Every week we’re served a diet of footballers and other celebrities cheating on their partners, caught by tabloid, text and Twitter. And while Liam Fox wasn’t accused of directly cheating anyone in the scandal that led to his resignation last week, the general air was that someone, somewhere (the taxpayer, other companies competing for contracts, Mrs Fox?) was being cheated.
How does all this make the world a better place? Because the technology that records and remembers Adam Werritty standing alongside the British Secretary of State for Defence in Dubai or Sri Lanka, or Ryan Giggs cheating on his family, is the same technology that is holding businesses to account when they cheat on their social and environmental claims.
Corporations have long trumpeted their commitments to supporting their workers, building their communities, protecting the environment. But it’s only relatively recently that these concerns moved to the C-Suite and core business strategy. Why is this? Has the business of business changed? Is business no longer single-mindedly focused on generating profit on capital? We’re naïve if we believe that after hundreds of years capitalism has changed, and that businessmen and women have been persuaded en masse that it’s better to be nice.
Capitalism became the world’s Go-To system through encouraging businesses to focus on their own vested interests and letting the market decide which prosper or fail. Adam Smith was right when he said in The Wealth of Nations that, ‘It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.’ But that was before the internet.
Businesses that behave badly – by cheating their workers, their communities, their environment – now, as a rule, get exposed. And that exposure is very public, very quickly. Websites like GoodGuide and the recently launched Slavery Footprint, reveal the previously hidden shortcuts taken by businesses without due regard to the environmental or human cost of producing what they sell. Companies find it more difficult to get away with cheating their workforce when forums like IBM Employee exist. And the internet has given previously undreamt-of power to organisations like Greenpeace to expose ‘cheating’, with genius campaigns like their recent exposure of Ken and Barbie cheating the rainforest. It’s happening in the public sector too, with initiatives like the Open Government Partnership and Publish What You Pay making it more difficult for governments to get away with cheating their citizens.
Business is still driven by a pure vested interest to make profit, and this has to be the case if capitalism (which for all its faults has improved the lives of billions of people) is to survive. But that vested interest now has to factor in the strong likelihood of being caught and punished for ‘cheating’. So they do it less.
And as all stakeholders – from customers and staff to commentators and analysts – become more used to businesses doing fewer bad things, so businesses have to compete and differentiate themselves around doing more good things (for workers, for society, and for the planet) and telling these stories. But because they are born out of a business’ vested interests, these ‘do good’ programmes are intrinsically protected and supported by the business.
For cheating businesses, as for Colonel Gadaffi, there really is nowhere left to hide. And that’s a good thing.