Between Profit and Humanity: A Balancing Act

“There can be no ethical consumption under capitalism” is a punchline for those that lean to the far left of the economic-belief spectrum. Of course, the mantra is not without its truths. History consistently shows examples of corporations exploiting people and lands for wealth. The goods and services they produce, then, would certainly be unethically sourced and therefore unethically consumed. The corporation has a singular interest that it sets above all others, profit. Anything that hinders the maximization of profit is one that ought to be discarded, merely something to be overcome by the company; after all, this is what most corporations have done since the shift from feudalism to capitalism. Effects from horrific atrocities caused by profit-driven corporations are still felt today in many local and global communities.  It is no wonder then, that many modern human rights organizations view the historically self-centered and exploitative corporation as diametrically opposed to the interests and rights of humanity.

Billions vs. Billions
Source: https://www.flickr.com/photos/salty_soul/6247921381

In the 1970s, the idea of “corporate social responsibility” began to reshape the relations between the private sector and the communities it impacts. Corporate social responsibility is a self-regulating business model that urges companies to move beyond mere profit and towards becoming more socially accountable to the public and other stakeholders. With this wave of restructuring of company values, for-profit corporations and non-profit rights advocates found themselves with certain interests aligned. No longer would being simply opposing the corporations be enough. As is becoming increasingly the case, the most good for the most people can only be achieved with the two sectors working together. This new circumstance created a new niche within the non-profit community: one that would engage with corporations to better their corporate social responsibility policies and behaviors without driving the companies out of business. Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) is one of the organizations that have risen up to occupy the niche.

BSR is a global non-profit organization that is dedicated to working with multinational corporations in order to promote the self-regulatory, sustainable, and accountable behaviors apparent in leading practices regarding corporate social responsibility. Because of unique position that BSR occupies between the rights-focused organizations like Human Rights Watch and the profit-focused corporations like Amazon, the non-profit organization is structured and ran similar to a business consulting firm. This structure allows BSR to retain the expertise and skill for the advisory role it plays in optimizing social responsibility while also maintaining credibility as a rights-focused organization with corporations, stakeholders, and the public. Through its various methods, such as sustainability consulting and multi-corporation collaborations, BSR seeks to use business as the force for positive change in the world.

I am personally quite skeptical about the extent to which businesses are willing to self-regulate if that regulation requires sacrificing both short-term and long-term profitability. However, despite only being at the organization for a week, it is already becoming clear that the methods used by BSR associates to convince companies to sign on to agreements designed to help the public and stakeholders are quite ingenious, yet surprisingly intuitive. Rather than asking a company to commit to an agreement that required high costs to the company in return for high rewards for the public, BSR convinces companies of the immediate rewards of being a thought-leader in the industry, as well as the potential future gains by decreasing externalities. Perhaps witnessing successful negotiations and commitments by corporations will curb my cynicism. If not, then I will nonetheless have experienced the issue of human rights from the unique perspective that takes into account both the interests of companies and stakeholders.

The mission of BSR is no easy one. It must try and balance the interests of the community with the interests of its clients. Too much sway to one side and the organization fails its duty and commitment to the other. It is still an open question as to whether any group with a primary focus of profit can wholly operate ethically; however, the current world is one where corporations still have many steps they can take to make their behaviors more ethical. BSR’s objectives is to create more sustainable supply chains, more ethical sourcing, and more awareness of human rights. So maybe there can’t be completely “ethical consumption under capitalism”, but through BSR’s work with its member companies, the future could allow for more ethical consumption. And I am excited to be able to contribute to that mission.

Phil Ma, placed with Business for Social Responsibility, is a rising junior from Beijing, China. He is majoring in Political Science and Math. He has participated in the DukeEngage program in Washington D.C., focusing on the intersection between science and policy. At Duke, Phil is a Human Rights Scholar at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, writing about the human rights violations in China.

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