Business is recognized as a system in society that is affected by and affects other systems in the society (communities, government bodies, other organizations, the natural environment etc).
It is generally understood that businesses strive to meet the various needs of a society in an on-going basis, and one of the ways by which this is done is through value creation or the addition of value to an already existing product or service – at a profit to the business owners.
Therefore business is required to work within the parameters of these systems – economic, social and environmental – to attain its objectives in a way that will also benefit the system (society) holistically.
The society relies on business to provide it with usable, wholesome goods and services of various kind, while businesses need the buying power (and goodwill) of the society in order to keep on producing and making profit. The relationship between business and society, therefore is a symbiotic one. Each needs the other to survive.
It is a given that while providing these goods and services, businesses are generally required to follow certain rules in a particular society. But rules by their very nature are limited in scope and execution.
Whereas we are in a changing world, and rules become obsolete right before its implementation begins, and rules can never cover every aspect of changing societal expectations.
This is all fine and good, but the thing I would like to change about how businesses operate, is the perceived independence and separation of business [while meeting these societal needs] from the negative effects that accrue.
Due to the methods it and its affiliates employ while manufacturing their products, followed by the ‘good’ and not so ‘good’ effects of their industrial processes on the general society.
Add to that the indifference of some shareholders and business owners towards questionable practices their business employs in the manufacture of usable goods being offered to the general public; particularly in the type and makeup of products, methods and systems employed [before and] during the manufacturing processs.
These societal needs (food, clothing, shelter, entertainment, health, consumer electronics, fitness etc) cutting across various rungs of the social ladder are met on an on-going basis.
But it is sad to note that we have not gotten our business and technological advancements without a price. Especially the price being paid by the environment, in the amount of waste that has been generated in the last 100 years.
Of note is the amount of toxic waste generated in chemical industries, food processing industries, and industrial-styled CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations) employed in the agricultural sector to say the least.
Many – if not all – of these wastes and toxic chemical byproducts are dumped directly into rivers, lakes and oceans. And according to the EPA, pollution from industrial facilities is responsible for threatening or fouling water quality in more than 10,000 miles of rivers and more than 200,000 acres of lakes, ponds and estuaries in the United States alone.
In addition to that, according to another report from the federal governments’ Toxic Release Inventory, industrial facilities dumped 232million pounds of toxic chemicals in American waterways in 2007 alone. More worrisome is the use of toxic chemicals in the clothing and textile industry, the processed food industry and cosmetic industry to mention a few.
A known culprit, nonylphenol ethoxylate is a commonly used clothing and textile factory chemical. It is also a common ingredient in commercial detergents.
Known as endocrine disruptors, nonylphenols have been dumped into waterways, decimating fish and wildlife population. Putting people who live around these areas at risk of a lifetime of health issues.
While many of these practices of dumping toxic chemical wastes into the seas, rivers and waterways may not produce immediate results for most people, the longterm accumulation of these toxins added to our polluted air, water and food can cause numerous health ailments.
Although everything appears rosy on the surface, if the trend of environmental degradation, toxic industrial practices, pollution and improper waste management methods are continued; due to business’s and societys’ myopic decisions without regard for the longterm implications of short-run production and consumption – the longterm profitability and sustainability of the business, the environment and that of the society would be seriously hampered.
Alas many business ‘experts’ picking up on this, are quick to list areas where business has positively impacted on society: Reduced cost of production through advances in technology, novel chemical additives that give processed foods a semblance of ‘freshness’ and ‘naturalness’, genetically engineered plant and animal species (whose benefits are debatable), increased agricultural yield, improvements in the welfare of the labor force and the reduction of occupational hazards workers face etc etc.
Although some companies have reformulated their products in a genuine, wholehearted way, replacing problematic ingredients with less problematic ones, others, unconvinced, have turned to a novel range of cheaper substances that allow them to present a scrubbed and rosy face to the public while the conditions in their factories remain virtually unchanged.
So looking at it critically, business as a corporate entity, has not really been living up to its full potential. An inordinate amount of time has been spent on tackling just the economic side of buiness alone, the social, environmental and cultural sides of the business equation are still far from being resolved. Certainly there has been improvements, but it has been limited to certain areas alone.
So the current approach (albeit backed with the right motive – tongue in cheek) of business towards sourcing for resources, manufacturing systems, waste disposal, recycling and its Corporate Social Responsibility would need to be reevaluated.
That is not to say that business has not undergone any change in abolishing some unhelpful practices, what I’m saying here is that it has not been a willing innovator in this regard.
