The Problem With ‘Ethical’ Business

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Here’s something I’ve been thinking… No one thinks they are an unethical person.

What do you think?

I think that even when people know they are behaving in ways that are really harmful to others, they seek to justify their actions as some zero sum, fair play, eye for an eye type situation.

Maybe, as my thoughts flow into these typing fingers (my nails are purple by the way, what is up with my circulation…), maybe we can put aside the complexity of experiences and traumas that lead to people engaging in damaging behaviours in real life relationships, and isolate this conversation to how we go about doing business, for now.

Why are you bringing this up, Kezza?

I’ve noticed a huge upswing in the number of people online suddenly talking about doing business in an ethical way, have you? I reckon this is a natural development in a society that’s characterised by a cost of living crisis, corrupt Governments and institutions, climate catastrophe incoming, and a therefore a fresh wave of understanding about the ways in which Capitalism is trying to kill us. (Not kidding babes).

There are perhaps many things at play, examples including a genuine desire to do business in a better way, and probably (let’s face it), knowing that a reckoning is happening and that being perceived as being unethical will be bad for business. Many people are probably experiencing both of these and more.

Whatever the motivations, this can only be a good thing, right?

I’m not so sure babes.

The issue with ethics is that they are subjective, as hinted at above. I mean, you’ve seen The Good Place, right? You’ve had the education from Chidi about all those philosophers competing perspectives, and you must remember the thing about whether you should put the railcart onto a different track to kill one person but save 5 or whatever. It’s complicated stuff even in a vacuum.

But we are not in a vacuum, we are in a Late Stage White Supremacist Patriarchal Capitalist Shitstorm, which brings layer upon layer of further complexity.

If you’re in anti fast fashion spaces, for example, you’ll know that there is no ethical consumption under Capitalism.

And yet, as I open my instagram each day (ok each hour), I am greeted by people confidently declaring that they have got ethical business nailed down and can sell you a blueprint and/ or a certification in being ethical based on… what they think ethical is.

Once again let me say- I’m sure that there are many people who are in this space who are deeply committed to raising standards in entrepreneurial spaces, people I share values and dreams with.

The tricky thing is, how do we know whose motivation is predominantly a desire for change vs a way to accumulate more money and power?

And how do we know whose version is right? (Hint- none of them are babes. Each of us gets to discern what parameters resonate with us, and this is likely to shift over time).

So this email is first of all a heads up, a word of caution, a prompt to check your assumptions about what someone means when they say they have ethical approaches to sell you.

Next, it’s an explanation of why I’m talking about Feminist Business, instead of ethical business.

Now I will not pretend that feminists across society are united in their views either. When we look at business through a feminist lens, there are guiding principles, but there remains huge scope for disagreement on the details, and the capacity to acknowledge the value of respectful debate on these matters is intrinsic to feminism itself, I think.

When we opt for a feminist lens for our approach, we acknowledge this- that no one can provide us with a blueprint for doing business well- because we each bring our own experiences, preferences, privileges, needs, resources, limits, etc, and that some of these things may shift over time.

In this way, we are willing to take responsibility for ourselves and to experiment our way to an approach that resonates with, and is accessible to us here and now.

And whilst there remains ambiguity, there are also clear guiding principles in feminism- we just (JUST- no big deal babes…) need to tune into how we can best apply them.

I’d love to invite you to join me for this workshop (linked below) where we will discuss…

  • How and why each of us is likely to land in different spots re how willing or able we are to imagine and experiment with bringing feminist values to life in our businesses
  • How we could characterise Patriarchal, Capitalist Business As Usual (and where we might be perpetuating harmful norms without realising)
  • What your own business counter-culture might be like (and how you could begin to build that)

A final thought- I am not going to tell you that anything you are doing makes you bad, wrong, etc. We are all doing the very best we can with what we know, and what has been normalised for us. I know it’s likely that self doubt will keep some people away- it might feel like too much to face up to, and you might fear judgement.

Let me hold my hands up and say- there are things I have done that I wouldn’t do again, things that I considered ‘normal’, essential, necessary, that I now consider unfeminist, unacceptable. I am still doing things now that I am wrestling with, and I expect to be in a constant state of reassessment throughout the life of my business. There is no part of me that thinks I have got this all sorted. It is impossible to be doing it all ‘right’ in the context of the world we live in, the way we have grown up within it, and the fact that we need to provide for ourselves within these systems.

So if this is calling to you, come along for a chat, or just to listen. It’s £39, or Pay What You Can Afford & it’s on Monday 30th Jan at 12 Midday London Time.

It might be that there are immediate changes you want to make. It might be that you sit with what you hear for days, weeks, months before doing anything differently. It’s still a step towards equity to simply come along.

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