Ethics, via profit

I read an article in the New Year about the good things that happened in 2017. One of the things listed was luxury fashion brands dropping fur from their collections. The decision by these name-brands was celebrated as a victory for animal rights. It was, but it wasn’t initiated by animal rights campaigners. It was brought about by the profit motive.

A business is not an individual. An individual has ethics, can comprehend and live by systems of honour, kindness, compassion and morality. A business has no such internal scorecard. It exists only to propagate itself, to profit. Which is why appeals to ethics directed towards global brands are so ineffective. Companies only care about ethics when it impacts their bottom line. Luxury fashion brands didn’t stop using fur in their products because of concerns for animal welfare. They stopped using fur because people stopped buying fur due to a shift in how our culture regards its use.

This observation extrapolates. If we wish for businesses to be ethical, to abide by something akin to the standards of behaviour and morality with which we hold ourselves individually, our approach needs to change. Instead of appealing to ethics, we need to appeal to profit. Because the only way in which we can stop a business from acting unethically is if we first make it unprofitable.

Easy to say, hard to undertake. Especially when that which is unethical is often that with the greatest margins. Think about food production. Does a company make more from producing fresh fruit and vegetables, or from producing and selling highly processed foods?