All business is Quaker business
People have always said that business depends for its success on active, disciplined self-interest.
The conventional view is that a well-managed self-interest focuses a business on internal tasks such as a clear strategy, careful management, reliable employment, price-competitive products and services, good returns on investment and new opportunities for growth. These are critical to a strong start, ongoing stability and rapid growth.
The view holds the resulting success then enables the business to contribute to initiatives to resolve social, environmental and other issue (if these are not already a focus of business), often alongside government departments and other agencies.
All this seems common sense enough, and there is little we might say here that has not already been said better by others.
How is business going?
But we find ourselves in a time of crises: deep, slow, global crises that can only be addressed (if at all) by profound change.
Examples are distressingly familiar: population growth, increasing poverty, environmental decay and climate change. More localised examples might be ageing populations, conflicts and wars, large-scale migration and commercial exploitation in its many forms.
We know a great deal about the role of businesses (and especially capitalism, through globalisation and multinational corporations) in these crises, a role so devastating we might now see business itself as the problem, and any of its attempts to address issues and offer solutions as deeply compromised.
Business’ disciplined self-interest now seems deeply suspect.
How might we view business?
But before our distrust of business drives us to reject it out of hand, we might need to explore our own relationship with the world of business.
Business is not itself bad
We might start by observing that operating a business or working in one are not in themselves bad.
In particular, most economies are dominated by sole trader and small businesses, many of these family-based, serving local customers and supporting their local community. Most of these are also unremarkable as businesses, perhaps limited by the dreams of their owners and/ or the skills of their staff, and are probably designed for sustenance first and growth only second. Excluded from mainstream professions and sources of income, Quakers flourished through these kinds of business. Most of us now own, work in, and depend on these kinds of businesses.
We are wealthy beneficiaries
We might also observe we are among the world’s wealthiest beneficiaries of business success, and for this reason alone, should consider our position carefully.
For example, we might remind ourselves that our non-conformist Christian and Quaker antecedents had a disproportionate impact through the industrial revolution, with its sequelae in the current business system (including a rather significant role in finance). We might therefore have a disproportionate share of responsibility for its effects and so for any attempts at addressing them.
Others are working on business
We also know that many business-related disciplines, industries and organisations are exploring ways to address these crises (and others, such as the global finance sector crisis) to improve both business and its effects.
For example, their efforts range from mundane professional and sector reviews (some of are agonisingly superficial and slow) to the specialised economy-wide programmes of environmental sustainability, business innovation/ social enterprise, and social development, to name a few.
From the business perspective, the key is learning to build businesses that ‘tread lightly’, that take responsibility for their impacts across economy, environment and society. There are many ways we might make a significant contribution to this work.
All business is our business
Finally, since our origins we have understood that our ‘business’ is spiritual endeavour in all aspects of life. That’s what makes us Quakers, and in all the conversations about business worldwide, that’s what still sets us apart.
For example, our ‘business’ is not just our method of community conduct – that is just linguistic accident. In fact, we may have no basis for distinguishing between ‘Quaker business’ and ‘other business’: on examination we might find it’s all our business.
If we value the good in every one, perhaps we may also realise the need to value the good in every type of business. If we wish to impact on business, perhaps we might also need to understand exactly how a good business works.
Putting on the off-white clothes of business
About 250 years ago John Woolman started wearing off-white clothing. As a tailor he’d used the harmful chemicals and seen the pollution caused by clothing businesses. He stopped dying his clothes (hence the off-white colour) in protest, and started speaking out against his own industry.
He didn’t stop wearing clothes, nor being a business man.
He must have cut an eccentric figure, even to those who knew him well. Perhaps they worried others would think him strange or mad. Not John: his only concern was that people would think him fashionable – white hats had recently come into vogue.
Perhaps it’s time we business people put on our own off-white clothes and hat. Perhaps it’s time to do the unthinkable in business: talk about the spirit of business and the role of the spirit in business.