Business Is Getting Political—and Personal

As anyone reading this blog is undoubtedly aware, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, the current White House Press Secretary, was asked last month by the owner of a restaurant to leave the establishment on the basis that she and her staff felt a moral imperative to refuse service to a member of the Trump administration. The incident, and the ensuing turmoil, highlights the extent to which business has become another political battleground—a concept that makes many anxious.

Whether or not businesses should take on political and social responsibilities is a fraught question—but not a new one. Writing for the New York Times in 1970, Milton Friedman famously argued that businesses should avoid the temptation go out of their way to be socially responsible and instead focus on maximizing profits within the legal and ethical framework erected by government and society. To act otherwise at the expense profitability, he reasoned, is to spend other people’s money—that of shareholders, employees, or customers—robbing them of their agency.

Though nearing fifty years of age, much of Milton Friedman’s windily and aptly titled essay, The Social Responsibility of Business Is to Increase Profits, feels like it could have been written today. Many of the hypotheticals he cites of corporate social responsibility—“providing employment, eliminating discrimination, avoiding pollution”—are charmingly relevant in the era of automation anxiety, BDS, and one-star campaigns. His solution, that businesses sidestep the whole mess, focus on what they do best, and play by the rules set forth by the public, is elegant and simple—and increasingly untenable.

One reason for this is that businesses and the governments Friedman imagined would reign them in have grown much closer, even as the latter have grown comparatively weaker. In sharp contrast to the get-government-out-of-business attitude that prevailed in the boardrooms of the 1970s, modern industry groups collectively spend hundreds of millions to get the ears of lawmakers, hoping to obtain favorable legislation or stave off laws that would hurt them. Corporate (and other) lobbyists are known to write and edit bills, sometimes word for word.

You could convincingly argue that this is done in pursuit of profit: Boeing, for example, spent $17 million lobbying federal politicians in 2016 and received $20 million in federal subsidies the same year. As of a 2014 report by Good Jobs First, an organization that tracks corporate subsidies, Boeing had received over $13 billion of subsidies and loans from various levels of government. Nevertheless, this is wildly divergent from Friedman’s idea of business as an adherent to, not architect of, policy.

As business has influenced policy, so too have politics made their mark on business. Far more so than in the past, today’s customers expect brands to take stands on social and political issues. A report by Edelman, a global communications firm, finds a whopping 60% of American Millennials (and 30% of consumers worldwide) are “belief-driven” buyers.

This, the report states, is the new normal for businesses—like it or not. Brands that refrain from speaking out on social and political issues now increasingly risk consumer indifference, which, I am assured by the finest minds in marketing, is not good. In an age of growing polarization, every purchase is becoming a political act. Of course, when you take a stand on a controversial issue, you also risk alienating people who think you’re wrong: 57% of consumers now say they will buy or boycott a brand based on its position on an issue.

This isn’t limited to merely how corporations talk. Firms are under increasing social pressure to hire diversity officers, change where they do business, and reduce their environmental impact, among other things. According to a 2017 KPMG survey on corporate social responsibility, 90% of the world’s largest companies now publish reports on their non-business responsibilities. This reporting rate, the survey says, is being driven by pressure from investors and government regulators alike.

It turns out that a well marketed stance on social responsibility can be a powerful recruiting tool. A 2003 study by the Stanford Graduate School of Business found 90% of graduating MBAs in the United States and Europe prioritize working for organizations committed to social responsibility. Often, these social objectives can be met in ways that employees enjoy: for example, cutting a company’s carbon footprint by letting employees work from home.

In light of all this, the choice between social and political responsibility and profitability seems something of a false dichotomy. The stakes are too high now for corporations to sit on the sidelines of policy, politics, and society, and businesses increasingly find themselves taking on such responsibilities in pursuit of profitability. Whether that’s good or bad is up for debate. But as businesses have grown more powerful and felt the need to transcend their formerly transactional relationships with consumers, it seems to be the new way of things.

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