It seems almost unavoidable to refer to Immanuel Kant, a German philosopher of the 18th century and his broad study when talking about ethics. The posture of this famous thinker was mostly set within deontology; as opposed to consequentialism - this perspective implies acting according to our principles and core values, while separating good from wrong in terms of duty or obligation. Kant was a true advocate of the idea that people should be treated as ends and not means, and that’s what he tries to convey when he said: “act only according to that maxim by which you can at the same time that it should become a universal law”.
This invites us to reflect on both personal and shared values; that is, the criteria which guide human behavior, acquired since childhood. But, is this something we are actually reflecting on at a time when materialism seems to be beating moral commitment? Currently, our way of life is generally more identified with utilitarianism -at least in the western world-, which means making decisions based on what’s more convenient or useful, with the main goal of increasing our happiness and getting the maximum benefit. In this case, the good or the bad in actions themselves is not taken into account; will is irrelevant, and results are key. A lot of examples could be provided to illustrate this tendency towards utilitarianism; at a global level, the most powerful countries are exploiting those which don’t have the appropriate resources to develop -or are poorly managed- regardless of the consequences for the people living there, who need to put up with harsh working conditions, low salaries and other forms of abuse.
Because of this, there are companies that take advantage of people living in low- and middle-income countries and in vulnerable circumstances, or use procedures and production methods that are harmful for the environment, in order to save money. Moreover, they intentionally distort reality by sugar-coating their employees’ experience or communicating seemingly good actions that, compared to the damage they are eventually causing with their normal activity, are quite insignificant. One case that is particularly representative of this kind of corporate attitude, is the one that involves flower workers in Kenya. Their wages are below minimum, incapable of covering the cost of living, which mostly affects women, who very often also need to support children. In some cases, Women also experience sexual harassment from their supervisors, which they most likely do not fight against for the fear of loosing their jobs. Families are not able to enjoy nourishing and sufficient meals on a daily basis and they are used to lack of sanitation and collapsing houses, which usually don’t have ventilation and expose them to smoke inhalation. Work safety is another issue, since chemical exposure in flower production is part of their day-to-day life. The majority of the Kenyan flower exports go to big distributors in the United Kingdom, such as Tesco, a well-known supermarket chain. This company boasts of its care for sustainability, claiming that “serving customers, communities and the planet a little better every day” is part of their business plan. Quite a lot of information related to huge investments and sustainable production can be found on their website.
Human beings are social beings: in order to survive, we need others; that is the main reason we create organizations and institutions. Corporations, being an inherent part of society, cannot escape this ethical analysis, which goes far beyond the compliance with government rules. In this regard, it is widely known that for a company to succeed and mainly to find its way through viability and remain in time, it must have corporate social responsibility at the top of its agenda. There are specific guidelines to follow in relation to this matter -like the sustainability reports provided by the Global Reporting Organization-, and companies can and should develop plans and actions oriented towards sustainable development as part of their daily operations, working on their relationship with stakeholders and on natural and cultural preservation. With this in mind, the aggressive pathway to profits and market leadership at any cost -even if no laws are being violated or rules broken- doesn’t always lead to stability in the long term; not only for the planet, but for the company itself.
CEOs and business managers should focus on the development and implementation of strategies that allow the company to reach its main objectives, but also contribute to the society that it is inserted in. Once this is embedded in the organization’s culture and we start seeing real effects, communication is fundamental. If a company is having a positive impact on society, by helping its members in any way or just avoiding potential damage, it must make sure this has visibility. From social media campaigns to physical portraits of these actions, showing what the company is up to in regards to sustainability and social development generally increases confidence and loyalty from consumers, clients, employees, vendors, etc. But, what are companies communicating, and what are they really doing? Do they care for the planet and the people who consume their products and use their services, or are they just hiding their actual intention of getting the maximum benefit, regardless of consequences?
Institutional sections on company’s websites and postings on social media are not the only way of communicating corporate social responsibility initiatives; they may also appear too sweetened by nice pictures and appealing wording. Indeed, one of the principal tools used for this purpose is the previously mentioned sustainability report, and the Global Reporting Initiative’s reference framework is the one most used in its creation. This report consists of a document that communicates the financial, social and environmental performance of a company or organization in relation to their stakeholders. However, even this report has been criticized due to lack of transparency, mainly because its contents are not established according to globalization and the best interest of key sectors of society.
It is highly required for governments to address this situation with urgency. Policies regarding transparency should be formulated and specific points should be clarified depending on each societies’ needs. Nevertheless, we as individuals and members of society should be the first ones to demand accurate information and find trustful sources, so as to encourage critical thinking and consciousness while consuming. This takes us back to the beginning: the importance of recovering personal and common values and of evaluating actions by their mere being and not always for their results. Organizations are part of society and in consequence, constantly affected by it, so if we focus our efforts on changing our own personal approach, we may pass it along to them.