’ve gained from my Duke courses, to BSR’s business focus.

Briefly, when I think of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), I think of its relation to states. That is to say the UDHR directly addresses the role of states, charging them with the “obligations” and “responsibilities” to ensure the human rights of all who live within the confines of their borders.

However, as our world grows more interconnected by the day, and multitudes of borders are crossed with the ‘send’ of a text and the ‘purchase’ of an online product, the UDHR’s direct—and limited—address to states is weakening.

From a realist’s lens, this weakening may be the result of the international regime’s difficulty in imposing costly sanctions on those ‘bad actors’ who are non-compliant and overtly contrarian. However, the realist lens often defines cost in a vacuum, with true ‘cost’ stemming from firepower, arms wielding, and at times severe economic attacks.

However, in relying on such costly measures, this framework generally assumes that instances of human rights abuses are exceptional, and states wield the absolute power and responsibility in their execution. However, this is far from the case.

For one, states are arguably no longer the main actors on the international stage. From the simple fact of a nearly internationally integrated economy, to more severe charges like the rise of corporatocracies, businesses wield power and influence that trumps that of many states.

I personally, find the implications of rising influence, sans matching military power fascinating in the grand scheme of international relations, but will have to save that for a later post. Instead, I think I’m better equipped to focus on the states’ relationships with businesses.

Similar to the UDHR, businesses are regulated, but again the actual regulating falls under states’ “obligations” and “responsibilities”. As businesses’ power and influence continues to eclipse that of states, the states’ regulatory power grows increasingly null.

And here we come full circle.

As the international regime charges states with the “obligations” and “responsibilities” to both ensure human rights and regulate business, but states’ power and ability to do so is on the decline—a function of businesses’ assent—need for a new regulating framework is clear.

To me, it initially feels a little risky to leave that regulating framework up to businesses, but I suppose that parallels the nation-state existing as the current international regime’s base component.

From here, as I continue to consider alternative frameworks to not only regulate business, but far more importantly—ensure human rights—I’m looking forward to considering ways in which violent conflict may be avoided.

Historically, states’ greatest regulating tools against other states come in the form of clear violence, with loaded guns, planes, and ships. However, as influence shifts to less Hobbesian actors, this form of violence will hopefully diminish.

Unfortunately, that likely doesn’t equate to the end of violence, but the increase of—in our present eyes—more ‘covert’ forms of violence and human rights abuses, e.g. identity theft, pointed financial ruin, an increase in discrimination via economic opportunity, etc.

Luckily, BSR is on the case! With that, I’d like to add that I feel incredibly fortunate to have the opportunity to intern for BSR this summer, despite the current global climate, and am thankful for the opportunity to further unpack these musings and learn from professionals who are so committed to BSR’s mission: “to create a more just and sustainable world.” Any and all regulation would be superfluous with more leaders like them.