Business As Usual

Let’s face it. Business people tend to be whiners.

At the heart of our business community lies the simple concept of making a profit. When we can deliver widgets or services to consumers for more money than they cost to create, we pocket the profits, and those of us who generate big profits are heralded as brilliant business people.

The voices of the business community tend to defend the right to profits at all cost. That’s why the Chamber of Commerce fought against the minimum wage, social security, family leave, and virtually all other societal changes that have threatened their member’s opportunities to generate profits.

Ditto for government regulation. The business community is the first in line to block initiatives regarding clean air, clean water, reduced use of persistent toxins, etc.

“Please don’t tell me I can’t paint toy soldiers with lead. It’s so much cheaper than the alternative. You are going to hurt my profits.”

The reality is that most of the profits generated by the business community since the industrial revolution have been subsidized by undervalued natural resources. Whether it is free ranch lands for profitable beef, or cheap water for profitable pharmaceuticals, or wars for profitable oil, or cheap electricity for profitable aluminum, the true costs of the widget are generally left out of the marketplace.

There is an aside to this, which is philanthropy. Today the popular vision is to allow business people the opportunity to make as big a pot of profits as possible, so that they can give a portion of it back, and thereby become celebrated donors.

The reality is that most big pots of profits get pocketed, or re-invested into ever increasing business enterprises, and only a tiny fraction is ever “given back.”

In the sixties problems emerged with this “business as usual” approach. Little things, like pesticides depleting our bird populations, and topsoil vanishing from our farms. In the seventies we noticed rivers catching on fire and acid falling from the skies.

Occasionally it looked like maybe Ayn Rand had it backwards. It is business and industry that has looted societal coffers. It is the business community that is comprised of “plunderers.”

The true cost of the widget is born by our environment. And we have elected to bear those costs in other ways. We pay those prices with increased taxes, reduced physical and mental health, and a general detachment from the natural world. And by sending our children off to war.

Anything to keep profits healthy.

Fortunately we are starting to see cracks in the armor of “business as usual.”

Consumers are starting to notice that our climate is changing and they are using their spending power to effect change of their own. It’s bad news for the packaging industry. People have started to buy products with less packaging, with the understanding that it is expensive and foolish to have to bear the cost of unnecessary packaging in our landfills.

The fuel economy of the American fleet is rising. People have started to realize that they can’t afford to run around on “welfare fuel” any more, and must consume less. That’s bad news for our auto industry, which is getting clobbered by Japanese manufacturers-again.

Even the whiny voice of business needs to respond to consumer choice. While Detroit was successful at blocking new fuel consumption standards, they missed the fact that people didn’t want larger SUVs. Consumers wanted more miles per gallon.

There is a “re-localization” movement that is sweeping the land. Farmer’s markets are proliferating rapidly. Food coops are popping up everywhere. There is a narrow and intense group of people who have shifted to the “100 mile diet,” in which the food they consume comes from within a hundred miles of where they are eating it.

From Fair Trade coffee to Internet providers who offset their electrical consumption with renewable energy, to organic farms to biodiesel coops, there are an increasing number of businesses that are intent on including the true costs of their goods and services in the price of their products.

And once that happens, we can say good-bye to “business as usual,” and hello to paying the true and complete costs of the products we consume.

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"Industrial Evolution shows how the key to the very survival of our civilization lies in the rational, incremental return of commerce and innovation to the realm of the real-world, human-scaled community."
Douglas Rushkoff, author of Life Inc. and Future Tense