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Business – necessary evil or essential good?

by Tony Manwaring Why do those who argue for business so often seem to feel as if they are on the back-foot, having to establish that business has an essential role to play in the way we live our lives?  This is pretty important if like Tomorrow's Company you want to argue that business really is a ‘force for good’? Typically, we argue for the jobs that business creates, and the tax revenues generated to fund health and other services.  All true of course, but there is still a sense that business is a means to an end: the ‘good stuff’ is what we do with the money we get from work, and the public services we can make use of. My view is that when we talk about corporate social responsibility and the like, we do not first question the fundamental assumptions on which we rest our arguments about the role of business in society.  As an organisational development consultant I rate once remarked to me, the important thing about how you frame an argument is not what is in the frame – but what, unconsciously, is on the outside when you set the boundaries. Schumacher said it brilliantly:-

There is a universal agreement that a fundamental source of wealth is human labour.  Now, the modern economist has been brought up to consider ‘labour’ or work as little more than a necessary evil … Hence the ideal from the point of view of the employer is to have output without employees, and the ideal from the point of view of the employee is to have income without employment.”    (Small is Beautiful, 1973) Put like that, it’s a bit daft isn’t it?  There is no conceivable way in which we can organise society for the foreseeable future – and therefore, no sensible way in which we should frame arguments about the role of business in society – which does not recognise that the world of work and business are enduring elements of how we live. Like any other part of the way we organise things – charities and the community, government and the private sector, each can do good or bad things: neither can claim some moral legitimacy or presumption of being better than the other. The Tomorrow’s Global Company inquiry takes this a stage further, and provides the fundamental argument upon which this website rests.  It recognises that business plays a distinctive and essential role, in terms of bringing together skills and resources which enable innovation, new products and services, and ways of producing them, at scale to market. It certainly does not say that business plays the only important role, but let’s get real: who amongst us does not enjoy our ‘sky plus’ or newspapers, our ipods or the food choices now available, and the myriad other things that without business would make our lives a lot less fun, and less enriching.  Not to mention the capacity of business to help provide the basics of water and nutrition in parts of the world in which millions live in deep poverty. The people we love, the relationships we treasure, the beliefs we hold dear, the community which we hold dear – of course these are all essential features of the ‘good life’.  But the products and services of business are now an integral part of all these aspects of how we live. Schumacher again:
To strive for leisure as an alternative to work would be considered a complete misunderstanding of one of the basic truths of human existence, namely that work and leisure are complementary parts of the same living process and cannot be separated without destroying the joy of work and the bliss of leisure.” The argument that business success and sustainability outcomes are mutually reinforcing and now go hand in hand pushes this argument still further.  Issues like climate change and water shortage may well be in part the product of industrialisation, linked in turn to lifting millions out of poverty, but it is impossible to argue that we can tackle these critical issues without harnessing the role of business as a force for good on the one hand – or that future financial returns for business can be achieved without ensuring that these fundamental parameters of being able to do business, let alone live our lives, are in place. That’s why we believe business can and must be a force for good, and that it is in business’ own interest to do this – and that’s why we have created this website, and ask you for your examples of how business is a force for good, to help us create a tipping point in understanding, behaviour and leadership. Business is not a ‘necessary evil’ – it has to be an ‘essential good’, whose role is going to be ever more critical as we face up to the realities and challenges of living as one people on our one planet in the twenty-first century.

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