By Gerry ValentineÂ (Reprinted with permission from Author; first published in Conscious Company Magazine
A few weeks ago, I overheard an exchange between a mother and daughter that held an important lesson for conscious business leaders. We were standing in a supermarket in front of the egg case. The daughter handed the mother a carton of eggs, and the mother exclaimed, â€œ$4.99Â for a dozen eggs!â€ The daughter, who appeared to be about 11, explained that the eggs were certified organic and from cage-free hens. The mother, even more exasperated, said, â€œI donâ€™t have time to worry about chickens. Thatâ€™s just stuff for rich people with nothing better to do. I work six days a week, your father just lost his job, and weâ€™ve got five of you to feed. Which meal do you want to give up so I can worry about chickens?â€ The daughter acquiesced, put the eggs back, and picked up the store brand for $1.89.
Of course, I could have intervened. I could have told the mother how chemicals in food can affect her childrenâ€™s health; how industrial farming impacts the world her children will inherit; how sheÂ should be more thoughtful about her purchases. I could have â€œeducatedâ€ her, but maybe the education needs to go the other way. Maybe this woman has something to teach the conscious business community about the inescapable connection between conscious business leadership and social justice â€” about its relevanceÂ to business strategy, why we needÂ to use our influence to addressÂ social justice problems, and how our movement needs to build a broader, more inclusive base of customers, companies, and constituents. The lesson is ultimately about a leadership challenge, one that every conscious leader needs to take up.
SHE REPRESENTS THE MASSES
This mother is making a choiceÂ based on an urgent need: feeding her children with limited income. I call these â€œchoices of desperation,â€ andÂ a lot of people are making them. In this case, the mother was an African- American woman living in New York City, but she represents a very broad section of US consumers, regardless of ethnicity, geography, or gender.
Hereâ€™s why so many Americans are making choices of desperation, and it speaks to our serious social justice problem of inequality:
- Half of American families with children are defined as being financially insecure: Nearly 50 percent of families with children live below 2.5 times the federal poverty level. Theyâ€™re sometimes called the â€œstruggling lower-middle classâ€ because just one setback could push them into poverty.
- Many worry about getting enough to eat: About 14 percent of all US households are â€œfood insecure,â€ meaning that they donâ€™t always have access to nutritionally adequate food. Of families headed by a single woman, 35 percent are food insecure.
- Most are already living on the edge:55 percent of US households donâ€™t have enough savings toÂ cover a three-month disruption in income, like a lost job. Almost half (47 percent) say theyâ€™d have a hard time covering a $400 emergency expense.
THE BUSINESS CASE FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE
In order for our businesses to succeed we need customers to have the financial resources to make conscious choices. When social injusticesÂ like income inequality make half of families economically insecure â€” living from paycheck to paycheck or worried about feeding theirÂ children â€” theyâ€™re forced into choices of desperation; conscious choices become an unaffordable luxury. That is a serious business risk for conscious companies, and for the conscious business movement as a whole.
SO WHAT CAN BUSINESSES DO?
Business has long been a powerful force in shaping society, and conscious business leaders now have the opportunity to be a force for addressing social justice issues. Here are four key steps all conscious leaders can take:
1. INCORPORATEÂ SOCIAL JUSTICE INTO YOUR BUSINESS STRATEGY
The first step is to embrace the inescapable connection between conscious business and social justice. That means incorporating the needÂ to address social justice into our business strategies and business planning, just as we would any other important business risk. That includes identifying what aspects of social justice we believe are most important (income inequality, child poverty, homelessness, civil rights, etc.),Â what steps our businesses will take to address the issues, and how weâ€™ll measure our progress.
2. TAKE A VISIBLE STAND FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE
As business leaders, we can also use our voices to influence public debate.Â Conventional companies have long understood this, and theyâ€™re often very active in arenas such as political lobbying; unfortunately, not always with societyâ€™s best interest in mind. Conscious business leaders haveÂ the opportunity to provide positive influence by advocating for social justice. For example, this past spring business leaders from many companies took a stand for civil rights by speaking out against laws in Arkansas and Indiana that fostered discrimination against lesbian and gay people; the laws were changed as a result. Apple CEO Tim Cook took a bold step in positively influencing the investor community when he recommended that climate change skeptics sell their Apple stock if they disagreed withÂ the companyâ€™s commitment to limit greenhouse gas emissions; Apple stock continued to climb.
