Socially Responsible Business

The last decade has seen an expansion of the socially responsible business sector. I applaud that expansion … but let me point out a wrinkle that too few people mention.

Hardly any large companies actually practice what they preach. Consumer demand, media attention and government regulation have forced companies to adopt policies and goals that are socially minded, but few of them actually do anything about it. It’s the small businesses that are doing the heavy lifting when it comes to social responsibility.

Am I being cynical or flippant when I blow off the large corporations who model themselves as good corporate citizens? Maybe. I admit that I’ve been known for my hyperbole!

But think about this tidbit: if you read a dozen business books that focus on socially responsible business or cutting edge management techniques, they will almost all give the same companies as examples. That’s because it is a very short list of corporations that actually put “social responsibility” into their daily activities. I read a lot of business books, and there is so much overlap when it comes to providing examples of socially innovative and responsible companies that I sometimes think the books were all written by the same author.

The true socially responsible businesses are the ones that are owned by your local neighbor. The Mom & Pop business is far more likely to model being a good citizen. They are the ones who do their best to offer goods and services that are profitable and benefit their community. Problem is, they do not fill the business books. They are not profiled by the Wall Street Journal. Harvard Business School does not create case profiles on them. Venture Capitalists can’t figure out how to leverage them to create a fortune. So they tend to stay small and under the radar.

Thankfully, these small companies just keep plugging along. My company has hundreds of tenants and virtually every one of them is a Mom & Pop business. Are they socially responsible? By and large, absolutely yes. Do they brag about it or even make it a focal point of their marketing? No, never. Do they even think about it in their daily activities? No. Why not? The answer is because the business reflects the individual owner, not a corporate entity. Individuals do not have to answer to profit hungry shareholders or institutional investors with arbitrary 90-day revenue goals. Individuals live in the same community where they work, take their kids to the same schools as their customers, attend the same churches and social groups as their clients, and employ people who might live down the block. There is an inherent responsibility to their situation, and it creates a small business that acts as a good citizen. They don’t have to think about being a good corporate citizen because they are already a good human citizen!

Now, I’m not so foolish to long for a world where big business is gone. That’s never going to happen. Nor should it. But I will choose to continue working with the small companies that are owned and operated by my neighbor. They have the values of a good neighbor, the goals of a responsible citizen, and the capacity for change that the S&P 500 does not.

Thank God.