When we talk about 'doing good' in business, who or what are we doing it for?
Business and management has as one of its philosophical underpinnings ‘humanism’, whereby we put the individual human and collective humanity at the centre of all things, a view on the world which can trace its roots back to the 18th century.
So, when we talk about doing good in business and ‘cui bono’ – who benefits – the question has, for the past 300 years or so, been that if ‘good’ is being done then it has to be humanity that benefits in some way.
However, when you drill down further to ask which specific forms of humanity are the beneficiary, it turns out to be Western humanity that is often meant. A view of the world has been driven by the West and it is one which only accelerated in terms of its influence in the 20th century.
Indeed, if we had been having this debate in 1922 rather than 2022 the chances are that many commentators would not have predicted the decline of empires, World War II and the subsequent hegemony of the US and its dominance of the model
Without historical understandings, many today will say that globalisation is inevitable. Yet it is in fact a relatively new phenomenon that has only emerged in earnest over the last generation. Nothing says it is inviolate.
Globalisation is a relatively new phenomenon that has only emerged in earnest over the last generation. Nothing says it is inviolate.
Humanity and the natural world
Humanity’s (assumed) ability to control all that lays before us again arises really quite recently. The point I am making is that in the past there was a very different relationship between humanity and the natural world, a relationship where humans, animals and plants were treated as one.
For an example of how this relationship has been damaged think about how the connection between indigenous civilisations and nature has been broken by the rise of agribusiness and the mass production of crops encouraged by a consortium of partners who seek to benefit from shifts in the relationship between the land and humanity.
In the past workers on the land knew exactly where in a field a specific crop would grow best. They knew at what angle to place the seed to the surface for the best harvest that year and subsequent years. But as soon as you start taking people off the land to fill factories you lose these skills and in doing so a great and traditional way of being more sustainable has been lost.
Some would argue that we need mass production to feed the world’s population growth, but there is actually no shortage of food across the world. It is often in the wrong place and it is a problem of distribution not production. There is a shortage of distribution networks into areas of undernourishment, and companies and governments are locked into existing supply routes and chains which lead to great levels of food waste.
Where there is food poverty, one finds pre-existing economic poverty. The food supply is there, it is just not available to the immiserated. There is also a prevailing view that workers in developing countries are fleeing the land in search of riches in the cities. But this isn’t universally true. Despite predictions from the World Bank and other voices of Western hegemony, the number of people living off the land is today around three billion and is rising, not falling.
Challenging the status quo
How might business scholarship reverse the direction of travel? I would argue that business and management thinking needs to be more ‘vegetative’ in the sense of its original meaning – i.e. it describes what is highly dynamic, flourishing, colourful and seasonal.
People generations ago who lived on the land understood exactly how the world of plants moved throughout the year, they understood the dynamics involved, they understood the links between humanity and plants. They could not control nature so they sought to live with it.
There is now an opportunity to ask why don’t we think more deeply about what a 'vegetative organisation' would look like to deal with the huge challenges we face around sustainability and climate impact, and think about how we can organise businesses differently.
Another way in which we can begin to think differently is in how we allocate work. Today the ‘platform’ model where work is arranged and allocated on the basis of electronic platforms and algorithms rather than ‘pyramids’ such as in bureaucracies (just think about how all your technological devices link together) has become the dominant model. But pyramids and full bureaucratic structures did on the whole work very well for thousands of years. Again, in the long run, bureaucracies often ‘do good’.
And finally, I would argue that we in business and management also need a form of ethics to deal with these ‘vegetative’ issues which is parallel to conventional ethics but not necessarily part of it.
We might call this accompanying view of the world ‘para-ethics’. Para-ethics is not just about how humans treat each other, but also about how we treat the wider world and our attitude to other forms of life. Para-ethics in the vegetative organisation is one way of thinking about sustainability in a world that all life shares, at least for this moment in history.