In business, social goals also matter

It's easy to make money.

It's easy to make money.

Enslave employees, dump refuse into streams and rivers, keep all the profits for a few people, kick back cash to government officials, intimidate, use violence, grab your competitor by the throat, cook the books, mislabel, lie, cheat, steal. ... You could probably come up with others.

These are the most widely used techniques when the value system is to "make money at all costs." Some people actually believe that making money is the "business of business."

Don't get me wrong. Not all businesses act this way. But we believe business must concern itself with considerations other than making money at all costs. We totally accept that companies need to make a profit. It's how they make their money that concerns us.

We didn't wake up one day and say, "We're going to be a socially responsible company." It was an evolution. My Italian family was engaged in the beer, wine, and spirits business in Massachusetts and Connecticut. We'll accept all the stereotypes created in your mind. We didn't sell "organic lettuce" to the co-op.

Somewhere down deep, however, certain approaches to business made me sick. I could not quite understand it. Then one day I saw a billboard announcing the new home of the Springfield Gambling Casino. I thought it was a joke, but it was not. A small group of people wanted to build casinos in the poorest communities of Massachusetts. They told me that a "few people would become indigent, some small businesses would close, crime would increase," but that was the price they were willing to pay for "economic development."

Regardless of one's opinion on casinos, it occurred to me that other considerations must be investigated when engaging in "economic development." That was the epiphany, if it could be described that way. We developed a public awareness campaign to defeat the legalization of casino gaming in Massachusetts, and it was successful. I'm proud to say that casino gaming is still illegal in Massachusetts, and we shifted our approach to business.

At Meadowbrook Lane, we practice what we preach. Here are some examples:

We've developed technology and formulas to dispense fruit beverages from proprietary beverage dispensing machines. Pepsi bought the formulas and technologies to use in its restaurants worldwide. It was an environmental play for us, as it reduced the restaurants' costs of goods by eliminating bottles and cans. For Pepsi, it was a cost-reduction play.

We started a small business commercial bank, The Bank of Western Massachusetts. It was designed after the movie It's A Wonderful Life. All the shareholders committed deposits, and we agreed to commit loans. We sold the bank and its six branches to the Chittenden Corp. of Vermont, which has since trademarked "socially responsible banking."

We represented the "social interests" in the Ben & Jerry's takeover by Unilever. Meadowbrook has two seats on Ben & Jerry's board and is attempting to preserve the social initiatives of the company.

During the takeover of Stonyfield Farm, we developed an alternative plan to create a "private exchange" for debt and securities of mission-driven companies. This initiative led us to www.csrwire.com, which we purchased after using it for our own clients.

CSR is a lifestyle. For us, it's not a fad. We could have our headquarters anywhere, but we're located on a chemically contaminated street in Springfield, MA. We put down 385 feet of sidewalk, installed streetlights, and planted flowers and trees. We build homes with Habitat for Humanity; make furniture out of the recycled stuff on the street; provide private passenger automobile insurance to economically disadvantaged communities and financial literacy to the poor; incubate small businesses; turn values into valuation; attempt to give greater value to companies operating with a positive financial and social return; and create a space for the debate and awareness of good corporate citizenship.

Our goal is to treat others as we'd expect them to treat us. Creative self-expression in a learning environment is a constant challenge. Balancing the needs of our financially driven culture with social considerations takes a toll. It was a lot easier just trying to make money without concerning ourselves with others. It takes a lot of effort to stop and think about what you buy and use; how you spend your time; and how you engage with others, listen, collaborate, recreate, and innovate. However, at the end of the day, companies are just a group of people trying to live with each other. Humanity should not stop at the office door.

  • Joe Sibilia is chairman of Meadowbrook Lane Capital, an investment bank that serves businesses, and president of www.csrwire.com, the Corporate Social Responsibility newswire service.

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