A couple years ago, my ethics professor told us a story about a friend of his who’d once been a higher-up in business administration. He recounted a saying of his: “Earning a profit is to a good business as eating food is to a good life. It’s essential, but it can never be the most important thing.” I’d always held a broad mistrust for business in general, and big businesses in particular, because it seemed to me that devoting one’s life to marketing and selling a product was far from being the noblest career out there. Thinking about this quote, though, dispelled a few illusions.
What is business, really? It is an exchange between two groups of people. The first group has a product that they want to improve, produce and popularize, so people in the second group will purchase it and make it a part of their lifestyle. The product and the money consumers give in exchange for it are technically essential to keeping the whole system running, just as food is technically essential to keeping the body running. However, they are not the most important things. Most important is the satisfaction that consumers receive from the product and from the interactions they have with the businesspeople. This is why so much of a company’s resources is devoted to customer service and public relations.
If sustainable business is defined as people, planet, and profits, I have trouble imagining any ‘unsustainable’ business having any sort of longterm success. For some businessmen, the ‘planet’ can represent nothing more than a source for raw capital to which one adds labor and forges new products, increases profit, and ignores the effects. These would be veritable Mr. Burns-style businessmen, dumping nuclear waste into Springfield Dam and producing three-eyed fish, without regard for the public.
Most businessmen realize, though, that the public will eventually wise up to their irresponsible actions and demand change. Businesses that can’t stay ahead of this curve will no longer be sustainable… and when you can’t sustain, it’s over. Bankrupt. The auto industry is going through that sort of reckoning as we speak, and is faced with widespread negative reaction to its long term irresponsibility. Wise businessmen within the industry will realize that alternative energy is a viable scheme and can even bear significant profits. I like to think that businessmen are also human beings, who will realize that alternative energy is more then just a money-making scheme. It is a choice, by people, that will benefit the planet we all have to share.
Justin Leverett is having fried three-eyed fish filet for dinner tonight.
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