The value of values

Cashing in on values is the latest trend in corporate America. From Silicon Valley to Wall Street, white collar professionals use the word values as if its a Mormon’s safe word in a Burning Man coitus camp. Phrases like “socially-conscious”, “sustainable”, “mindfulness” and “socially responsible” are dropped more often in business settings than the drug molly at Diplo concerts.

Here’s how it usually works: Company X states their core values, Company X markets the idea that their purpose is to utilize their business to spread these values, individuals buy into this messaging, and what follows is hordes of consumers attracted to the idea of a benevolent business.

Here’s a few examples.

Warby Parker underlines in their mission statement, “To offer designer eyewear at a revolutionary price, while leading the way for socially-conscious businesses.”

American Express proudly states in their document of principles, “”We work hard every day to make American Express the world’s most respected service brand.”

Life is Good, an American apparel company proclaims, “We are out to spread the power of optimism.”

And who could forget the founding father of morals based capitalism, Patagonia. In their mission statement, the high-end outdoor clothing chain professes, “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

Last October, at Bloomberg’s Sustainability conference, you couldn’t find a speaker or a breakout meeting that didn’t stress the importance of monetizing off people’s ideals. At last year’s Davos conference, a business event where the 1% gather, most discussions included highlighting some type of values driven business model.

It’s nothing new that corporations try to connect with our moral compass in order to add to their bottom line. There is, however, a new narrative that doing good is good for the soul, but also for business.

On a talent acquisition and operational level, this makes sense. According to a MetLife survey taken in November 2017, 9 out of 10 individuals would pick a company with similar values over a job with higher pay. Additionally, many stated they are willing to take a substantial pay cut to make sure those values align with their own. The same survey finds that consumers are more likely to pay a premium for “socially conscious” products. Millennials, officially the largest generation in the workforce, have signaled a desire for a “values” oriented professional and personal life.

But hold your Mindfulness magazine. As we witness the intertwining of money and values, there are some notable concerns regarding this marketing marriage.

First, social warriors attempting to cash in on the “meanings and markets” economy run a huge risk of over-relying on the current do-good for dough movement. When the ability to profit off those values wanes, so does the effort to spread those values in the status quo. Socially responsible programs, gender-lens initiatives, and climate change actions are all the new hot buzz right now in the investment community.

But what happens when those social impact programs are no longer deemed bankable?

Will these efforts, which stress equality, fairness, and being good stewards of the earth still get the attention that they deserve when the markets pull back their dollars? If investors skimp on understanding the humanitarian crises and pending ecological threats attached to these philanthropic endeavors how much true progress will these initiatives have? Social ills will always outlast market cycles. And when the financial backing washes up on causes like equal pay, fair housing initiatives, education opportunities for low income communities, and many other noteworthy causes these efforts hit another roadblock.

Another issue with profiting off personal values is the amplification of virtual signalers. In short, when there is a market demand for philanthropic profiteers, companies begin to feign having a sense of virtuous ideals like trust, community, and honesty but fail to actual embody these principles.

Why? Because it’s a lot easier to symbolically exhibit an organization where altruistic ideal dictate every business move, then to have one that actually does.

And there is no shortage of examples of companies acting in the antithesis of their stated principles.

Uber, a company who often self-gloats about empowerment faces a litany of sexual harassment charges. Wells Fargo CEO, John Stumpf, often gave interviews of valuing the customer and accentuating the importance of trust, was exposed to overseeing the creation of millions of fraudulent savings and checking accounts on behalf of Wells Fargo clients without their consent.

Coca Cola, who’s mission statement includes the phrase, “To create value and make a difference.” To back this up the beverage company has highlighted their water sustainability program. Ironically, the Fortune 100 company has been scrutinized for over a decade for contaminating small bodies of water and leading to water shortages in villages in India.

Even Patagonia has been called out on their ethical shortcomings.

Silicon Valley is a prime example of an entire region cannibalized by companies attempting to cash in on a “values-first” mindset. The entire South Bay ecosystem, from the VCs to the large tech titans, stress communal values, yet in reality the region is a morally bankrupt area that often skirts their socialand civic responsibility.

As American Author Seth Godin aptly put it, “No organization cares about you. Organizations aren’t capable of this. Your bank, certainly, doesn’t care. Neither does your HMO or even your car dealer.”

Finally, the most considerable concern of placing a price-tag on values is failing to understand the fundamental importance of values in our society.

Key values like integrity, self-control, character, dignity, honesty, utilitarianism, loyalty, kindness, and community cohesion, and the essence of these traits, are pivotal to a well-functioning civilization. When we attempt to parlay these ideas into engines of profit we eschew the importance of civility, lose touch in what it really means to care for someone, discount the importance of unconditional love, and often fail to understand the importance of carrying out a good deed. We overlook the simple fact that proper manners can’t be neatly codified into an organizational metric.

Monetizing for morals quickly erodes our sense of empathy. When we dictate how we act based on if there is financial gain, we over time pivot away from doing the right thing at the right time for the right reasons. We lose sight of the fact that trust can not be priced in a market, but is pivotal to any transaction.

Ultimately, we forget that the only real currency always worth carrying is a sense of decency that is defined within.

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