Commerce Without Morality

Fans of Mohandas K. Gandhi will recognize today’s title as one of the “seven social sins” that Gandhi published in 1925. (The full list appears below.) Gandhi wrote that a friend had given him the list. But after he spent decades speaking and writing about the big themes on this list, people just naturally assumed he was the originator.

The point for us is not who described “commerce without morality” as a social sin. The point is how deep the concept goes.

First, the idea that businesses should be responsible to society is totally not new. We live in an age of constant invention, so it’s become normal for people under 30 to think everything was invented by someone alive today. We make exceptions for stuff like Abraham Lincoln’s having abolished slavery, but only if Stephen Spielberg makes an Oscar-winning movie about it.

The word “sustainability” is new, so people think the whole issue is new. Not, not, not. Having a purpose beyond profit has been top of mind for the world’s top minds for a long time.

Second, the concept is as fresh as today’s news. Sounds like a contradiction with what I just said, but it’s not. Commerce is changing all the time. Morality is constantly evolving. Saying that “commerce without morality” is bad today means 1000 new things compared to saying it 100 years ago.

We need to keep defining the terms for the industries we have today, the global supply chains we have today, the labor practices we have today, and, oh yeah, that climate change thing we’re kinda stuck with.

Third, we know now that everything is connected.

We know that inventing some new chemical fertilizer in one state and putting it into the fields in some other states can bring down essential species of pollinizing insects in still other states, threatening vital agricultural crops that feed us and employ us.

We know that a buyer for a big department store in one country can change a few cells in a spreadsheet and cause textile manufacturers in five other countries to lock workers into fire-trap factories to meet the deadlines in that spreadsheet.

No one plans to wreak havoc, but it gets wreaked anyway because everything is connected.

The way to unwreak the havoc is make all the connections public. Open the curtains, turn on the lights. Connect people with the consequences of their choices. Show them that there is, in fact, some morality in their commerce – and it might not be morality they like.

That’s why we got into sustainability reporting: to help responsible companies lead the way toward more visibility into how things really work. We know that if more people understand what it means to conduct commerce with morality, more people will do just that.

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The “seven social sins” popularized by Mohandas K. Gandhi:

Politics without principles
Wealth without work
Pleasure without conscience
Knowledge without character
Commerce without morality
Science without humanity
Worship without sacrifice

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