For Goodness Sake
Maybe you’re a company that wants to “do good,” but “good” never seems good enough. So you don’t talk about what you do for fear your efforts will be judged “inadequate.” Or maybe you’re a CEO who is more concerned about appearing to do good than actually doing good, so you create a false image of your goodness. Or maybe, to demonstrate your anti-wokeness, you deliberately thumb your nose at environmental, social and governance (ESG) standards, pleasing some shareholders and infuriating others. These days it seems that doing good, or declining to, is never far from politics.
I thought about this as I read a couple of recent articles in the mainstream press about how companies are often finding themselves caught in the middle of the nation’s growing political divide. Walgreens is the latest example. Author Mary Ziegler’s guest essay in the March 17 New York Times (“If You Want to Know What Republicans Think About How Americans Feel, Ask Walgreens”) begins, “The corporate culture wars have reached a turning point: A number of companies that once championed social justice and equity seem to be beating a hasty retreat,” she writes. “Walgreens is trapped in a political firestorm. The pharmacy chain, which had sought certification so its stores could fill prescriptions for the abortion medication mifepristone, announced last week that it will not dispense the pill in the 21 states where Republican attorneys general have threatened legal action.” Ziegler then goes on to describe the backlash to Walgreens’ decision from the left, which has included boycotts and canceled state contracts.
How you feel about Walgreens now depends upon how you feel about access to abortion. Ms. Ziegler, the author of a book called Roe: The History of a National Obsession, clearly has a point of view on this topic, but it might not be a view you share. Either way, you might need to think about your position on abortion before you pick up a bottle of shampoo at Walgreens.
A couple of weeks earlier, another opinion piece in the Times caught my eye. In “How Environmentally Conscious Investing Became a Target of Conservatives” (Feb. 28), author David Gelles writes that “Republicans have launched an assault on a philosophy that says that companies should be concerned with not just profits but also how their businesses affect the environment and society,” and he goes on to say that Republicans have put ESG (environmental, social and governance standards) in their cross-hairs. Gelles quotes former Vice President Mike Pence: “We will keep fighting until we put a stop to ESG once and for all!” Gelles points out that “Most major companies issue extensive reports about their efforts to combat climate change and commitment to workplace diversity. But in recent months, conservatives have increasingly attacked the practice, arguing that it promotes liberal priorities ranging from renewable energy to the Black Lives Matter movement.”
And if you think that politicization of business is just a right-wing obsession, consider this piece that ran in the Financial Times last fall. In “’Green hushing’ on the rise as companies keep climate plans from scrutiny” (10/18/22), author Madeleine Speed notes that “A trend known as ‘green hushing’ is growing as companies are increasingly choosing not to publicize details of their climate targets in an attempt to avoid scrutiny and allegations of greenwashing... This was despite the proportion of respondents setting science-based targets that had more than tripled from the previous year to 72 per cent.” So let’s get this straight: companies that are actually doing good for the environment are afraid to talk about it because it will invite criticism from activists who feel they’re not doing enough.
The politicization of business has everyone ducking for cover.
At Prosono, we think of ourselves as “social impact engineers” who believe that every client engagement should improve the world we share. And most of our clients are, indeed, concerned with “how their businesses affect the environment and society,” to quote Gelles. So it troubles me greatly to think that a CEO who wants to do some good in the world now needs to worry that his best intentions could result in a boycott, or that he should sweep his initiatives under the rug for fear he’ll be publicly shamed by the left or the right.
Doing good shouldn’t be that hard. Time and again, we’ve seen companies that make a positive impact on the society around them profit as a result. In fact, it’s an article of faith here at Prosono that you can, indeed, do well by doing good. So maybe we need to find some way to honor the planet, pursue inclusive hiring policies, pay fair wages, respect our colleagues...and keep the politics out of it. For the sake of a better world, we need to try.