Is an 'Ethical Business' Possible?
Critiquing systems and strategies is key to change. But when does the discourse around what's ethical or not simply replicate the status quo?
At least in my corner of social media, there are a lot of folks asking what makes a business ethical. Or, perhaps more accurately, there are a lot of folks answering that question.
And there are probably even more folks worried that there’s something unethical about how they run their businesses. They’re afraid they haven’t checked all the ethical business boxes.
So today, I want to take a critical look at the rise of anti-capitalist, anti-exploitation, and anti-manipulation content on social media. That might seem like a strange topic for me to cover—given that I am opposed to capitalism, exploitation, and manipulation and write about that opposition frequently. But the popularity of this media demonstrates a set of phenomena that serve to illustrate one of the most frustrating aspects of capitalism. And that is the way that capitalism always appropriates that which seeks to resist it.
And so media, marketing, and messaging that’s righteously indignant about the harm of capitalism have the unintended consequence of propping up the system.
Of course, it’s not quite so black and white as that. So I’m going to explore this critique from a few different angles. What I am explicitly not doing here is calling anyone out who creates this kind of content or trying to shame anyone into changing their behavior. Pot, kettle, and all that.
What I do aim to achieve, along with business coach Brooke Monaghan, is a nuanced look at how these systems operate and the unintended consequences that can result from the ways we engage with them.
In this article:
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Righteous Indignation & The Attention Economy
I am prone to fits of righteous indignation.
I have even stated that righteous indignation is my favorite emotion.
I experience righteous indignation as a fervor that builds slowly but intensely as I talk about things that piss me off. It’s like my soapbox isn’t just a soapbox but a long spiral staircase leading to the pinnacle of my irreproachable outrage and moral superiority.
Once I start climbing that staircase, it’s extremely difficult to stop and work my way back down to ground level.
Righteous indignation has often served me well.
I remember taking a walk with my now-husband Sean very early in our relationship—so, more than 10 years ago. He was telling me about some compensation policies at his job. And, let’s just say, I was not impressed.
It turns out I’ve always had a distaste for casual labor exploitation.
Up the staircase of rage I climbed, higher and higher. I might not have been impressed with his situation, but he was impressed by my passion for it.
Over the last few years, I’ve tried to temper my righteous indignation…
…to prevent myself from stepping on that first stair and, instead, pause to investigate the nuance at the heart of most things that set me off. This has been very good for my mental health and general demeanor.
It has not been so good for online presence.
Righteous indignation gets clicks. It racks up the likes. It inspires comments, and shares, and follows. And all of those clicks, likes, comments, and other engagement metrics mean that content fueled by righteous indignation is more likely to spread. Righteous indignation can turn an unknown activist or armchair pundit into a social media star overnight.
It’s one of the most potent catalysts for the spread of misinformation online, too.
Yale researchers William Brady and Molly Crockett studies 12.7 million tweets to determine the effect of rewarding outrage on social media. The YaleNews described their findings:
“Users who received more ‘like’ and ‘retweets’ when they expressed outrage in a tweet were more likely to express outrage in later posts. To back up these findings, the researchers conducted controlled behavioral experiments to demonstrate that being rewarded for expressing outrage caused users to increase their expression of outrage over time.”
Echoing these findings, Max Fisher, author of The Chaos Machine, explained on NPR:
“Extended time on social media is addictive. And it changes your behavior. And it changes the way that your mind works. And it does that in a consistent direction towards more outrage, more extreme ideas, and a greater hatred of us versus them.”
Soon, outrage is a strategy more than it is an emotion.
When you know a particular style works online, you’re likely to repeat it. And repeat it, and repeat it. And as Brady, Crockett, and Fisher find, that actually changes our behavior. We go looking for things to get riled up about. We start to see ourselves as truthtellers, whistleblowers, and even saviors.
And what we don’t see while all that is happening is the impact it has on others.
That’s why Brooke Monaghan, a coach and consultant for values-driven businesses, reached out to me. She had started to notice the impact both creating and consuming this kind of content had on her. “What I was noticing,” she tells me, “was that those of us who were in that corner of the internet were using our platforms to really get angry, yell about a thing, and hype each other up.”
When you’re in the midst of a righteously indignant merry-go-round, it feels good. Those of us who love to rant do so because it can feel like there’s nothing else to do—and so by releasing some of that pressure, we feel better. But the effect it has on those receiving (or unintentionally intercepting) a rant can be harmful.
I’ve wrestled with the question of how to run an ethical business many times before. And I know how easy it is to fall back on the outrage-industrial complex and binary thinking to get those likes and shares in the process. Whether it’s evident or not, part of my writing process is checking my work for activating emotions and swapping them for something more measured and curious.
But the attention economy rewards outrage.
