Divided We Fall

Cersei Lannister is one of Game of Thrones’s, and possibly one of television’s, most hated characters. From framing her adversaries to blowing up churches, there are plenty of cruel acts that justify the collective distain. Yet despite the wide array of heinous crimes she has committed, her most frustrating decision may have been what she did during the penultimate season. Even after seeing the zombies, from myths, that could end all life, Cersei decided against helping those who were threats to her throne combat this global menace. She decided not to put aside political struggle to support the fight against an existential threat.  

BSR Conference Panel
Source: https://www.3blmedia.com/News/BSR-Alumni-Discuss-Evolution-Sustainable-Business-Over-Past-25-Years

Perhaps this frustration stems from clear links to the current political and international response to climate change. Even the writer of the book series the show is based on, George R. R. Martin, has come out to talk about the parallels between the fictional world of Westeros and the world we live in today. But this issue is not new. It has quite literally been around since the first people walked the Earth. The problem Cersei faced, much like the problem businesses face, can be categorized as a collective action problem.  Collective action problems arise when a group of people or organizations would benefit the most if they cooperated together, but because of conflicting interests or imperfect information, they fail to do so. For Cersei, the rational, albeit immoral, act would be to do exactly what she did and abandon the fight against the existential threat. If her enemies use their resources and are successful in beating the threat, then she will only have to deal with the weakened enemies. If her enemies don’t, then she still has plenty of resources to deal with it afterwards. When dealing with large social and environmental issues, businesses face the very same collective action problems, and so in theory, should end with the same rationale. 

Interestingly, reality seems to say otherwise. We live in a world where plenty of companies collaborate with their peer competitors to tackle difficult issues. In fact, these peer competitors even come together through their own initiative to form these coalitions. Tech Against Trafficking, a collaborative initiative for which BSR is the secretariat, was the brainchild of BT, Microsoft, and Nokia. The group, now comprised of seven large, global tech companies, looks for ways to utilize technology in combatting the crimes of human trafficking and modern slavery on a worldwide scale. By all logic, this type of collaboration should not happen, at least not between rational businesses . And the model of this type of collaboration, where businesses contribute resources willingly while their competitors do not, should not be sustainable. Yet, from programs such as the One for Good program to the Global Business Coalition Against Human Trafficking, these collaborations seem only to increase in number. This raises a simple question: what incentivizes businesses to collaborate to solve large issues when they can reap the benefits of others’ work on those issues without contributing any resources?

At first, it may be tempting to attribute these works to the good will of CEOs, strong corporate social responsibility (CSR) sectors, or even a desire for a stronger brand and reducing risk. However, each of these reasons fall apart at a closer look. CEOs are not hired to make sure the homeless are housed and the hungry are fed. Their job is to create more value for the company. Similarly, a company cannot be successful if its CSR programs cripple its ability to compete with peers. Having a stronger brand seems most in line with corporate interest and thus most promising in answering the question. At first, I had thought this was the answer. However, the sheer amount of resources contributed by companies to different initiatives could not possibly outweigh the slight boost in their image. Furthermore, if companies wanted to bolster their brands as a tool for competition, there is little reason for them to place their logo side-by-side with that of a peer competitor’s. Reducing risk may answer as to why companies might treat their workers better, such as reducing risk of striking, but it does not answer why companies help with external rights violations. Like Cersei’s rationale, it would be more beneficial for one company to wait for others to alleviate the problems, contributing their time and resources, and come in to reap the benefits.

The answer is quite intuitive. The reason companies collaborate in large groups is because organizations like  .  Collective action problems arise when the actors have conflicting interests or because of imperfect information that changes their cost-benefit calculus. Organizations like BSR help align the different values of companies and give information to influence that cost-benefit scale. Forming, organizing, and maintaining a coalition of tens of the largest businesses in the world is no small task, but it is also a very prestigious one. No company wants another to claim to be the operator of the collaborative, but few would want to dedicate the heavy amount of resources and expertise required to keep the collaborative going. Thanks to the network at organizations like BSR, companies are able to more efficiently be connected to others with similar interests. Knowing that all parties will be held accountable through third-party management and reporting  for contributing resources, companies are alleviated from worries about too heavy a burden on their end because of free-riding members.

It is thanks to credible, resourced third parties that collective action problems are  feasibly being addressed. Unfortunately, for this model to work, it requires changes in the cost-benefit for a company to favor supporting responsible behaviors. This prerequisite raises again a host of practical and ethical questions about what ought to be done in the future in the realm of business and human rights. Nonetheless, the current works in progress are a good start to a long road of complete ethical business conduct. And all paths to the finish line begin with the first step.

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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