I’ve run across a number of enterprises that claim to have a social mission in perfect alignment with their ability to make money. Let’s take a look and see if it’s really that simple.
One company provides collaboration tools to large companies. They incorporate sustainability into their tools, and are a Certified B Corps company. Their target market is large companies that try to “do the right thing.” When pressed, the CEO was unclear on how they would respond if they had the opportunity to work with a large client whose business was “dirty” by its nature (Fill in your own definition – mine include tobacco, gambling, most extractive industries, and many in defense.) Might they look for opportunities where their tools might enable more positive activities within the company?
Another firm designs websites and other communications, primarily for mission-driven companies. They have all the business that they can handle, and refuse to work with companies that have values that run counter to their own. The thing is, most of the time companies are not overt about demonstrating bad values. It’s easier to tell with large companies that are highly visible. With small and mid-sized firms, it can be difficult to determine whether your client’s values approximate your own, or at least don’t run directly counter to them.
A third firm provides bicycle components that are frequently used by high end users. They have a triple bottom line mentality, and aggressively support the use of bicycles as an environmentally benign form of transportation. They also see bicycling as a way of improving health and reducing obesity. Yet their products are used by professionals who take illegal and unhealthy drugs in order to improve their performance. The firm doesn’t have a one to one relationship with these buyers, but there’s still a conflict with their core mission by their most visible end clients.
My own business coaching practice is another example. Over the years, I’ve had clients who did things that made me uncomfortable. They did nothing that was dangerous or illegal, just things that didn’t jive with my personal values. I chose to continue working with them, and would talk with them about the potentially negative ramifications of their choices. In this way, I felt that I was helping to move them in the right direction. Eventually they would go away on their own since we weren’t a good fit. Was I going against my own values by working with them, or was I promoting better values on their part? It’s hard to judge, even from the inside.
It’s not my point to rag on any of these companies or others that are trying really hard to do business the right way. I just think that we all need to face reality in that there are a lot of gray areas in how we choose to run our lives and our businesses. The clearer we are about our mission and our values, the easier it is to make decisions that might run counter to them. But that doesn’t mean we won’t be tested again and again, with possibly different decisions made as we evolve in our thinking and understanding.