Of course, I could have intervened. I could have told the mother how chemicals in food can affect her children’s health; how industrial farming impacts the world her children will inherit; how she should be more thoughtful about her purchases. I could have “educated” her, but maybe the education needs to go the other way. Maybe this woman has something to teach the conscious business community about the inescapable connection between conscious business leadership and social justice — about its relevance to business strategy, why we need to use our influence to address social justice problems, and how our movement needs to build a broader, more inclusive base of customers, companies, and constituents. The lesson is ultimately about a leadership challenge, one that every conscious leader needs to take up.
SHE REPRESENTS THE MASSES
This mother is making a choice based on an urgent need: feeding her children with limited income. I call these “choices of desperation,” and a lot of people are making them. In this case, the mother was an African-American woman living in New York City, but she represents a very broad section of US consumers, regardless of ethnicity, geography, or gender.
Here’s why so many Americans are making choices of desperation, and it speaks to our serious social justice problem of inequality:
•Half of American families with children are defined as being financially insecure: Nearly 50 percent of families with children live below 2.5 times the federal poverty level. They’re sometimes called the “struggling lower-middle class” because just one setback could push them into poverty.
•Many worry about getting enough to eat: About 14 percent of all US households are “food insecure,” meaning that they don’t always have access to nutritionally adequate food. Of families headed by a single woman, 35 percent are food insecure.
•Most are already living on the edge: 55 percent of US households don’t have enough savings to cover a three-month disruption in income, like a lost job. Almost half (47 percent) say they’d have a hard time covering a $400 emergency expense.
THE BUSINESS CASE FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE
In order for our businesses to succeed we need customers to have the financial resources to make conscious choices. When social injustices like income inequality make half of families economically insecure — living from paycheck to paycheck or worried about feeding their children — they’re forced into choices of desperation; conscious choices become an unaffordable luxury. That is a serious business risk for conscious companies, and for the conscious business movement as a whole.
SO WHAT CAN BUSINESSES DO?
Business has long been a powerful force in shaping society, and conscious business leaders now have the opportunity to be a force for addressing social justice issues. Here are four key steps all conscious leaders can take:
1. INCORPORATE SOCIAL JUSTICE INTO YOUR BUSINESS STRATEGY
The first step is to embrace the inescapable connection between conscious business and social justice. That means incorporating the need to address social justice into our business strategies and business planning, just as we would any other important business risk. That includes identifying what aspects of social justice we believe are most important (income inequality, child poverty, homelessness, civil rights, etc.), what steps our businesses will take to address the issues, and how we’ll measure our progress.
2. TAKE A VISIBLE STAND FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE
As business leaders, we can also use our voices to influence public debate. Conventional companies have long understood this, and they’re often very active in arenas such as political lobbying; unfortunately, not always with society’s best interest in mind. Conscious business leaders have the opportunity to provide positive influence by advocating for social justice. For example, this past spring business leaders from many companies took a stand for civil rights by speaking out against laws in Arkansas and Indiana that fostered discrimination against lesbian and gay people; the laws were changed as a result. Apple CEO Tim Cook took a bold step in positively influencing the investor community when he recommended that climate change skeptics sell their Apple stock if they disagreed with the company’s commitment to limit greenhouse gas emissions; Apple stock continued to climb.
Based on the social justice issues you identify in your strategy, find opportunities to use your voice to take a visible stand — become involved in local advocacy organizations, join other business leaders to voice support, or donate money (or time) to social justice organizations.
3. EMPOWER WORKERS WITH A LIVING WAGE
As we all know, there is ongoing debate about raising the minimum wage. However, in many geographic areas, even an increased minimum wage won’t result in a “living wage”— meaning a wage that’s adjusted for local living expenses. Conscious business leaders need to be very mindful of paying their employees a living wage; one that provides the income security needed to empower personal conscious choices. (See page 28 for information on the Living Wage Calculator, which helps individuals determine the living wage in their area.)
For very new businesses, paying a living wage can sometimes be a challenge, and can mean working in deliberate phases. I recently met a conscious leader who isn’t yet able to pay all of her workers a living wage; and in fact, isn’t even paying herself a living wage. Her solution is to get a percentage of her workers to a living wage each year, and ultimately get everyone there. As she puts it, “every step counts.”
4. CREATE A DIVERSE AND INCLUSIVE CONSCIOUS COMMUNITY
One conscious business leader I met said, as he described his company, that he identified with the mother and daughter in the supermarket. His business is founded on a conscious choice, but it’s a difficult choice. He runs a software development company in New York City, but he’s not in Manhattan. His company is based in a low-income area of the Bronx. He chose to locate in a low-income area in order to bring jobs and revenue to the community, thereby fostering social justice. Low-income areas are often disproportionately impacted by social injustice, whether they’re urban minority communities like the Bronx, or rural white communities in the Rust Belt.
Investing in low-income areas can come with a unique set of challenges, too. The Bronx-based software company has encountered a competitive disadvantage — potential customers often prefer firms with a more fashionable address. However, businesses like these bring important value to the conscious business movement — they introduce conscious ideas into communities that otherwise might not be exposed to them, they enrich the conscious business movement by adding diversity and new perspectives, and they ultimately empower the people living in low-income communities to make conscious decisions.
As conscious business leaders, we need to broaden our movement to include more businesses in the communities impacted most heavily by social injustice. We can take steps like engaging with more minority-owned businesses as suppliers, locating our operations in low-income areas to bring more investment, and reaching out to business leaders in minority and low-income areas (leaders who are often deeply committed to their communities, but may not yet identify as “conscious” leaders) to look for mutually beneficial opportunities.
STEPPING UP TO THE LEADERSHIP CHALLENGE
Running a conscious company is already an enormous challenge, so it might sound excessive to ask our leaders to do even more. At first blush, adding social justice to business strategy might seem extraneous to the core mission of the company. Plus, there’s the incremental risk that well-intended actions on sensitive social issues can backfire, as in the ill-fated Starbucks “Race Together” campaign. But our success — both as individual companies and as a conscious business community working toward building a sustainable economy — depends on our customers having the opportunity to make conscious choices. In the absence of social justice, people in a society have too few choices. We need to step up to the social justice challenge, because ultimately it isn’t possible to build a sustainable economy without social justice.
Gerry Valentine is the founder of Vision Executive Coaching. He helps build companies that work, and that work for all — supporting profit, people, and the planet. Gerry focuses on business strategy, innovation, and leadership. He has 30 years of experience with multiple Fortune 100 companies, an MBA from NYU, and a BS from Cornell University. Connect with Gerry on Twitter @gerryval or by email at gerry@Vision ExecutiveCoaching.com