License to Kill
This article is part of the Building a Sustainable Business series about starting and running a sustainable business. Read all the articles here.
Are you a socially responsible individual? If so, here is a list of things you probably shouldn’t do: blast your neighbors with poisonous fumes; dump toxic waste on their yards; sell them products that will kill them.
I think I’m a socially responsible person and I set my company up to match my moral code. Bellwether Materials does no harm to people, animals, or the environment. We believe in total corporate social responsibility.
Now here’s a funny thing—even though our product is so obviously green and our practices are so responsible, officially, we cannot be considered a socially responsible corporation without third party certification. I discovered that there are thousands of organizations out there who want to charge us $20,000 (initial fee to be followed by annual dues to keep the certification) just to certify that wool is green and that we don’t pollute. Where did all these organizations come from? How are they qualified to certify other people’s companies and products? For a start-up, that’s a lot of money to prove the obvious. It feels a bit like the certificates issued by the Wizard of Oz.
Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) is now a booming business. In addition to the certifying groups there are consultancies to advise companies on how to be socially responsible. I didn’t realize that being socially responsible was so difficult that armies of people and who knows how much money is required to figure this out—and then print out the certificate. A quick and easy way to figure out how to be socially responsible is to Google the Ten Commandments. They pretty much cover the waterfront.
Then I realized I was looking at CSR from the wrong direction. The big money is not in penalizing small business like mine, but in cloaking big business in respectability. If your product destroys the earth and kills people, throw fairy dust in people’s eyes to redirect their attention. So what if the company destroys the environment and depletes a finite resource, look over here – see? We’re planting trees and saving baby birds.
Corporations, of all sizes, are considered individuals under law. All the people who work in major corporations are probably decent citizens who take care of their families and do their best to be good neighbors. But once they go to work, in the clear light of day, the individual that they constitute, the corporation, can kill, maim, and pollute with impunity. If they tried that at home, they’d be arrested.