Business is Not the Place for a Revolution…Or Is It?

From here in my native Mexico, I read in the New York Times a list of some 200 Mexican businessmen and politicians involved in a money laundering and tax evasion scheme.

Stories like this make me appear naïve when I say that there’s no more effective way of building a better world than through business.

Building a better world? Through business?

But what about rising inequality? Environmental depletion? Corruption? Irresponsible consumerism?

In our big corporate world, it would seem that unethical behavior sits at the very core of “business as usual”, and it might even appear that we’re going to Hell in a handbasket.

Yes, and remember the Industrial Revolution? When we think about the Industrial Revolution spawned by Great Britain between 1760 and 1840, we often think of horrendous working conditions in factories, filthy overcrowded cities and children going hunch-backed over looms. And of course, all of these things were terrible and real. However, would you be surprised to learn that the Industrial Revolution also brought with it a spike in the life expectancy of English children, along with a host of other historical turnarounds? For example, children born in London who died before the age of five decreased from 74.5% in 1730-1749 to 31.8% in 1810-1829.*

It’s true that the Industrial Revolution polluted Britain’s air and water, but it also led to the development of sewage systems and water filtration which ultimately improved the quality of drinking water. In education, literacy skyrocketed during the Industrial Revolution.

On his blog Per Square Mile, Tim De Chant wrote, “Without the Industrial Revolution, there would be no modern agriculture, no modern medicine, no climate change, no population boom. A rapid-fire series of inventions reshaped one economy after another, eventually affecting the lives of every person on the planet.”

Put another way, nothing has brought people more quality of life than business. And we are clearly in the midst of perhaps the most significant leap in human history. A “second revolution”, so to speak. Assuming we are revolutionizing through technology and that the effects on today’s business scape will be visible for the next generations, an interesting question would be, How can we avoid repeating what didn’t work and become even better at revolutionizing?

An interesting perspective is by evolving rather that revolving; becoming better at improving through business.

Throughout my career I’ve had the privilege of working with all sorts of businessmen and businesswomen whom I’ve come to admire for their exemplary ethical conduct. Through their work as executives, each has brought his or her unique gift to the world. They provide products and services in ways that are good for all stakeholders.

At the core of all businesses are people making decisions – decisions from the owner-shareholder perspective. And in our time, thanks to technology and our global interconnectedness, another important shareholder is making decisions: the consumer.

For the first time in history, consumers have the power to organize themselves in ways that impact the destinies of giant corporations. Through the Internet, every one of us has a global platform. We’re plugged in, hearing, seeing, learning, deciding, and acting.

At the same time, technology is making it more and more difficult for unethical businesses to hide their dirty deeds.

Our generation has an unprecedented opportunity to make life better for everyone, and in record time. We’ve already seen how much the motivated spirit of business can do for humanity. And now, with a highly connected consumer public and more transparency on the corporate side, we’re poised to put “doing good” on steroids.

A revolution seems to be short-sighted; indeed business is evolving, as we humans are. It’s not that we need to “give back”; rather we need to “do good”; and by the way, it feels good.

* Mabel C. Buer, Health, Wealth and Population in the Early Days of the Industrial Revolution, London: George Routledge & Sons, 1926, page 30 ISBN 0-415-38218-1

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Business is Not the Place for a Revolution…Or Is It?

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