This post originally appeared on the Food Grads website
Food businesses like to talk about their values. Many of them have obviously worked hard to identify the fundamental principles that underlie what they do, and to communicate this to their staff, customers and trading partners. And the clear message is always reassuring: we do the right thing at Megafood PLC because we really care, and so you can relax. We are good guys.
It’s great that any business examines its values. But it’s worth taking a closer look, because values are not always what they seem. A body of social psychology research compiled by Common Cause has found a complex picture. One of their findings is that we all hold a wide range of values, many of which appear to contradict each other, such as power versus equality, or ambition versus humility.
This means that we are constantly balancing one against another – but it’s more like children on a seesaw than an acrobat on a tightrope. Sometimes we behave selfishly and sometimes we are generous. One minute we want to belong and the next we want to stand out from the crowd. Out shopping, we are seduced by novelty and back home we cherish tradition. It’s a story of polar opposites.
There are laboratory experiments to demonstrate how readily we change sides. Engage people in conversations about achievement and success, and they are less willing to do someone a favour. Talk to them about kindness and generosity, and they temporarily forget their concerns about getting ahead. And there are real life experiments too. Live in a country where health care is free at the point of delivery, and you get citizens who value interdependence and a sense of belonging. Weaken the welfare state and values of self-reliance and individualism start to flourish. Values are in endless flux, both shaping and responding to the world in which we find ourselves.
What does this have to do with food businesses? Unfortunately, many of them miss this dynamic quality and put out messages which are oversimplified or even contradictory. Take UK supermarket Sainsbury’s, for instance. They say: “Our values underpin our strategy – they make good business sense and give us real competitive advantage.”
Now, there is a real power in that statement. The way that food businesses talk about their values, backed up by heart-warming promotional videos, does indeed make them more attractive. But does it really make sense to say “our desire to be nice to everybody is going to knock the opposition out of business”? And what if sticking to your values means losing money, as it sometimes must?
The fact is that businesses do need to turn a profit, and so the corporate sector isn’t purely altruistic. None of us is – we all practise a healthy selfishness. So it is not a criticism of food businesses to point out the limits of their generosity. The problem is rather that they gloss over this when they claim that to be ethical and profitable are somehow the same thing. They may go together, and they may not. That is why it is so important to hold businesses accountable, and see how they put their values into practice.
Telling a bigger story about our values
The answer is to tell a bigger, richer story about the world. We need to honour the tension between making a profit and doing good, rather than pretending they are the same thing. It’s not that self-centred values are ‘bad’, and altruistic ones are ‘good’. It isn’t a choice between economic realism and fluffy idealism, either. It’s about holding both sides of the story, seeing how our way of flipping between them is a limitation of our minds rather than a fact about reality.
Ethical business means treating money wisely, using it to do good. It means thinking about money, but seeing beyond it. It’s challenging, because money has a way of taking us to places we do not want to go. We all live with that – individuals , businesses, community groups chasing funding, and governments. Whatever PR departments may say, there are no easy answers. There are only people who are willing to hold that tension, take risks and turn their minds towards the common good. Those people are to be found in government, in community groups, in schools and hospitals – and in food businesses. Business and well-being go together, because we need them to. It’s our only hope.