Commodified anger does seem to sell—at least for a time. We can package and repackage commodified anger to different effects (and additional profit). We can utilize the language of counterculture to position our brands and boost our audiences.
As Brooke points out, “We’re all saying ‘push the status quo’ and ‘break the rules’ and ‘do business your way,’ but we’re replicating a lot of the same stuff that we say we’re against.” And yet, even discussing this phenomenon brings the risk of replicating it. Not only is there the risk of replicating the same outrage, binary thinking, and fear that we see online. There is a real risk of replicating the prevailing economic and political structures that we claim to be struggling against.
“It is so mainstream,” says Brooke, “to say, ‘push the status quo.” It is the most mainstream thing you can say at this point.”
It seems the critics agree. In his book Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher writes:
“‘Alternative’ and ‘independent’ don’t designate something outside mainstream culture; rather, they are styles, in fact, the dominant styles, within the mainstream.”
As Brooke points out, raging against the machine isn’t counterculture. It is culture. It’s not anti-capitalism. It is capitalism.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t express our anger at the systems we operate in. It means that our anger will be appropriated by capitalism. In this case, capitalism merges with algorithm design to create this pervasive dynamic within the attention economy.
In his book, A Spectre, Haunting, China Miéville writes that “capitalism doesn’t win by taking one side or another” in the culture wars. Capital will always play both sides by “dictating the terms of the debate.”
In this case, our anger should be directed at the conditions that require people and companies to play dirty in order to survive. But instead, our anger gets redirected to those people and companies—so that we can say, “I’m not that kind of business owner.”
Miéville puts it this way:
“Hashtag-deploying, notionally right-on capitalism is capitalism, and no friend of liberation.”
Call it hashtag-deploying capitalism, woke capitalism, conscious capitalism…
…to varying degrees of success, companies leverage progressive messaging to gain clout and the goodwill of their customers. But most do so without the liberatory politics central to the movements they gesture towards.
Liberatory politics tends to put a damper on profit margins—to say the least.
But progressive messaging? Well, that seems to be a good profit strategy.
Of course, not every influencer or brand that posts ethical maxims would call themselves “anti-capitalist.” But that’s kind of my point. Claiming to resist extractive, manipulative, or accumulative business practices without recognizing how more fundamental systems produce and incentivize those practices… doesn’t really do much to change the injustice in the system. Someone can say they use business to “do good” but, without recognizing how any business functions as a part of systems of harm, it will come up short.
It’s a good first step, but there are many more steps to go.
Capitalism always appropriates the ideas and movements that try to resist its logic. Capitalist ventures will always find a way to turn a radical notion into a watered-down corporate initiative that boosts shareholder value. Think the Clean Beauty merchandising at Sephora, or American Express’s Small Business Saturday, or the countless corporate climate change initiatives that I mentioned in my last dispatch.
And while claiming that businesses will always seize on radical ideas for profit sounds incredibly cynical, I say it as neutrally as possible. While it’s easy for me to imagine a boardroom full of the ultra-wealthy masterminding how a company will make bank on their superficial “climate change” initiative, I don’t actually believe that’s how it happens. Most of the time, anyway.
I imagine brand managers and CMOs and ad agency folks huddled together in a dimly lit room, trying to figure out how to balance profit needs with a deep desire for substantive change. After all, their jobs depend on it.
“One must walk a line,” writes Miéville, “between celebrating and building resistance to [capitalist] dynamics, and understanding that certain iterations of that very resistance might be appropriated by the system of barbarity itself.”
“One must walk a line between celebrating and building resistance to [capitalist] dynamics, and understanding that certain iterations of that very resistance might be appropriated by the system of barbarity itself.”
“I learned a lot of things in business school,” explains Brooke, “that I felt like I had to unlearn in order to get to a point where I could run my business in a way that felt good for me.” She was glad to find a community of others in the business development space who were also interested in doing business differently.
But in 2021, Brooke noticed that she was telling her clients one thing and doing something different herself. “I was with my clients telling them, ‘Don’t be afraid to do things your own way.’ And I was definitely afraid to do things my own way,” she remembers. She found she was more concerned about not doing things that others had labeled “sleazy” or unethical than she was about following her own values to develop her business practices. While her initial attraction to this type of conversation was motivated by like-mindedness, over time, she kept engaging with those conversations because they made her feel safe.
But safe from what?
“I am terrified of being a bad person,” Brooke tells me. “I’m terrified of the possible truth that, actually, deep down, I am not a good person, and thus I deserve all of the bad things that have happened to me.” She worried that making a misstep and unintentionally doing something “sleazy” would confirm her worst fears. Being a part of the conversations that called out bad practices “felt like it was keeping me in line in a way.”
Doing things “the right way” would keep her safe from being called out or canceled.
