There are some terrific business leaders and companies, though successful ones are often criticized by Wall Street greed-gurus. Jim Sinegal, the CEO of Costco and a co-founder of it, has been attacked for years. Why? Because he is atypical. He is not ruthless. He is ethical and humane. He really takes care of his employees. That explains why Costco has the lowest worker turnover in retailing. High wages, better-than-average benefits, and opportunities for upward mobility from the lowest ranks to corporate executive really work. Sinegal's salary of just $350,000 a year reflects his values: "I figured that if I was making something like 12 times more than the typical person working on the floor, that that was a fair salary." By the way, Costco makes lots of money, though Wall Street thinks it should make more by treating its employees badly, like Wal-Mart.
Michael Crooke became known as the CEO of Patagonia, a premium retailer and wholesaler of high-end outdoor gear and clothes. He focused on the "re-evolution of business." His sustainable business model is based on the synergies among the environmental, social and financial elements of a business. Patagonia has happy workers because of things like flexible work schedules, on-site day care, and the option to take up to two months of paid leave to participate in the company's environmental internship program, in which they work for an environmental group of their choice. And because the company gives one percent of sales or 10 percent of pre-tax profits - whichever is greater - to environmental grassroots groups. He left Patagonia to become the founding CEO of Revolution Living, the company created to build businesses that inspire people to live more balanced and meaningful lives and that support more sustainability for the planet. Crooke does a lot more than talk about corporate responsibility. He does it.
Progressive thinkers who condemn the two-party duopoly and its support for our corrupt and brutal corporatist state must wake up: Thunderous political reform requires embracing nonconformist business people. Yes, the business world is not homogeneously corrupt. There are business owners and managers who are not playing the corporate corruption game and not sacrificing people for profits and self-enrichment. They too are fed up with both Republicans and Democrats, though they do not necessarily speak out publicly. They detest the many distortions of the marketplace and economic system that make it difficult for integrity-rich Ayn Rand-type personalities to triumph over the current political-corporate corruption machine. An alliance needs to be forged among natural-born dissenters everywhere, especially the business world. Successful economic and political reform requires this.
Rather than merely focus on what we hate about the worst of the business world, we must identify and seek out companies that behave differently - the ones that do not take advantage of their employees by, for example, paying outrageously low minimum wages; do not pay their top executives obscenely high compensation; do not export American jobs to take advantage of low-paid workers in other countries; do not take advantage of loopholes created by business interests in environmental laws and regulations; do not corrupt politicians to subvert public interests; do not use devious ways to avoid paying taxes; do not lie about their environmental performance and use every trick to not tell the public about defective or unhealthy products and harmful releases of toxic substances into communities; do not fight every attempt to address global warming; do not use myriad deceptive marketing and advertising practices; do not sell out America's middle class through trade agreements under the ruse of globalization; do not cut pensions of their workers even as they give greater rewards to their current and outgoing executives; do not support illegal immigration as a source of cheap labor; and most certainly do commit corporate fraud and crime. These are the criteria by which to judge a company or business leader.
You get the idea. Sure, we talk incessantly about the evil Wal-Marts and Ken Lays of the business world. Yet out there are business owners and companies that struggle under the handicap of being just the opposite. They practice honesty, true patriotism, and humane treatment of their workers and customers. They believe in a capitalist system where competition is on the merits of products and services, where there really is a level playing field. They are not paying off politicians to get government contracts. They are disgusted with federal deficits, pork barrel spending and corporate welfare that they do not seek. They use scientists, engineers and great managers to achieve competitive advantage rather than lawyers and lobbyists. For them, corporate social responsibility is not merely a slick slogan. True, in some sectors it is difficult to find a non-conforming company: pharmaceuticals, credit cards, health insurance, and mining come to mind. Still, only by recognizing business dissenters will it become feasible to overturn the current political-economic system under the control of the two-party duopoly.
Despite their uniqueness, whether it is a privately owned small business or a good size public corporation, there are countless businesses that put people above profits and truth above the bottom line. Every so often mainstream media do a story on one of them, but largely they remain invisible and unrecognized. In truth, political independents and progressives need them and they need us. We need them to help rid the political world of corruption and they need us to help rid the marketplace of sleaze and unfairness. Unless some business leaders join the revolution, the enormous power of that world, especially the corrupt financial sector, will be used to defeat true change. We desperately need business leaders, for example, speaking out strongly to address runaway government spending and borrowing that serves the wealthy class, and rising economic inequality. Despite his many shortcomings, Ross Perot demonstrated in 1992 that a business person could enter politics and do well. His focus on reducing the deficit helped him receive 19.9 percent of the nation's popular vote for president, and around 30 percent in some states.
Long ago president Franklin Roosevelt put it right: "I want to save our system, the capitalistic system... I want to equalize the distribution of wealth." Progressives must not only rescue American democracy, they must also help rescue American capitalism. And for that they need business allies.
Standing in the way of raising the profile and influence of nonconformist business leaders and companies is widespread propaganda from the mainstream business community about its commitment to corporate responsibility, ethics and sustainability. Everywhere you look you find evidence of green washing, self-congratulatory rhetoric and false information put out by corporate shills. McDonald's says "responsibility means striving to do what is right, being a good neighbor in the community and integrating social and environmental priorities into our restaurants." Excuse me, but I would be more impressed if McDonald's was fighting hard to increase the minimum wage, ridding its menu of unhealthy foods, especially for children, and taking responsibility for all the street litter from their products.
Business Ethics - The Magazine of Corporate Responsibility receives a lot of media attention when it announces its yearly list of the 100 best corporate citizens. Its last list included Citigroup. The Times of London noted: "Name any scandal of the last decade - Enron, Worldcom, Parmalat, biased [stock] research - and Citigroups's name will crop up." It tried to rig the European bond market in 2004. It paid $215 million to settle charges by the Federal Trade Commission of using predatory lending practices that harmed poor and unsophisticated borrowers. It paid a $2 billion fine for allegedly colluding with Enron to defraud investors, but was allowed to deny the alleged wrongdoing. And on and on.
And then there is the World Business Council for Sustainable Development that touts the actions of some 180 international companies, including Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical, and General Motors. Enough said. The true goal of such groups is to maintain voluntary self-regulation rather than independent oversight and strictly enforced tough government regulations.
Here is the disquieting truth: Without some support from business leaders, we have a futile quest for a truly representative democracy and a capitalist economy that serves working- and middle-class Americans more than it serves elitist super-rich.
Here's an idea: Perhaps an enlightened and probably guilt-ridden billionaire could help finance the formation of a new national organization to provide a safe haven for true business mavericks. Guilt-ridden because billionaires inevitably succeed by being typical ruthless business executives and only later become committed to humanitarian goals. We need such a group to go up against the Business Roundtable, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, and the many other status quo protecting business groups with political clout that provide cover for the legal and illegal corruption of our political system and the economic ravaging of our society. A new group that serves as an instrument to link progressives with business world revolutionaries. Republicans have their loyal business allies and progressives need theirs.