Principles before profits?

“Most shareholders invest for the return to them, not for the return to somebody else,”
“If your goal as a corporation is to better the environment, then you should be working philanthropically,”

These are quotes in a 2010 article that I just came across about “benefit corporations”. It talks about states in the US giving a special type of company protection against shareholder lawsuits – presumably to give them more legal backing to do good in the face of pressure to perform only to the financial bottom line.

Can companies put principles before profits? I understand the old way of thinking that companies should make profits, governments should protect their citizens and the public sector should hold both accountable to these goals. But I don’t really think it works. And I think we should promote a change in this model.

Companies can do good. Governments should protect their citizens before their corporations. And the public/voluntary sector should continue to hold them accountable.

This article highlights five companies that are making significant profits while doing good (though they don’t give their criteria – negative points for lack of transparency). Should we let companies and shareholders to decide the balance between enough good and as much profit as they can possibly make?

As a conservationist I’m always thinking about who I need to influence to get the change I want to see. With getting companies to do good, I think the pressure points could be either the shareholders, the CEOs, the customers, or the lawyers who write the laws that protect whichever one of these groups has the sense to do something good for the planet.

Where do you think we have the best chance of getting some of our most powerful ‘citizens’ (corporations) to do good for the planet?

Read more: 

  • The Ecologist magazine online has a section called “Behind the Brand” that provides thoughtful analysis of major companies’ ethical behaviour.
  • IUCN’s work to influence business
  • A programme at Cambridge that helps business leaders work together for sustainability in business