When we think about corporate social responsibility (CSR) or philanthropic businesses that are cutting edge in implementing a sustainable stakeholder valued supply chain, we imagine wearing stylish designer Tom shoes, sipping on a $40 Starbucks caramel macchiato while reading about Patagonia on Google through our IPhone 12. This is the picture of 21st century sustainability. It’s in all the “feel-good” sectors of business, the clean, hip, modern aspects of our daily lives. What we see is what we care about, which validates the phrase “Out of sight, out of mind.” This is what I like to call “hipster sustainability.” But what of those inputs that make the “hip” aspects of our lives a reality? What of the brick mason that built the coffee shop, were his materials sustainably acquired? Is his labor fairly paid? What effect on the environment do the coke ovens that bake the bricks have? How is the local community impacted by the existence of brick makers and their companies? All of the sudden, we’re spilling our caramel macchiato as we’re jarringly taken out of our comfortable sustainability mind-sets to see that responsible, society-changing businesses need to be integrated into the DNA of ALL market econ- omies in order for true sustainability to make an impact on the backbone of society – it’s got to be sustainability all the way down. The “clean hipster” will have to get down and dirty into the core of commerce.
On campus, there is a managing for sustainability course with Professor Neil Boyd that teaches everything one would think it would be: examples on how to be environmentally friendly, corporate social responsibilities, and the whole nine yards. What one may not expect, however, is the impact that a small paragraph from a textbook for that course would have on the perception of “hipster sustainability.” On page 102 of Chris Laszlo’s book, “Sustainable Value,” there is little excerpt on a cement and concrete company (probably the last thing you’d expect to be mentioned in a sustainability book, right?) called “Lafarge.” In the midst of reading about how socially sensitive companies like GE are and how sustainable Patagonia is, here comes a cement company in the middle of them! The reading goes on to talk about how Lafarge had acquired land for their new factory and had the delicate task of having to relocate the 72 families that lived nearby the Bangladesh community. This could’ve gone one of two ways: horribly or wonderfully. Fortunately, Lafarge is led by extremely socially conscious individuals that deeply believe in the responsibility they have towards the well-fare of their employees. This socially responsible mindset guided the company’s dutiful actions towards the community by going beyond the basic offer of monetary compensation for the lands as they provided primary level education for the children of the families and continuous healthcare for all. Furthermore, they partnered with local associations to provide vocational training for the adults (mostly females) that would generate them income and stability in this time of change. The results today are a fully functioning school in the community, where there was none before, that now provides free books and stationaries to the children. Government-level primary education is now commonly sought out and more easily achieved as Lafarge continues to invest into the social well-being of the community that it shares a symbiotic relationship with. In their sustainability report from their website, the company’s goals ranged anywhere from doubling the number of female senior managers from 2003 to 2008, to being able to reach 50% of employees holding shares in this company that they invest so much of their efforts into. The encouraging stories go on and on and will be expounded upon further.
So, all of this begs the question: why, exactly? Sure, this sounds terrific and addresses the “clean hipster” scenario that we talked about earlier, but why now? Why this? The company’s website claims “For Lafarge, sustainable development is making a net positive contribution to society and to nature.” Essentially, this mindset extends to what Immanuel Kant described as “International Human Rights” which is further explained by Reidar Maliks and Andreas Føllesdal in their book “Kantian theory and human rights.” Kant believed that by functioning under international human rights, state or national sovereignty could be limited and could justify the outside intervention of other entities or organizations into a situation of injustice or deficit of basic human rights. Lately, Lafarge has been that entity that has intervened in the developing countries that host the company’s factories and quarries, offering the internationally understood human rights of opportunity and education to the communities impacted by the existence of the company. Kant’s international and cosmopolitan view was ahead of its time in predicting the fragility of our century’s neoliberalistic globalization ,”a violation of right on one place of the Earth is felt in all.” This makes perfect sense for Lafarge as they transfer from a “shareholder value” company to investing in the quality of their communities to strengthen their supply chains as a “stakeholder value” global organization. As a result of this, Lafarge’s additional emphasis on environmental sustainability is coupled as a natural secondary result of their focus towards bettering human rights. Whether it’s developing semi-permeable pavement to reduce flooding in Brazilian towns..
Or designing carbon-reduced vehicles that have safer driving standards for their fleet…
…Lafarge has been making huge innovative strides in their processes and products for the sake of social, and ultimately environmental, sustainability that benefits nearly every stakeholder involved.
