Business Masquerading as Agents of Social Responsibility

When did making a profit from selling a quality product turn into such a bad thing? In today’s up-is-down and black-is-white world of turbulent, backwards social agendas, the new face of commerce is for businesses to posture as pseudo-charitable organizations, not interested in profit, but only really interested in promoting social responsibility.

As for me, I consider a company employing people to make a product that works for a long time and that can be sold at a reasonable price to be a good thing for society. But, apparently, in today’s “progressive” world, that is not enough…

I am not old enough to rightfully be able to claim, “In my day, products were made to last.” I missed out on the days of General Electric building a fridge that would last a quarter century.

However, I can say that I have been a witness to a troubling marketing trend of products over the last decade. Companies are striving less and less to show that their products are the most durable or the least expensive. Instead, we consumers are bombarded with claims that buying their products feeds the homeless, saves the planet or promotes some kind of social justice.

When I’m buying a jacket, I’m not looking to save the world; I’m just looking for something well-made that will keep me warm for a fair price. No more, no less.

Take Patagonia, for instance. The company that makes outdoor apparel has, for the last several years, tried to market their apparel using an odd approach. They have cautioned Americans against living in excess and buying things we don’t need. An essay written on their website cautioning against the dangers of consumerism, entitled “Don’t Buy This Shirt Unless You Need It,” explains,

 “We don’t have enough money, and we also don’t have enough time. We don’t have enough energy, solitude or peace. We are the world’s richest country, yet our quality of life ranks 14th in the world. As Eric Hoffer, a mid-20th century philosopher, put it, ‘You can never get enough of what you don’t really need to make you happy.’

And while we work harder and harder to get more of what we don’t need, we lay waste to the natural world.’…

Any person or nation can grow fatter and fatter, richer and richer, sleepwalking toward disaster. Or we can choose to remain lean and quick, wealthy in beauty and time and, that word that inspired our forefathers, wealthy in happiness.”

Alright, people on the site are looking for a means of staying warm outside, not for smug, holier-than-thou condescension that pretends to be above an honest exchange of goods for money. The company even goes so far as to call for a boycott of “Cyber Monday,” where deals can be seen all across the internet. The clothing company even asks you to take a pledge to do your part to curb your consumerism. I don’t know about you, but there’s nothing I love more than getting lectured when I’m making a purchase…

Let’s try an experiment. Now that you have read this, next time you’re stuck in traffic, look at the billboards. Go to the mall and see what kind of advertising is up. Forego the TiVo and watch some commercials and take notice of how many companies try to sell cars based on their performance or reliability versus how many make notable mention of their environmental impact or, as in Toyota’s case, their willingness to work on football helmet technology to reduce the likelihood of concussions. It’s great that these companies do these things, but that should not be their focus any more than Red Cross’ focus should be turning out qualities products for profit.

To be clear, I’m not outright opposed to companies doing good in the world. However, as a consumer, I am far less interested in seeing how they spend their profits than I am in knowing that I am purchasing a quality product and, whenever possible, helping keep Americans employed. I am happy to give to charity and I don’t need a song and dance about how this is beneficial for me. When I give to charity, I do so out of a sense of social responsibility or civic-mindedness and do not expect a tangible benefit for myself. When I buy a product, I do so because I need or want the product.  I cannot help but feel that this line between the two has been blurred and that companies have shifted their focus from producing quality goods to promoting causes

While this kind of advertising has cropped up more so in recent years, this is hardly a brand-new issue. The free market proponent Milton Friedman tackled this very subject in The New York Times in 1970. In an essay entitled, “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits,” Friedman wrote,

“The businessmen believe that they are defending free en­terprise when they declaim that business is not concerned ‘merely’ with profit but also with promoting desirable ‘social’ ends; that business has a ‘social conscience’ and takes seriously its responsibilities for providing em­ployment, eliminating discrimination, avoid­ing pollution and whatever else may be the catchwords of the contemporary crop of re­formers. In fact they are–or would be if they or anyone else took them seriously–preach­ing pure and unadulterated socialism. Busi­nessmen who talk this way are unwitting pup­pets of the intellectual forces that have been undermining the basis of a free society these past decades.”

For more on this topic, please read Milton Friedman’s article here.

Also, for a more contemporary analysis of this issue, please read “Rethinking the Social Responsibility of Business” at reason.com

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3 Responses to Business Masquerading as Agents of Social Responsibility

  1. chris says:

    The Patagonia is a status symbol within the Prius driving, whole foods eating, want-to-be hippie community. Their clothes are of high quality but it’s like showing up in an organic coffee shoppe with your macBook. I actually had one of these people tell me that they didn’t care about Hostess and the Unions because it wasn’t real food and should be a company anyway… They’re ridding on the crazy train!

  2. Arthur Spring says:

    When I was in college, I had to take a business ethics course (it sounds cliche, but the course was actually pretty enlightening). In the beginning of the semester, we talked about general business ethics and gradually narrowed the topics until we got into some very accounting-specific dilemmas. During one of those earlier days, we discussed the idea of “corporate social responsibility.” I’m not sure about the professor, but I’m confident there were more than a few conservatives in the room that day (actually, the general consensus among my friends was that our University was a minimum of 2/3 conservative). This didn’t stop the nearly universal agreement that businesses owed it to their communities to give away some of their profits. Only the nuances of this idea were really being debated.

    Then, the “smartest guy in the room” (one who, if we had superlatives, I have no doubt would have been voted most likely to succeed) said this: “I don’t think corporations should be expected to give their money to charity. In fact, one could argue it is immoral for them to take their shareholders’ money and donate it to a cause they may or may not agree with.” The professor was clearly shocked and there was much hemming and hawing, but the point had been made, and you could tell by the way people were looking at each other that people’s ways of thinking had just changed. The point was actually widely discussed amongst the people on our program for a few weeks, even though only about 20 of the 100 or so people in our program were in the room.

    While the point itself still stuck with me, I realized something else later. Even though it goes against the basic principles of conservatism, the idea of mandatory Corporate Social Responsibility was so ingrained in our culture that almost no one had ever really seemed to question it. THAT was the part that really blew me away.

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