The first thing that I want to name here is that both Brooke and I are college-educated, cis-het white women. The desire to be “safe” in this particular way is part of our social programming. White women like us have learned to make the most of our social standing by leveraging our powerlessness and conforming to the image of “goodness,” as Phyllis Palmer argued in her 1984 essay, “White Women/Black Women.”
We learn we shouldn’t make a fuss or ask too many questions. And that means, as Palmer contests, that, as white women, we’re far less likely to ally with our Black and brown sisters. We look to them as our examples of strong, unfailing women—but we’ve historically not fought for change with them because their example confronts our careful compromise with white men.
White women’s safety is experienced in our proximity to the power of white men. Our safety is experienced in our proximity to capitalism itself—even when we can recognize how its machinations harm us.
When Brooke says, “I kind of felt like it was keeping me in line in a way,” the “line” she’s referring to is this one between the white female image of “goodness” and, well, everything else.
I mean, to be clear, it’s not something that most white women are conscious of. And the modes of “staying in line” will vary depending on other intersecting identities—class, disability, sexuality, and education most prominently.
But that deep desire to not step out of bounds that people like Brooke and I feel is itself a product of patriarchal, supremacist capitalism. And media trying to communicate what’s in bounds and what’s out of bounds of “ethical” business is also a product of patriarchal supremacist capitalism.
And you don’t have to be a white woman to worry about cutting your ties to power or privilege.
Us vs Them
Whether intentional or not, trying to define “ethical” business practices inculcates ‘us vs. them’ social dynamics. There are ethical businesses and unethical businesses. There are sleazy marketing practices and non-sleazy marketing practices. There are exploitative pricing and non-exploitative pricing.
That’s not to say that there aren’t practices that are objectively harmful and exploitative. There certainly are. But it’s possible to believe there are some practices that are inherently harmful, though, without turning those who use them into Bogeymen.
Brooke tells me that much of her participation in the ethical business discourse was fueled by projections of her own insecurities. She seized on the audacity or ignorance of others who used tactics she felt transgressed the boundaries of ethical business—further entrenching the ‘us vs them’ dichotomy.
Dividing people into “us” and “them” categories dehumanizes everyone.
The “them” group is dehumanized by being reduced to the perception that they’re inherently “wrong” or “abnormal”—both of which quickly morph into moral qualities. The “us” group is also dehumanized insofar as the “us” group is denied the full experience of their capacities and emotions.
The ‘us vs them’ dichotomy is a classic tactic of totalitarian leaders and cult groups. Instead of inviting diverse opinions or even curiosity, a leader will “till a psychological schism between their followers and everyone else,” as Amanda Montell put it in her book, Cultish. “The goal,” she writes, “is to make your people feel like they have all the answers, while the rest of the world is not just foolish, but inferior.”
People in the superior group, the “us” group, often end up with a host of stories that justify their experiences—whether they’re rational or not. Brooke put people in the “them” group because they seemed to do things the “easy” way—where “easy” implies ethically questionable. “I had all sorts of stories,” she reflects, “about why I couldn’t just go ahead and do that. I needed to make things so much more complicated for myself.”
“So rather than confronting that in myself, it’s a lot easier to look at other people who are doing it and make up a story about how they’re just bad and wrong.”
Perpetuating these divisions without meaningful contact across our artificial social boundaries just allows status-quo capitalism to continue to thrive.
Trying “stay in line” and help others to stay in line, too, just furthers the capitalist agenda to keep us pitted against each other. “We” are the good, morally virtuous people just trying to do business or career in an ethical way. Can’t you see how hard we’re working TO BE GOOD?
Whereas “they” are constantly conniving and scheming to take what we have for themselves.
In that paradigm, anyone who doesn’t fit your idea of what good and morally virtuous looks like is going to look like a marauder.
An Ethical Business Thought Experiment
Brooke, as luck would have it, is married to an ethicist. She has it on good authority that there is no one right way of determining what is or is not ethical. And so, “there can’t be just one ethical way of doing business.” She continues, “There are lots of people who are trying to define what the boundaries and rules are around what is ethical business and what isn’t.”
One thing I can tell you about ethicists is that they love a thought experiment—precisely because any exercise in ethics will inspire debate on the particulars. So to illustrate what Brooke is saying here—that there can’t be just one way to have an ethical business—let’s try one out.
Imagine you’re building a page on your website to sell an event you’re offering.
You consider whether or not it’s ethical to put a countdown timer on your page to let people know when ticket sales will close. On one hand, some people say that a countdown timer exacerbates urgency. As long as the date sales close is clearly stated on the page, that should be sufficient to inform without manipulating.
On the other hand, another group of people contends that countdown timers can make a sales page more accessible. Those who struggle with executive functioning appreciate the extra nudge that a countdown timer can give.
