Public Affairs Council's 2015 Public Affairs Pulse Survey. The organization reports that "while people think big businesses provide useful products and services and serve customers well, they are critical of companies for paying high executive salaries and not doing enough to protect the environment, create jobs and support communities."
Dear People, for much of my life, I regarded the phrase “Good Business” as an oxymoron. I researched the origins of the “Corporation Concept” from its foundation in the 1700s to its rapid, predatory evolution after the Second World War.
I knew more about corporate law than some corporate lawyers and used this knowledge to inform legal campaigns designed to rein in the uncontrolled power of the corporations.
I attended many demonstrations protesting against the conditions of workers, the environmental record, the salaries paid to executives, and the deliberate avoidance of taxation by corporations.
In my later life, somewhat ironically, I became an ethical consultant to several large corporations and to a major industry group. I did years of research, wrote long documents, attended conferences and had privileged access to corporate leaders. I can claim a few modest changes here and there that the leaders I consulted with adopted, but by and large, nothing substantive changed.
For most of my life, I’d been talking, arguing, and sometimes shouting at the corporations, but always from the outside, looking in.
When years of dedicated work only brought minimal change, I stepped back from consultancy and gave the whole situation a rethink.
I started by asking myself what I am.
What am I?
I’m an artist, creating writing, painting, collage, sculpture and music art.
But I also sell that work in an open market, dealing with corporate publishers, record, television and movie companies [almost always corporations] and bookstore chains, quite often also owned or controlled by a corporation.
So, in fact I’m a businessperson: a person involved in business.
It was the first time that I saw that clearly. Most artists will tell you that the “business” side of their work is not their strong suit. Most of us have had negative experiences at the business end of what we do. And because we’re so focused on our work, sometimes obsessively, we tend to let the business side shift to the margins of our attention, hand it over to someone else, and we don’t think of ourselves as businesspeople.
But we are. We’re up to our necks in it. We can’t absolve ourselves from our participation in the Babylon Business Machine with our creation of critical, radical, progressive or iconoclastic art: we take Caesar’s coin in Caesar’s marketplace, and we render to Caesar, whether we admit it to ourselves or not.
Seeing that clearly, and facing it, made me reassess what it was that I’d wanted to achieve in working to make corporations more ethical, and how that might be gained.
I decided that it might be more effective if I stopped shouting at the corporations and took a place at the table, instead.
Rather than arguing for change, I decided to be the change that I wanted to see in the world.
So, I founded a company in my home city in Switzerland, and registered it technically as a corporation.
Before going live with the company, we spent a year developing the articles of association for the business: the DNA of the company that would give it a constant direction.
And before anything else, we searched for and found an ethical company lawyer.
For anyone starting a company, having a lawyer who shares the same ethical compass is essential. This ensures that any contracts you create will be fair to both sides. That simple step eliminates most of the disputes and legal issues that shadow many corporations.
As an ethical compass for the organization, we employed the 4Keys Principle:
Fair, Honest, Positive & Creative: this means that anything we do must tick all 4 boxes.
If one of the boxes can’t be ticked, we don’t move on until we’re sure that it is Fair, Honest, Positive & Creative. It also means signing on to the 4Keys Minute, where anyone in the company, or among our suppliers, clients or contractual partners, can tell the boss [me] that they need a 4Keys Minute with me, because they think something that we’re doing is not Fair, Honest, Positive or Creative.
We set out from the start to include all of our collaborators in supply chains and contractual partners in the 4Keys Principle, to ensure ethical practices at every extent of our company.
Next, we established clean, green systems.
Sustainability means putting the Planet first, so we did the research and found an ethical Carbon Offset Program to make sure that our corporation’s Carbon Footprint was net zero.
We engaged an independent green auditing firm to ensure that our environmental processes were sound, and that we haven’t missed anything.
We established a 95% paperless office, use energy saving equipment, have a clean-green waste disposal service, limit travel to essential purposes, have most meetings in teleconference format, and drive most of our work into digital arenas, such as eBooks.
When we publish physical books, we’re committed to the Cradle-to-Cradle Principle. Our books are fully biodegradable. If you don’t like them, you can throw them in the compost.
Next, we established work practices for our employees, matching world best practices outlined by the United Nations and International Labor Organization conventions and declarations, and with the company paying for Union membership where desired.
We work in accordance with all applicable Union rules and invite Union participation in key production projects.
Our non-executive board has an open seat reserved for Union representation whenever so requested by a relevant Union body.
We also made a 2-way exchange over Key Performance Indicators, meaning that it isn’t just the boss assessing the performance of the staff, but also the staff assessing the performance of the boss.
