One of the compensations when driving in the UK is the opportunity to listen to Radio 4. This week I was in my car on Monday morning and got to listen to Andrew Marr’s Start the Week where one of his guests was Deborah Cadbury, author of Chocolate Wars, a book about Quaker business ethics and Quaker business history. Click here to listen again.
It’s generally known that the Quakers built most of the UK’s big and successful chocolate companies: Cadburys, Rowntrees, Frys etc. What’s less well known is that many other large companies including banks (Lloyds and Barclays), shoe manufacturers (Clarkes and K Shoes) and other food companies (Huntley and Palmer, Reckitt and Coleman) started out as Quacker companies. Today few are left although the principles which the Quakers espoused do live on in companies such as John Lewis and Scott Bader.
Although Quakers lived by ethical values which frowned on the pursuit of personal wealth they were nonetheless very serious and successful business people and as their companies became successful they invested in improving the lot of the work force, not just in terms of conditions of work (Saturdays off for goodness sake!) but by providing much that is now regarded as the function of the state. The Quaker villages, of which Bourneville is a the prime example, didn’t just provide housing but post offices and banks, libraries and community facilities. In many ways the Quaker ethos is at one with the mood of today albeit we’ve still got to sort out the vexed issue of the bankers’ bonuses.
What the Quakers practiced was corporate social responsibility (CSR). They believed that it is not enough for a company to make a profit but that it must do so in the right way, right being defined by their code of ethics. What we might describe today as core values.
As noted above the Quaker philosophy lives on today in the manner in which the John Lewis partnership is run. And it may surprise people to know that Bosch in Germany is similar as of course is the Co-op.
But there are those who’d have none of this. Business gurus of the Milton Friedman persuasion would say that companies are in business to make money and to qualify this objective adds confusion and leads to bad management. They argue that wealth creation itself is good for society. By contrast Henry Mintzberg, in a landmark paper in 1983, argued the case for corporate social responsibility. Click here for that paper. The Ethical Corporation exists to promote the concept which has now morphed into ‘sustainability’ and most commercial organisations recognise stakeholders additional to customers, shareholders and employees.
You could of course argue that what the Quaker companies did was not CSR but merely ‘enlightened self interest’. They did not invest in society, merely their own people. But that doesn’t matter. The companies had values and they lived by them. had they been aware of such matters they would have recognised that those values underpinned their brands and were probably major factors in their success.