If you don’t include a countdown timer, you won’t take anyone’s money who would have felt pressured by the timer. But there will also be people who forget to sign up by the end of ticket sales who could have benefitted from the event.
If you do include a countdown timer, you will maximize the number of people who benefit from your event. But you might also sell tickets to people who felt pressure to buy because of the timer.
So which choice is more ethical?
According to utilitarian ethics, you might decide to use a countdown timer because your ethical compass is attuned to what choice creates the most good in the world. Since including the timer maximizes the number of people benefitting from the event, that’s the ethical choice.
But according to deontological ethics, you might decide that using the countdown timer is unethical because it could diminish the freedom and subjectivity of people considering whether or not to buy a ticket. The countdown timer may encourage you to see potential buyers as a means to sell out your event rather than ends in and of themselves.
So, yeah. Not only is there no one definition of what is and isn’t ethical. That are many schools of thought about how to even consider ethical questions.
And that leaves me with an even bigger question:
Is having an ethical business under capitalism even possible?
What makes a business ethical?
In our current better-late-than-never interrogation of systemic oppression and the economic structures that perpetuate it, people want to know whether the way they’re doing things is ethical. Is it inclusive enough? Accessible enough? Anti-racist enough? Compassionate enough?
Unfortunately, this type of question allows the systems themselves to dictate the terms of the debate. By individualizing problems, we obscure the foundational components that catalyze those problems. That is, when we ask, “What makes a business ethical?” we’re often asking, “Is my business ethical? Am I doing things properly? Have I checked all the boxes?”
In asking these questions, we take for granted the conceits of the system. In asking these questions, we can unknowingly reinforce the systems we hope to resist.
When we ask, “What is ethical marketing?” we are not asking what conditions turn marketing into a required activity. When we ask, “What is ethical pricing?” we are not asking what social relations exist in any monetary transaction. When we ask, “What is ethical employment?” we are not asking how it is that one person can profit from the labor of multiple other people.
This is not to say that asking, “What makes a business ethical?” is a bad question to ask. Incremental countermeasures are better than no countermeasures at all. But to truly achieve something that comes close to an “ethical business,” we need to start with the systems in which we all operate.
Maybe you’ve heard it said before: “There’s no ethical consumption under capitalism.”
With all the companies touting their ethical manufacturing processes and climate-friendly material sources, that notion can feel extreme. What do you mean there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism? Bombas, and Everlane, and Whole Foods, and Athleta, and Allbirds all tell me I’m doing good by buying their products.
To be clear, those are all brands that I use on an almost daily basis.
But the act of consuming their products props up a system that is inherently unjust and damaging to the planet and its inhabitants. Consumer capitalism always sets negative externalities in motion, no matter how companies within that ecosystem use their profits or treat their workers.
Every time we buy something, we engage and reinforce the system.
So no, there is no ethical consumption under capitalism. And I think that must also mean that there is no ethical business under capitalism.
There are varying degrees to which we push back on the logics of capitalism. There is a spectrum of harm that’s done in the process of exchange. There are more and less just ways to operate and manage a business.
But can a business really be “ethical” in a system that’s central conceit is the exploitation of the many to the extreme benefit of the few? No.
Moving Forward Imperfectly
On that note, I’ll leave you with two ways to move forward from here.
“It's important to note how much better things can get when we have different people with maybe different values, different perspectives, running their businesses in different ways,” asserts Brooke. My way of doing things won’t work for everyone. Brooke’s way of doing things won’t work for everyone. But as we each discern how our values impact our business practices, there will be more options for those seeking to align with different ways of doing business.
There are fewer enemies out there than it seems. When we erase the artificial boundaries around what’s “okay” and what’s not, according to armchair ethicists, we’ll notice just how many people are interested in doing things differently. We can cultivate solidarity from that position and, together, advocate for big structural change, to quote Elizabeth Warren.
We can radically change the conditions on the ground to defang capitalism, if not dethrone it. Individually, we can worry less about our safety. And collectively, we can work toward the true safety of everyone.
And second, creativity.
“It is so much harder to develop an idea that's actually going to change things than it is to just yell about the things that you're angry about. But that's where the rigor comes in. That's where you actually challenge the status quo.”
And to do that, we all must be open to making mistakes, stepping “out of line,” and receiving that feedback when it comes. “We have to be willing,” says Brooke, “to walk through [that] if we're gonna make right on our promise to people.”
If there is no ethical business under capitalism, we each have an opportunity to make creative decisions about how we do business. Some things will work really well, other things will fail. Some decisions will cause unintended consequences, and others will lead to surprisingly positive outcomes.
But we’ll never know just what we can accomplish within the system as it is until we let go of our need to “get it right.” And we’ll never be able to change the system until we’re confident in our ability to figure it out as we go.
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