CSR Origins: The Quakers?

When you think about corporations doing things right, your mind doesn’t immediately think of a candy bar, but maybe it should. In the course of my research on the attributes of corporate sustainability leaders, I came across a reference to Deborah Cadbury’s recently published book, Chocolate Wars. And, reading it has given me a better view of The Quaker way of business, which may hold great insights into early corporate social responsibility.

For example, for the Quaker capitalists of the nineteenth century, reckless or irresponsible debt was considered “shameful.” Furthermore, the group’s directives ensured that no man “should launch into trading and worldly business beyond what they can manage honourably.” Scan any New York Times front page from the past few months (years?) and you’ll wish a lot of twenty-first century capitalists, and congresspeople, were living by these same rules.

Other interesting nuggets from Cadbury’s book include her note that Quaker capitalism was extremely successful. In the early nineteenth century, 4,000 Quaker families ran 74 Quaker British banks and more than 200 companies. As well, Cadbury writes that for the nineteenth century Quaker, business ownership came “with a deep sense of responsibility and accountability to those involved.” That deep sense of responsibility is harder to find today. In the face of tantalizing stats and figures about money making, human stakeholders can be too easily be ignored by corporate decision-makers.

The big worry with Kraft’s acquisition of Cadbury in early 2010, and with other large corporations taking over small companies today, is that it is easy for the larger entity to destroy the spirit of the firm they takeover. But, what’s “spirit” when you’ve got Wall Street looking over your shoulder? (On that note, you may want to read a great Atlantic piece by Adam Werbach on PepsiCo and their Refresh project.)

The Quaker businesspeople had the concept of truly shared stakeholding and corporate responsibility in their blood, and they succeeded. As Cadbury writes, their nineteenth century entrepreneurialism “illuminated a different work ethic on a more human scale between master and man.” What I’m wondering is this: how did corporations become so removed from the human factor, and are we doing all we can to get back there?

Article by Andrea Learned, an author (Don’t Think Pink) and women’s market expert, now applying her knowledge to sustainable business communications consulting and writing. In addition to her blog Learned On, Andrea contributes to a variety of green business publications and actively shares links and insight via Twitter (@AndreaLearned)

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