Many of the changes in the business world today, were implemented because there $was no other choice available. Either you evolve or die. But a business need not wait until it is obvious to everyone that a change is needed, changes especially in matters of environmental and business sustainability can be gradually and proactively eased into, one process at a time by business managers.
Society has and will continue to undergo changes from what it was before, in terms of quality of life, technology, access to information, healh and educational facilities etc. So it would be in the best interest of a business to predict these changes, and if need be, tailor their business model to prepare for the change to come.
Because at the longrun, the sustainability of a business would define its life line – it’s already defining it in the area of automotive manufacturing and renewable electricity.
In 1987, the World Commission on Environment and Development defined sustainability as: Development that meets the needs of the present, without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
It is the intersection of Social, Environmental and Economic responsibilities of for-profit businesses.
Sustainable behaviour can be monetized, and as Gerald Nanninga puts it “if we deplete resources too quickly, the shortage of supply will make conservation issues more financially viable” and sustainable businesses have lesser risks associated with their future earnings, public image… and the more impact they have on triple bottomline (economic, social and environmental) the more the uncertainty of profitability is reduced.
However, one major cog in the wheel of sustainability is that today’s products, manufacturing processes and supply chains were not designed with sustainability in mind, it would be more easily achievable if the concept is integrated into the business model at inception. But as Stever Roberts aptly puts it “one way or another, we will become sustainable. I just hope we do it ourselves”.
Since many businesses are not living up to their potential, and some appear to be okay with the status quo, baring some unforeseen emergency, how then can we turn the trend around and turn business into a force for good?
First, business should understand their role in the community beyond making profit, focus should be given to sponsoring and training willing members of the community on entrepreneurship. Spelling out the advantages of being an entrepreneur to them
The social, cultural, moral and even religious ramifications of a business’s proposed project should be the first subject of discussion before any project or investment proposal is undertaken in any community. Weighing whether it is the right project (however helpful) and if the timing for such a venture is right.
In other words, a meeting of minds between the business and society. So as to alleviate the pressing needs of the community in especially as it relates to easy access to clean renewable sources of water, affordable healthcare and educational facilities in these communities.
Conditions like poverty in a community, can be ameliorated via the provision of an economic incentive through the provision of direct access to funds for local social enterprises for individuals and groups in the community. So as to make semi-skilled jobs available for members of their community. Which might not have gotten to these individuals if the business people had not created such a social platform in the first place.
Business can also be used as a force for good in the prevention of social ills like human rights abuses, racial and gender discrimination either in the work place or the society at large. Through the means of collaborative strategies across multiple sectors of business to help victims of abuse seek legal redress.
Whilst ensuring that adequate solutions, through direct and unbiased channels are available to these individual when abuses do occur.
In the areas of waste generation and its unnecessary proliferation in the environment, would require a reappraisal of outdated paradigms in waste management and waste disposal.
Companies would need to proactively seek for recycling and re-manufacturing opportunities in the waste they generate before sending them to landfills and dump-sites (which they still pay for), in addition to that the manufacture of ‘useful’ materials like the ubiquitous plastic – you are probably holding one now – should be gradually discontinued while alternative, bio-degradable materials to plastic could be created in order to reduce our over dependence on plastic. The negative effect that plastic alone has had on the planet is mind boggling, especially with the discovery of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch by Captain Charles Moore. An island of rubbish strewn patch of floating plastic debris within the North Pacific Gyre, the center of a series of currents several thousand miles wide.
A call for transparency by business managers in the amount of information that gets released to the public, because a business affects other areas of a society; therefore much more information about its financial, social and environmental impact/behavior should be made available in public reports and not the other way round where it is only being made available to the most committed shareholders and investors.
In addendum to that, industries should be required to disclose the amount of toxic chemicals in their facilities thereby safeguarding the right of local residents to know about potential public health threats in their communities. Safer alternatives where alternatives exist should be substituted, while the worst toxic chemicals should be phased out.
Finally industries should regulate their use and release of toxic chemicals into the environment based on its capacity to cause harm to the environment and health of people rather than basing regulation on resource-intensive and flawed efforts to determine “safe” levels of exposure to these chemicals.
In conclusion, I submit that business can can positively effect a change in the social and economic fabric of a community by organizing improved enterprises for creating jobs and the vibrancy of a community by supporting small local businesses that make use of locally sourced materials to create products and services that raise the quality of life of the members of the community plus an increased social impact based on the number of lives being saved due to available primary and secondary healthcare facilities, to more children attending schools for a sustainable future.
By starting from where we are now, from the known to the unknown.