Based on the social justice issuesÂ you identify in your strategy, find opportunities to use your voice to take a visible stand â€” become involved in local advocacy organizations, join other business leaders to voice support, or donate money (or time) to social justice organizations.
3. EMPOWER WORKERS WITH A LIVING WAGE
As we all know, there is ongoing debate about raising the minimum wage. However, in many geographic areas, even an increased minimum wage wonâ€™t result in a â€œliving wageâ€â€” meaning a wage thatâ€™s adjusted for local living expenses. Conscious business leaders need to be very mindful of paying their employees a living wage; one that provides the income security needed to empower personal conscious choices. (See page 28 for information on the Living Wage Calculator, which helps individuals determine the living wage in their area.)
For very new businesses, payingÂ a living wage can sometimes be a challenge, and can mean working in deliberate phases. I recently met a conscious leader who isnâ€™t yet able to pay all of her workers a living wage; and in fact, isnâ€™t even paying herself a living wage. Her solution is to get a percentage of her workers to a living wage each year, and ultimately get everyone there. As she puts it, â€œevery step counts.â€
4. CREATE A DIVERSE AND INCLUSIVE CONSCIOUS COMMUNITY
One conscious business leader I met said, as he described his company, that he identified with the motherÂ and daughter in the supermarket. His business is founded on a conscious choice, but itâ€™s a difficult choice. He runs a software development company in New York City, but heâ€™s not in Manhattan. His company is based inÂ a low-income area of the Bronx. He chose to locate in a low-income areaÂ in order to bring jobs and revenueÂ to the community, thereby fostering social justice. Low-income areas are often disproportionately impacted by social injustice, whether theyâ€™re urban minority communities like the Bronx, or rural white communities in the Rust Belt.
Investing in low-income areasÂ can come with a unique set of challenges, too. The Bronx-based software company has encountered a competitive disadvantage â€” potential customers often prefer firms with a more fashionable address. However, businesses like these bring important value to the conscious business movement â€” they introduce conscious ideas into communities that otherwise might not be exposed to them,Â they enrich the conscious business movement by adding diversity andÂ new perspectives, and they ultimately empower the people living in low- income communities to make conscious decisions.
As conscious business leaders,Â we need to broaden our movementÂ to include more businesses in the communities impacted most heavily byÂ social injustice. We can take steps like engaging with more minority-owned businesses as suppliers, locating our operations in low-income areas to bring more investment, and reaching out to business leaders in minority and low-income areas (leaders who are often deeply committed to their communities, but may not yet identify as â€œconsciousâ€ leaders) to look for mutually beneficial opportunities.
STEPPING UP TO THE LEADERSHIP CHALLENGE
Running a conscious company is already an enormous challenge, soÂ it might sound excessive to ask our leaders to do even more. At firstÂ blush, adding social justice to business strategy might seem extraneous to the core mission of the company. Plus, thereâ€™s the incremental risk that well- intended actions on sensitive social issues can back re, as in the ill-fated Starbucks â€œRace Togetherâ€ campaign. But our success â€” both as individual companies and as a conscious business community working toward building a sustainable economy â€” depends on our customers having the opportunity to make conscious choices. In the absence of social justice, people in a society have too few choices. We need to step up to the social justice challenge, because ultimately it isnâ€™t possible to build a sustainable economy without social justice.
About Gerry Valentine
Gerry Valentine is founder of Vision Executive Coaching; a certified B Corp. Gerry believes business can be a powerful force for good. He works with socially responsible business leaders on strategy and leadership, to build companies that can change the world. Gerry has 30+ years of business leadership experience, an MBA from NYU and a BS from Cornell University. You can email him at [email protected]