Editorial: It’s good business

  • August 29, 2019

The top executives from 181 of the richest corporations in America recently signed a one-page document on business ethics that could have been penned by the Pope.

It was by no means a document drafted by Catholics for Catholics — but it reads almost like one. It doesn’t cite the influence of recent popes, who have consistently decried the profit-worship of international business and finance, but its succinct message drips with papal sentiment.

Corporate America has apparently concluded there is more to big business than big profits. At least, that’s what business leaders declared with one voice in a document titled “Statement on Business Purposes.” While generating profit and creating shareholder value remain vital, board chairmen and CEOs from the likes of IBM, General Motors, Coca-Cola, Walmart, American Express and Amazon say these objectives will now co-exist with a resolve to be more socially responsible. They pledged to adopt business practices which treat customers honestly, employees respectfully, shareholders transparently, suppliers ethically, communities generously and the environment responsibly.

In the parlance of the executives, the intent is to “deliver value” in all their relationships, not just to their shareholders. This flowering of a broad social conscience, on paper at least, replaces a stance taken 22 years ago when American business leaders decreed that private enterprise existed solely to generate profit. Overdue and commendable, the new document implicitly reflects the urgings of several popes that business use wealth to advance the common good.

Whether or not this burgeoning public spirit will survive the first shareholder revolt or one less zero on an executive bonus is fair game for skepticism. But give the executives credit for trying. If the intent is to reduce corporate narcissism and use wealth to create a better world, the first step is to build a consensus to do so. Canadian business leaders should take note.

The Church is not opposed to profit, but has taught in recent decades that chasing profit must be combined with a zeal to achieve a higher purpose. A single-minded focus on maximizing earnings can lure executives into practices that are often unethical and immoral, and sometimes illegal. The SNC-Lavalin scandal consuming headlines began with allegations of executives bribing Libyan government officials.

Pope Francis has called business a “noble vocation,” but its heroic virtue comes when its ultimate mission is to advance the common good of all society. The production of wealth is virtuous but only when wealth is achieved honourably and when it also has a social purpose. 

Surprisingly, corporate America is now reflecting those papal sentiments. Turning a profit remains fundamental, but the stock price will be measured beside a social index to determine a company’s real value to society. 

Big business, to its credit, may finally be raising the bar on the bottom line. 

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