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Business Ethics, Advocacy, and Sustainability: What Approach Should Companies Take?

I’ve had the pleasure this spring of participating in an ongoing Convet.it discussion panel, sponsored by the Accenture consulting firm, that’s exploring “the infusion of ethics into the retail environment.”

glass earth in ferns

I’ve had the pleasure this spring of participating in an ongoing Convet.it discussion panel, sponsored by the Accenture consulting firm, that’s exploring “the infusion of ethics into the retail environment.” It’s been fascinating to engage with a very bright group of people, and to think about how enterprises can seek out paths towards ethical outcomes that align closely with their unique challenges, opportunities, and goals. The most recent installment of the panel, which includes luminaries like Joss Tantram, Ushma Pandya, Bruce Klafter, Alexandra Sokol and Bill Roth, delved into the intersection of retail and political activism. Together we explored questions like:

  • Do companies have an ethical responsibility to take stands, or should brands be agnostic?
  • If companies do embrace political activism, how do they decide what issues to advocate? Align with the political leanings of their leaders, or does the political orientation need to align with core brand values?
  • What risks do companies take by practicing political activism? What risks do they take by refraining from engaging politically?
  • What about legacy retailers that have not traditionally been politically active -- if they choose to engage, how do they pivot in authentic ways?
  • To what degree is political activism necessary to compete in the future of retail?

You can find a summary and ongoing discussion of these topics here, and there’s also a concise video recap by session facilitator Bill Baue. I won’t try to capture the whole discussion, but very much agree with Bill that Ushma made an important distinction between issues and politics. She noted, "I would argue that brands should be active on issues (that align with their brand value/promise) because their consumers may expect it, but brands should stay away from politics - that is a fine line to walk." I was also struck by Joss’s comment that "companies truly engaged in sustainability will need to undertake activities within their own direct spheres of control and influence, but also engage in wider activities designed to evolve norms, values and the rules of business." To me, this brings up several critical aspects of how we can start to take relatively abstract concepts and turn them into practical actions. For one, if we assume that there are values, drivers and rules that we can adjust to accelerate sustainable business, how do we and our colleagues identify them? And once we identify them, how do we go about adjusting them? My sense is that there’s a real opportunity to develop processes for each of these steps, which would help all enterprises move more quickly – and successfully match their activities to their priorities. We shouldn’t underestimate the complexity of this process. As Bruce pointed out, corporate leaders, shareholders, employees, and partners will all have different perspectives, and navigating that landscape is treacherous, even before you start considering your current and potential customers and the broader community. As I’ve thought about it, it seems like the process has some parallels to our own individual decisions about politics, ethics, and engagement. When advocacy aligns with a company’s business goals, I think it makes sense and can be the ethical thing to do. But at the same time, I don’t think we can say that a company that doesn't advocate is unethical. I’m sure we all know people who live by high ethical standards but aren’t outspoken about their values; that approach can be very powerful. I won’t wade into the question of whether corporations are people. But I will say that I admire individuals who seek to live ethical lives, and organizations that consciously strive to run ethical and sustainable businesses. Neither is a simple undertaking, but both are examples of the best that people and their endeavors have to offer. If this is a subject of interest to you, please share your thoughts in the comments section, and consider participating in the discussion forums at Convet.it – they can be very engaging.