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Putting Your Values into Practice in Your Business


Today is Blog Action Day, a chance for bloggers to discuss and support big issues. You can learn more at the Blog Action Day website. This year’s theme is Human Rights.

Taking a moment to think about the work we do and the impact it has on the world is important. No matter what sort of business you build, you have the opportunity to affect the world around you. The choices you make even within a microbusiness or a freelance career have the potential to change someone else’s life.

Basic access to human rights is not guaranteed in all countries. Even in countries that officially include promises of human rights in their constitutions or laws often have abuses that reduce people’s freedoms of movement, speech and other key rights. It’s tempting to say that we as individuals can’t do anything about such big problems, but we do have the power to make decisions about how we run our own businesses that can have wide ripple effects.

The Consequences of Small Decisions

Both big decisions and small have major consequences, especially when money changes hands. It’s easy to discuss the biggest problems: companies and individuals who did business with the Third Reich are still dealing with the impact of that decision. It’s easy for us to say that we would never work with a government responsible for such atrocities, yet few governments today have trouble finding suppliers, employees and even propagandists.

You have the option to choose who you work with, just as many businesses choose not to serve customers who they find offensive.

Consider China, a country with a dark history when it comes to human rights. Because of the way the government is structured, virtually every company has some sort of complicated relationship with the government, whether it’s a state-owned firm or otherwise. By extension, any company that chooses to manufacture products in China has a similar association. It’s not as simple as holding the local dollar store responsible for the many human rights infringements occurring in China every day, but drawing a line in how much support (direct and indirect) you’ll give to such situations is necessary. Even if you can justify things to yourself, no one wants to wake up on the wrong side of history.

Even the tiniest choices can make us feel better about the advantages we have: drinking Fair Trade coffee puts your money where your mouth is, at least in terms of supporting organizations doing the hard work of helping people in other countries. But we can do more.

Our small decisions may not seem to have widespread effects, but are still well-worth considering. Your choice of clients, for instance, can magnify the impact your business has: a client that produces its products using laborers who have limited access to those rights that should be universal relies on its vendors, creative agencies and other partners to not take issue with the supply chain just as they depend on their buyers to value low prices over everything else. You have the option to choose who you work with, just as many businesses choose not to serve customers who they find offensive.

Understanding these situations and how your small decisions may impact them does require paying closer attention to the world around us than many of us are inclined to. It’s not possible to keep up to date with every government in the world and how they handle human rights issues, but it is possible to keep up to date with the biggest concerns and to make sure you know where to look for deeper information.

The Obligation to Dig Deeper

Personally, in the past, I’ve been offered projects by companies that take advantage of poor human rights laws in other countries to produce products less expensively, as well as by organizations closer to home actively working to eliminate rights that I consider absolutely basic. In a few instances, I took those projects: I didn’t know about the causes the company supported until after the project was finished; my due diligence at the time focused solely on whether I was likely to get paid at the end of the project.

But such ignorance has led to my being associated with companies that I would rather not be aligned to, with projects that I definitely won’t put in my portfolio, despite the projects in question having no bearing on human rights. I take a far different stance on who I will work with today than when I first went into business.

It’s up to you to think critically about the situation and ask the right questions.

Researching the companies you’re considering working with is good business sense: you want to know that you’re not dealing with someone who will be a problem for you in any way. It’s a lot easier to find out whether your prospective vendors are likely to give you good quality products than to find out what governments they might support. It’s up to you to think critically about the situation and ask the right questions.

If you’re looking for a manufacturer to provide you with the product you want to sell, you have the right to ask about their supply chain and just how they can afford to produce something for a particularly low per item price. The same goes when considering what use work you provide to another company might be put to. Plugging a company’s name into an online search should only be the first step, not your entire due diligence process.

Yet, few situations are entirely black and white. You need to weigh your understanding of the situation and your preferences about how to do business with a consideration of not only what’s practical but what the overall impact might be.

Choosing to avoid hiring a virtual assistant or freelancer based in a country ruled by an oppressive regime can be complex decision: while you may not want to indirectly provide money to such a country through the wages you pay to a contractor, there’s a good chance that your potential contractor has little say in his local government. Reducing individuals’ abilities to earn a living may press them to overthrow a bad government, but at what cost? There’s no right answer to such questions, despite the people who may encourage you to boycott working with any individual or company based in a given country. You need to make such decisions on your own.

Furthermore, for many products, it may not be appropriate to decide who to sell to and which customers to avoid. In some countries, there are even laws in place to protect buyers from discrimination, which can get you in trouble if you decide to withhold your product. Make the best decision you can, based on the situation you face.

Take Action in Your Own Business

At the end of the day, most of us can control little more than our own actions. We can’t decide how people should live or what laws should be passed. We can decide who we will do business with and how far we will go to make our money. We can take action within our own businesses to put a priority on supporting full human rights for everyone who touches our companies, even indirectly.

Pro-bono work offers the best opportunity for making sure that you are supporting the causes you feel strongly about, even if such projects don’t put food on the table. Volunteering for a political campaign, giving some work to a non-profit that works on human rights issues, and donating money can let you work directly on improving the situation worldwide or in your own country. But there are ways to balance earning and income with doing what’s right.

We can take action within our own businesses to put a priority on supporting full human rights for everyone who touches our companies, even indirectly.

We hear a lot about transparency in business these days: being honest about potential problems our companies face and passing along information to our customers that we may not be excited about explaining seem to be key components. But it may be worth being transparent about our own values, along with what we do in our businesses to prioritize those values.

Customers have expressed interest in supporting products that don’t harm people during the manufacturing process. A transparent supply chain can be a selling point. Think about ‘blood diamonds’: in just a decade, the diamond industry put controls in place to block sales of conflict diamonds and to reduce the value that justifies mining diamonds under particularly horrible conditions. A diamond with a documented conflict-free history is worth more.

Making a point of talking about your values — why you’re willing to work on certain projects and why you’ll avoid working with some people — will change the makeup of the audience willing to work with you. Those companies that don’t meet your high standards will likely find your discussions a turn off. But those people who share your values will be more interested in working with you, perhaps even to the point of paying a premium in order to work with a transparent company. It can be a question of enlightened self-interest, as well as a matter of embracing your own values in your business.

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