Local Business Ethics

Ethics is the branch of philosophy that involves systematizing, defending, and recommending concepts of right and wrong conduct.  

Of course this is then dependent on one's concept of right and wrong and if we want to talk about ethics, we'll have to get into thinking about belief systems.  Belief systems are subjective.  You can choose to believe in an idea based on feelings and intuition rather than logic and reason.  Ethics, then, are subject to public opinion.

What is right and wrong for a company?  Plenty of companies out there do what is right by making their products cheaper in order to earn a higher profit for the shareholders.  They can make their products cheaper by moving production sites to China.  They have done right by their shareholders.  Never mind the unemployed workers back in the US, or the towns that were gutted when the plant shut down.  "That's not our concern" says the company.  

We've seen it a hundred times.  Some company wants to open a factory in some town.  They talk with the county and city officials, promise jobs, prosperity, and negotiate for tax incentives to bring the factory.  When the tax incentives expire, the physical plant wears down, and wages have climbed over the years, the company picks up and moves.  The reward for supporting that company is a destitute population, vacant storefronts, urban decay, and broken dreams.  The town always believe in "We bring jobs and taxes" because that's what they want to believe.  Saying the truth doesn't cater to the emotions of the people: "We are here until we find a cheaper source of labor, then we drop you like a hot potato".  Sure the company has a retirement plan, but when the jobs can disappear overnight that retirement plan is an empty promise.  The company wants a committment from the workers but does not return the committment.  The company wants to operate in our town because that town offers advantages to the company but they don't become part of the community.  
A company comes in, sets up a store.  The gubmint people are happy to see more jobs.  You know...economic growth and all that.  The new store pays out a Million dollars in payroll over the course of a year.  But when the store sends 2 million back to company headquarters the store is a collection center.  It's not helping the local economy, it's sucking it dry.

I submit it is an ethics violation when Right for the company is Wrong for the town.

About 15 miles north of my little house is a phosphate mine.  Lots of industrial uses for phosphorus.  Processed into phosphoric acid its a fertilizer.  It gives cola that tartness.  It's used in soaps and detergents.  There's plenty of demand so they keep digging it up.  The geology of the formation of the phosphours deposit goes back a gozillion year to when this area was a shallow ocean.  It was formed by an accumulation of the bodies of sea creatures over aeons that was later buried by more material...or something like that.  The process involved in digging it up is fairly straightforward.  Scrape off the material on top, expose the phosphate rich layer, then process that layer in a chemical plant.  That's an oversimplified explanation of the process that does not get into the impact of the operation.  

In order to get to that phosphate layer the overburden, 20-50, feet thick is removed.  This means every single thing on the surface is picked up and cast aside.  I'm not talking about a small operation with a mine shaft and some maintenance buildings.  This place is 27,000 acres.  You can see it on Google Maps north of White Springs, Florida.  This is not the only phoshate mine, there are more around Bartow, Florida.  There are laws on the books that have come into existence since the environmental movement began to gain traction back in the 60s.  Strip mining is allowed, but the companies have to 'reclaim' the land.  This means they have to bulldoze all that overburden back into the hole they dug.  Mother Nature will take care of bringing back the wildlife, but that takes a while.  You can look at the maps and decide for yourself if the reclamation efforts are doing what they should.  

The issue I am illustrating here is company profits at the expense of the environment.  We've come a long way from the pollution levels we used to have.  Much of this progress has come about by moving production facilities to places where environmental laws are less stringent.  Smog in Chinese cities is as bad as it ever was in US urban centers.  How is a company doing right when it makes a buck by using the earth, air, and water as a waste dump?  

All this talk is Triple Bottom Line stuff.  A responsible business looks out for the 3 Ps: People, Planet and Profit.  It's a sure bet a company is looking out for Profit.  Gaining profit at the expense of the people and the planet is unsustainable.  Ethics is about conduct.  Treating people as a commodity is just plain awful.  Poisoning the world is an assault on life everywhere lasting for generations.  There is no rightness found by making a buck in the process.  We need to get away from the idea that money is everything.  A whole lot of things matter in this word that don't have anything to do with money. 



Cooperative Enterprise, Plan Outline