We made it a company provision that the boss, or CEO, can only receive twice the salary of the lowest paid employee.
We limited bonuses for the CEO to 2 per year, capped at $US50k, and contingent upon delivery of commercial product, such as books, songs, sculptures and so on.
I had always advised corporations to come out from hiding in their floating, international tax-haven status, locate in one territory of choice, and pay the full measure of company tax in that territory.
We located in Switzerland, my home base, and we pay the full measure of company taxation as our commitment to the nation that hosts us, and as CEO, I pay the full measure of personal taxation.
These are considerable sums. I can understand why corporations don’t want to pay it, and why many CEOs avoid paying 40% or more from their salaries.
But when corporations can move unhindered from one low taxation district to another, countries have no choice but to lower their corporate tax rate, and this becomes a race to the bottom for desperately constrained nations.
The logical extension is that a country will establish a corporate tax rate of 1% and all the corporations will locate there, and no one will have any tax money.
In my humble view, it’s not only an obligation for corporations to pay their fair measure of tax, like working people do, it’s an honor.
I’ve heard corporate leader friends argue that even if we compelled all corporations to pay full measures of tax, it wouldn’t shift the needle enough to alleviate poverty.
Maybe so, but that still doesn’t make it right, in my view, for international corporations to pay pennies in tax when working people have no such option.
I’ve had corporate friends remind me that many billionaires are philanthropists, giving hundreds of millions to charities.
Maybe so, but if they avoid paying taxes, it isn’t their money in the first place: it’s the people’s tax money that they didn’t pay. Secondly, the people probably have a better idea of where and how that money should be spent than the billionaire. And thirdly, if you’re using money that you gained by avoiding tax it’s not philanthropy, it’s money laundering.
So, we pay our taxes.
One thing I discovered when we tried to make a provision to help young artists with small grants, is that it’s very difficult for a company to give even small amounts of money away, because of concerns over money laundering and illicit transfers.
This is one reason why so many corporations establish foundations.
So, we set up a company foundation, and we’ve already committed our young artist support program with small grants for the next 4 years, such was the demand. And we established an Outreach Program, which has been helping a distressed community of 300 people in rural Jamaica during the Covid-19 pandemic.
There are many other aspects of what we did in setting up, and how we work with colleagues and production partners, but I think you get the idea. We wanted to show that it’s possible to set up and run a corporation ethically, pay the full measure of tax, and still make a profit.
So far, it has cost us a great deal and will continue to do so, but we are in a modest profit position and we sleep well at night.
Am I in the Machine? Yes, but I always was, and didn’t admit it. I could’ve dropped out and lived by bartering vegetables and chickens, and might’ve been happy doing that, but I didn’t, and I couldn’t. I’m an artist. I write books and compose songs, and like most artists I’m compelled to offer that creative work to others in some way. In fact, in just about any way: I printed out my short stories and gave them away on a street corner one time, while I was on the run as a fugitive and had no way to publish. I just had to have someone read my work, and I think most writers and readers will relate to that.
So, now, weirdly, I’m a corporate leader of sorts myself, although I’m generally underwhelmed by the concept of “leaders” in most fields. The world is packed to the treetops with leaders. Every time you turn around there’s another leader saying something. They appear on TV shows. They come from TV shows. We have to check under the bed at night to make sure there isn’t a leader under there, armed with a fabulously useless platitude.
And yet, things are still in a mess.
I think the world needs Great Cooperators, rather than Great Leaders.
The history of our civilizations since we domesticated ourselves is predicated on the axiom that The End Justifies The Means, within a culture of Compete & Consume.
We should reverse this.
The only logical and reasonable way forward is predicated on the axiom that The Means Justify The End, in a culture of Cooperate & Conserve.
If we keep on consuming and competing in this way, we will consume and compete ourselves into extinction. And the sustainable way we make things has to justify whether we make them at all.
The Means Justify The End.
Cooperate & Conserve.
In our company, our tiny corporation, we’re trying to do just that.
I haven’t given the name of my company, Dear People, because this isn’t advertising. I’m just offering a few of the lessons learned when I tried to be the change, rather than just ranting about it. I’m trying to take the oxymoron out, and make a good business, committed to doing good: something that the world is better for having, not worse; an attempt at a solution, rather than another part of the problem.
If you can suggest any way that I can improve the company, please let me, and others, know. All these little things we do can add up to a big change.
And if there’s anything in this that’s useful to you, please fell free to copy and paste or adapt to your requirements and aspirations, and may good fortune accompany you.
Love and faith,