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Embracing Normal: Good Business is Responsible Business

Can a business still be considered “responsible” without labeling itself as local or charitable? It sure doesn’t seem so. Case in point: On a recent trip to my neighborhood corporate coffee shop, I took note of a sign posted near the door: Welcome to your Starbucks,” it read, “We can only succeed as a store when we succeed as a community. We are together in this…”

starbucks2That’s a great start. I was encouraged to see a business recognizing itself as not only a profit center, but as a member of and service to the community.

In addition to bringing a variety of coffee products to the neighborhood, this Starbucks provides the kind of jobs that politicians talk about creating. We are talking stable employment with a reputable, global company, with excellent benefits for primarily low-skilled, low-experience workers—most of whom will go on to better opportunities. The community supports the business and vice versa—we are indeed “together in this,” and we all win.

But the sign continued:

…and so we are proud to share the profits of this Starbucks store directly with AAMA to support their work to inspire and empower Latinos to pursue and achieve their potential and be amazing. To achieve its mission, AAMA focuses on English proficiency, educational attainment, workforce readiness and leadership development.

Before I go on, I should make clear that I am glad that the company is supporting what sounds like a wonderful organization. I also agree completely that educating and training members of the community helps general economic development, and thus is beneficial to the business as well. Indeed, this is a great illustration of how businesses find it in their own interest to serve the community in unexpected ways.

What bothered me was the promotion of a common but foolish notion that undermines our view of work, business, and capitalism. Too often, the virtues and benefits of a business within a community are measured by its philanthropy. Only if a business commits to “sharing its profits” will it gain the seal of approval as a responsible enterprise.

[pq]Businesses should not have to jump through hoops for moral justification.[/pq]

From the wild success of companies like TOMS shoes has emerged a trendy business model, off-setting a charity contribution on one end of the balance sheet with a hip marketing pitch and a slight up-charge on the other. Apparently, consumers will happily pay a premium to assuage first-world guilt. Of course, the problem is not that shoppers engage in charity through the channels of regular business, or that companies have capitalized on this in creative and positive ways; the problem is that businesses should not have to jump through such hoops for moral justification, and shoppers need not feel guilty for buying a product without some non-profit element.

Charity is an essential part of any community, and certainly the Christian life. However, economic exchange also performs a critical function. Both serve the community in slightly different ways, and while it is perfectly reasonable—even laudable—to combine them, it isn’t necessary, and businesses that don’t should not be punished.

When we fail to understand the many ways in which businesses support the health, wealth, and vibrancy of every community, simply by being a well-run business, we miss some of the greatest opportunities for real progress. When we discover that our work really changes lives and enables others to achieve their dreams, the routines of our daily life are revived with inspiration and motivation.

Am I glad that my local Starbucks is helping my community? Of course! But we have to recognize that helping the community also comes in less spectacular packaging—usually from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday.