Occupy from the Inside

Tim Mohin

To some readers, the very notion of working within a corporation is tantamount to selling out their values as advocates for social or environmental justice. While this is a valid perspective, there is another view. Liz Maw articulated this view in her opening remarks for the 2011 Net Impact conference, when she said, “We are here to occupy Wall Street from the inside.” The standing ovation was spontaneous, sustained and genuine. The audience represented a whole new generation of young people moving into the workforce with their sights set on working for societal good from within a company.

But, as the occupy protests drag on, the popular view is far more divided. The legendary economist Milton Friedman authored a New York Times op-ed in 1970 titled “The Social Responsibility of Business is to Increase its Profits.”

The businessmen believe that they are defending free enterprise when they declaim that business is not concerned ‘merely’ with profit but also with promoting desirable ‘social’ ends; that business has a ‘social conscience’ and takes seriously its responsibilities for providing employment, eliminating discrimination, avoiding pollution and whatever else may be the catchwords of the contemporary crop of reformers. In fact they are — or would be if they or anyone else took them seriously — preaching pure and unadulterated socialism. Businessmen who talk this way are unwitting puppets of the intellectual forces that have been undermining the basis of a free society these past decades.

[The] responsibility [of the business executive] is to conduct the business in accordance with [the owners’] desires, which generally will be to make as much money as possible while conforming to the basic rules of the society, both those embodied in law and those embodied in ethical custom. [Emphasis added]

Milton Friedman

Is CSR “undermining the basis of a free society?” Should companies have any role in protecting people and the planet? Should the excesses or externalities that can result from the pursuit of profit be the sole province of government and/or civil society to monitor and regulate? Friedman and a line of followers (see “The Case Against CSR”, 2010 Wall Street Journal op-ed) have articulated the popular perspective that companies have no obligation to people and the planet. Their only obligation to the world is to generate profits for their shareholders.

Such black and white distinctions only make sense in the academic ivory tower. The “ethical customs” of society have changed a bit since 1970 when this article was published. Society now expects more from corporations and, as these expectations increase, there is a growing need for people to work for social and environmental justice from inside companies.

By effectively working within a company you can influence decisions that can have massive societal benefits across the globe. And there has never been a better time to work on these changes. The race to be the greenest, most responsible company on the planet is in full bloom and appears to have substantial staying power. Companies of all types are looking for people to help improve their environmental, social and ethical performance. By learning the skills and strategies of working for good within a company you can create large, immediate and lasting change.

To a certain extent, being a corporate tree-hugger is a line-walking exercise. Corporations are indeed focused on profit, and being an activist within a company is very different than being an activist for a non-profit organisation. But, as expectations and transparency increase, the “ethical customs” for corporate behaviour are changing. These macro-level changes are opening up new jobs in CSR and changing “mainstream” roles across almost all corporate functions.

As these business leaders of tomorrow increasingly occupy Wall Street from the inside, even Friedman might have to concede that the profit motive and social justice can be mutually supportive.

An article by Tim Mohin.

Read the original article in The Huffington Post.

Tim Mohin is director of Corporate Responsibility for Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) and the author of the forthcoming book, Changing Business from the Inside Out: The Treehugger’s Guide to Working in Corporations.

Pre-order you copy of Changing Business from the Inide Out direct from Greenleaf Publishing and receive 30% discount (discount available until 30 April 2010).

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