Meaningful businesses

“I’ve have been a businessman for almost 50 years. It’s as difficult for me to say those words as it is for someone to admit to being an alcoholic or a lawyer.”

Yvon Chouinard, founder & owner, Patagonia.

yvon_chouinard.jpg

While browsing Patagonia’s website I noticed that Yvon Chouinard had published a book outlining the philosophy behind the acclaimed company he founded and, beyond that, his personal ethic. As concerns regarding the environment increasingly find their way in the media, I have for long been fascinated by the story of this French Canadian immigrant whose family moved to South California and who managed to combine harmoniously and successfully entrepreneurship and social & environmental priorities by securing employees as well as consumers’ respect.

patagonia_logo.jpg

I believe that such mindset will be increasingly important in business life as corporate brands become true political organizations relying on complex moral premises inspired by religious morality or atheist ethic. In other word organizational identity itself become of strategic importance to business strategy and decision making. (e.g: Schultz et al. 2000) For example, it is here worth noting that Danone has identified corporate culture as the main driver of its managers’ commitment to the company’s ambitions (source : annual report 2005, p.55 – French Version) and Patagonia receives 900 applications for every single job opening. According to Chouinard this is largely due to the value system of his company.

Among other examples related to Patagonia’s approach that I can remember of right now, I would like to mention 2 here:

– Danone, whose founder, Antoine Riboud expressed, as soon as in 1972, in front of skeptical top French business leaders, his visionary “dual project”, economic performance and social progress:

“Corporate responsibility does not end at the factory gate or at office doors. The jobs a business creates are central to the lives of employees, and the energy and raw materials we consume change the shape of our planet. Public opinion is there to remind us of our responsibility in the industrial world of today.”

logo-danone.jpeg

Today Riboud’s aim is defended by his son and Danone’s current CEO, Antoine Riboud, and has been formalized in “The Danone Way” in 2001, a set of regulatory documents, charters regarding internal and external corporate social responsibility, notably concerning childhood.

New Belgium Brewery, an American brewery founded by a beer-loving couple which I first heard of last November from Douglas Holt, from Oxford’s Saïd Business School. New Belgium Brewery started as a tribute to authentic belgium brewing traditionwhich from the origin included principles of environmental sustainability along with an employee ownership structure or open-book management. The bike – favoured transportation mode of our couple when they cruised from one brewery to another in their original Tour de Belgique – has taken a symbolic role in the company’s culture and illustrate a way of life (“bike to work, work to live, live to bike)” as each employee receives one after a year.

These examples and a myriad of others, often anonymous, prove that the notion of success and performance in business life is always socially and historically constructed : as we imaginatively learn to account for immaterial and human capital because we have become aware of their contribution to pots-industrial growth (see the pioneering research of Leif Edvisson in that field), we should too reflect on the premises upon which traditional notions of performance are erected, what they include and what they let aside, legitimately or not. Therefore developing systems of accountability regarding the social and environmental impacts of organization’s activities should receive a higher priority than today.


Lastly, the current emphasis on CSR and like-minded initiatives promoting fair-trade or environmentally friendly consumption practices can easily be mistaken for “mere” marketing and communication hypocrisy devoted to make the most of emerging sociological trends. I believe this is missing the actual sense-making aspects of brands to all relevant stakeholders through any communication forms, far beyond basics marketing/communication tool boxes. In that respect the very accounting system, just like management practices or HR policies can become a symbol of the deeper values/mening a corporate brand intend to promote more or less explicitly. I think Andre Semprini’s work on the semiotic brand and its project-manifestation model is helpful in overcoming the current limitedness of brand as we conceptualize them, thereby limiting our understanding of their social relevance and reach, as well as the trouble they may cause.

I am by no mean an enthusiastic reader of business leaders bibliographies but Chouinard’s book it going right away on my amazon wish list !

References:

– Semprini, A. (2005), La marque puissance fragile– Vuibert: Paris

– Shultz M., Hatch, M. J., Larsen M. H., (2000), The Expressive Organization, Linking Identity, Reputation and the Corporate Brand. Oxford University Press.

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Let this diversity of opinions be propounded to, and laid before him; he will himself choose, if he be able; if not, he will remain in doubt. "Che non men che saver, dubbiar m' aggrata." ["I love to doubt, as well as to know."-- Dante, Inferno, xi. 93] for, if he embraces the opinions of Xenophon and Plato, by his own reason, they will no more be theirs, but become his own. Who follows another, follows nothing, finds nothing, nay, is inquisitive after nothing. "Non sumus sub rege; sibi quisque se vindicet." ["We are under no king; let each vindicate himself." --Seneca, Ep.,33]"
Montaigne - Essais I, XXVI, Of The Education of Children
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