Companies must be discerning when picking causes to support
Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson is right to argue that companies should pay heed to what campaigners are saying (“CEOs should heed difficult activists”, Opinion, June 4).
However, unless Chief Executives and their boards are clear about their own values, and the values of the companies they run, they will fall down a rabbit hole into a world of confusion.
Rather than think too hard about what principles it should uphold, it might seem easier for a company to act in a way that would ensure it does not attract brickbats from campaigners. With shrewdness, it might be able to navigate its way into the future as society’s norms change.
That is not a viable option. Noble causes may attract popularity, but ignoble, populist, causes can also win support. An immoral view might be shouted from the fringes of society today, but be mainstream tomorrow. There is no guarantee we live in a progressive world in which society will steadily improve ethically. A company should not simply blow with the populist wind.
Likewise, while companies should “avoid dismissing every critic as a crank”, they should also avoid ascribing to every critic unquestionable wisdom and virtue.
Campaigns to highlight the urgent need for corporate action on the climate crisis are essential, but the demands of some of those campaigns might derive from a poor understanding of economics or be based on ideologies which most citizens would oppose. The same applies to campaigns on other issues.
Companies need to learn the art of public discernment, based on openness and the sharing of facts and opinions. To exercise such discernment, however, they have to put in the hard work to define the ethical foundations on which they are based.
This letter was first published in the Financial Times on 9 June 2021.