However, this revelation raises an interesting question: why is Lafarge able to compete in this niche? Wouldn’t its commitment to employee ownership or other sustainability choices make it unable to compete for capital relative to “standard” Milton Friedman-esque concrete companies who are legal and profit maximizing? Before Lafarge essentially became the leader in the inverse spectrum of “clean hipster” sustainability and social responsibility, they were a standard profit seeking company that, by the turn of the millennium, had a history of lawsuits and grievances due to pollution and irresponsible conduct, like in Ravena, New York where the plant had caused concerns after reports of children suffering from mercury and lead poisoning. The company faced a choice: pay for lawsuits or pay for better practices? They chose the latter and began their path down the deontological journey that would make them a company that is known almost more for its care than its concrete. If one wished to find a grievance with the organization, however, it could be said that Lafarge completely utilized the capital-focused era of its company to establish its position in the market of other “standard” concrete companies (as we see with the law suits and grievances of earlier times towards the company), but then launched from that platform to incorporate sustainability into its DNA. Essentially, Lafarge went from being commercially successful to becoming responsibly and financially successful. Is this wrong if the outcome is still the deontological entity that we know it to be today? The answer to this, of course, is relative, since every company commits “evil” to some degree and society places no requirements for the level of sustainability that Lafarge has implented (whether those actions are for marketing purposes or just the love of thy neighbor). Is it any different from Apple company going from Foxconn fiascoes to better working conditions for its employees? Or Nike investing in its supply chain after receiving criticisms of turning a blind eye to the quality of life its employees had? Clearly these now cutting edge companies didn’t at first see the anti-Kantian actions of using people as a means to an end as horribly wrong at the time. As Immanuel Kant stated in the late 17th century, “it is incumbent upon us as a duty to act in the care and rights of others.” From a purely societal point of view, this is simple and pure enough to achieve. But since we are now dealing in Adam Smith’s capitalistic economy, this same imperative can and should be enacted, but is usually only successfully executed when financial returns are involved. This isn’t a concern for neighbors in a community or passerby’s aiding their fellow man, but for entities that (at least until Edward Freeman’s Stakeholder proposal fairly recently) have been embedded with the sole objective of making profits for their shareholders, the social rights that Kant wishes to encourage from others is mostly only ever achieved when marketing, money, or mergers can result from it. Again, this doesn’t necessarily make Lafarge (or Nike, Apple, etc.) cruel or moral-less, it just simply means they cannot exist as an entity if their actions (whether noble or foul) do not contribute to the funds necessary to run and grow the company.
Does the existence of a super-company that captivates the sustainability limelight prevent other similar companies from entering the market as well? If so, is there inherently “evil” in the good Kantian duty deed of being as sustainable as possible in that it discourages other companies from trying their hand at the clean hipster market? To answer this question, one must ask: is there a mirror competitor to Nike? To Apple? Yes, Adidas, Samsung, and several others. Does this only apply to actual clean hipster companies? As of now, there isn’t enough information to tell, especially since there aren’t wide varieties of cement mixtures as there are IPhones and Samsung Galaxies. In the market of cellphones, there is room for giants of sustainability to tussle about, but as we can see, it would be much more difficult for a raw materials company.
Overall, the reason why this company’s story is so impactful regardless of the minimal grievances or discrepancies is because Lafarge broke out of the “clean hipster” dynamic by taking something as bare-bones as the cement market and implementing societal change and innovation. They made a company that literally cares for the education of the children and parents that aren’t even always associated with their company by giving them what one could consider to be the most precious gift: education. In reading the CEO’s statements and analyzing the entirety and scope of the company’s actions, it is evident (whether it is explicitly intentional or not) that Deontological ethics plays a powerful role in the company’s decision-making processes. Their sense of duty to the families they impact with their presence echoes the essentials of Immanuel Kant as they treat the community as an ends unto themselves and not as an end to a means. The case for Kant’s proposition of international human rights is embodied in the company’s actions across the dozens of countries Lafarge operates and innovates in.
Of course, utilitarianist minds could see Lafarge’s decisions as financially logical choices and possibly solely motivated by that fact alone as a for-profit company. This could be the case and their whole campaign of sustainable responsibility could be a well played green-washing marketing plan, but this simply doesn’t add up to the earlier examples in the paper of Lafarge training the recently unemployed workers from their factory that had moved. The company had invested in a community that they would most likely never see a financial return on investment from. It is therefore not unreasonable to assume that a deeper underlying school of ethics than utilitarianism is at play here, and that is deontology. Is the company perfect? No, it has a past, it was built of dirty profit, it’s probably using its sustainable initiatives as its main marketing tool, it might be green washing in some areas. However, these issues are eclipsed by the magnitude of social/commercial reformation that the company has implemented throughout its partnering countries and communities. Even more so, these incremental implementations aren’t even as important as the pioneering introduction the company has enabled for non-clean hipster companies to compete in the 21st century era of responsibility as currency. In order for us as a society to structurally adapt as a more conscious steward and neighbor, this break through was essential as the tip of the spear for who knows what next – metel, sheetrock, etc.