HuffPo have just published a piece from me in response to Unilever’s Project Sunlight, and so I wanted to take the opportunity to use this space to bring out some of the thinking behind that post and another I wrote about Tesco’s food waste announcement a couple of weeks ago, for those who are keeping a little closer to my thinking to help me build.

Basically, I think what’s going on is a shift from Corporate Social Responsibility to Corporate Moral Agency – a thought that builds out of my thinking on the difference between Consumers and Citizens.

This, like the difference between Consumer and Citizen, is not just semantics.  There is a deep problem with the concept of responsibility, or at least with what we’ve done with it in our current mode of society, and which means we have to move beyond it if we are to solve our problems.

The problem lies in the fact that responsibility is fundamentally a linear concept, rooted in a mechanistic cause-and-effect worldview.  In order to allocate responsibility, you must be able to pinpoint direct causal interaction – and seek to allocate full explanatory impact to one factor, or at least as few as possible.  From allocating causal interaction, you can then allocate blame.  And this in turn is then apt to be legalised – if I punch you in the nose, and your nose is broken, I can then be held responsible for your broken nose.

But the problem is things just aren’t that simple, because the world is not a web of simple, direct cause-and-effect relationships.  Rather, the world is a network, a system made up of innumerable interrelated and constantly interacting entities.  And in such a system, responsibility is something that becomes very hard to pin down, because very few effects can be isolated to a single blameable cause.

Think of clothing brands and Bangladeshi factories.  Think of music labels and channels, and the sexualisation and objectification of women.  Think of mining companies and local environments.  Think of Coca Cola and obesity.  Think of pretty much everything and climate change.  As the philosopher Dale Jamieson writes, “Today we face the possibility that the global environment may be destroyed, yet no one will be responsible for it.”

So responsibility doesn’t work.

Is moral agency any more useful as a concept?

I think it is.  If moral agency is defined as the ability or capacity to make a decision on moral grounds, then agency unlike responsibility is a systemic concept.  It can accept the idea that things that may not be directly related can still be related, and that that relationship can still be causal; but it stops short of seeking sole and exclusive explanatory relationship in any one factor.  It embraces the fact that every autonomous participant in a system, every participant who has the ability to decide her own action and to judge and assess the moral value of that action, can and does affect that system.  It’s also more positive, because rather than seeking to locate and specify blame for the negative, moral agency is a concept that is about opportunity to act for the positive.

Enough theory.  Let’s go back to the issues.  Take the objectification and sexualisation of women, where people like Charlotte Church, Lily Allen, Sinead O’Connor and others are expressing their moral agency in a serious way right now.  What is the role of corporations here?

If you are trying to work with the concept of responsibility, you can’t find one.  MTV is not responsible for the sexualisation of women, in the sense that any attempt to prove their liability in a court of law would be dead in the water.

But if you are looking for moral agency, the situation is obviously different.  If MTV were to introduce a policy on sexualised content, it would have a major impact on the market; and that is arguably within their power.

Of course, that sparks some very difficult questions in the current paradigm of business, because if we are to take Friedman’s famous line that “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits,” then MTV would argue we were asking them to abandon their ‘responsibility’ to their ‘agency’ – on the basis that advertising (their major revenue source) follows viewers, and viewers follow sex.  Everyone would just go watch another channel, or find it on youtube.

There is a major issue here, and one I think is more problematic for Friedman and his more or less willing acolytes (in which category I include even Shared Value guru Michael Porter) than anything else.  However, I don’t want to take it head on here, because I think even if you want to preserve that, there is still scope to explore moral agency.  I will come back to the profit issue in another post, but if you want more for now, my partner Jane’s Radio 4 talk is the best thing I know on the subject.

The opportunity remains because the moral agency of a corporation is about all its interactions in the system, not just its direct interactions with people as Consumers.  So MTV could also explore its agency with their competition, for example, looking to collaborate to establish a shifting baseline for sexualised content; or it could explore its agency with industry regulators like Ofcom, actively seeking legislation of some description; or it could explore its agency with other players in different parts of the system, like women’s magazines, building a collaborative campaign.

There will be still other avenues for MTV that I can’t know about, but to cite one last route that particularly interests me, it could explore its agency with people as Citizens – for example by providing materials and forums to stimulate and host the debate around sexualisation of media, actively dialling the importance of the issue up in the public domain, perhaps even holding a referendum among viewers and offering to respond accordingly.  Loyalty and brand engagement, those priceless achievements, would doubtless follow from such an approach.

This little off-the-top-of-my-head thought experiment shows a lot, I think, about the power and potential of this approach.  I believe the same logic can apply anywhere, to any issue, or to look at it from the other end of the telescope, to any brand.  To build on my piece on Tesco and food waste, yes they could work with their competition or talk to their customers as Citizens rather than Consumers, but they could also map their agency in the wider food system, understanding all the issues that they could influence and all the aspects of the influence that they could have.

Other big businesses, like Tesco with their food waste announcement, are already beginning to play with this idea without really knowing what they are doing.  This is what Unilever’s Project Sunlight represents, for example – it is a deliberate attempt to take up the moral agency that befits a huge corporation.  I hope and believe that we are just waiting for the first of them to formalise and conceptualise this understanding, and that when they do, they’ll jump on it and really go for it.  If they do, I think we will see it trigger what I like to call a ‘nice-off’ (n., the antithesis of a stand-off) on a truly grand scale, with companies falling over themselves to be true Corporate Citizens, providing genuine societal value.



4 thoughts on “Are we entering the age of Corporate Moral Agency?

  1. But do you care whether the corporations are doing it to be active citizens (or encourage active citizenship) or simply to deliver the PR benefit that then drives (arguably) their primary motive of business/corporate ambition ie financial success regardless of the citizenship issue. In other words do you hope or believe that corporations can truly act to deliver active citizenship or are we in too cynical/profit driven a world that even this act must stem from and deliver against a financial motive?

  2. Completely agree with your points about the need for companies to set new higher standards in collaboration and or competition with their competitors / substitutes.

    RFA tea / fair trade cocoa by smaller brands have led to PGtips and Dairymilk to follow and these accreditations were not demanded by the mass consumers.

    However, too many businesses see these responsibilities as a cost or not a competitive advantage. An example is fair trade bananas in Ireland. Instead they will wait to be dragged kicking and screaming by consumer. Given the current squeeze on incomes in Ireland, there won’t be many consumer surveys coming back with the demand for higher welfare higher priced food.

    • I suppose my wider point is that companies like the Irish supermarkets need to have a completely different conversation with people – talking to them as Consumers they’ll always get the response that they want cheaper food, because that’s the point of being a Consumer. But could a supermarket start a different kind of conversation, about what kind of food system we want? That’s the real creative challenge if we’re going to stop racing to the bottom in my view…

  3. I think you’re on to something here Jon. I suspect responsibility is easier to deny or distance yourself from, enabling an action to be defended. Agency seems somehow more inherent. As for Unilever…call me a cynic but I don’t buy it.

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