The Question of Ethics: Is Business Responsible for Building a Better Future?
February 28th | 2017

Recently, I was reflecting on men’s body sprays. (Just go with me on this.)

Over the last decade, body spray brands have been battling to convince unsuspecting men that their products will do the best job at tricking hot women into having sex. (See Tag. See Axe.) It’s a cheeky ad strategy. It’s funny. And it’s gross. It sidesteps the moral question around whether it’s okay to trick women into having sex (it’s not) and avoids asking what responsibility brands should take for shaping society – for better or worse. (Since discovering they were behind the times, Axe has since changed strategy.)

These days, overtly sexist advertising is often rewarded with vocal backlash. So I wondered — are we headed into a new era, in which the public will hold businesses to stricter ethical guidelines than ever? Trends point to “yes,” with younger generations striving for meaning over money, a swift blurring of lines between consumerism and activism, and a growing awareness of the need for wellbeing in the workplace. 

With this theory and about a million questions about ethics in-hand, I called ethics and philosophy professor Jason Burrows. We chatted for an hour about everything from the Strauss–Howe generational theory to whether or not Nordstrom’s yank of Ivanka’s shoe line was business-minded or ethical. (His point of view? They’re testing the waters on the public’s appetite for politics with some built-in plausible deniability.)

I pitched my theory to Burrows and he reminded me that the tension between businesses and the public ethic has always been there. According to him, “With ethics, there’s always a danger of thinking of things in terms of non-stop progress.” It’s more of a cyclical two-way dance. Sometimes the public leads businesses to react and respond, and sometimes businesses lead the public – either by appealing to their fears and insecurities or by elevating their vision of progress. One entity leads and then the other leads. In this metaphor, both partners can’t lead or follow at the same time or the dance stalls.

In this back-and-forth dance, neither party explicitly takes responsibility for moving forward.

Through a myriad of pressures and reactions, the dance does make progress through time, but it’s slow. It meanders. It cycles. It takes some jerky steps sideways and backwards. “It’s not a beeline towards a utopian place,” says Burrows. “We want a world where we have enough resources for people to be healthy and comfortable. A world where everyone has opportunity to succeed. But that’s not the world we live in. Yet.

From Tree Brain by Ashleigh Penrod. Photo by Andrew Ippolito.

So how does that world get created? Whose job is it to create it?

As a dancer myself, I love the dance metaphor, especially when it allows for progress. But it assumes the public entity and the business entity are independent partners, coming together only to exert arrhythmic forces on each other. It doesn’t account for the fact that the same individuals run both worlds. My vision of utopia doesn’t stay neatly at home. It crawls into my backpack and shows up at my job – in my frameworks, in my conversations with clients, in my incessant invitations to coworkers to come to Monday Yoga in the Zeus Jones basement.

So, if we extend the metaphor, individuals wield a ton of potential power. Because they inherently live in both worlds, they’re positioned to be the great time-keepers of the dance. The rhythm that speeds up the dance and keeps it chugging towards “better.” The music that makes it beautiful.

And what do you get when an individual purposefully sets a rhythm? When they intentionally bridge the gap between public and business? You get Yvon Chouinard and Patagonia

You also get Janet Jackson (the other Janet Jackson) and Purina® Pro Plan Bright Mind™. Phil Zeitlow and Gluten-Free Cheerios. Beto Perez and Zumba. Mina Markham and the Pantsuit design system. (Yes, yes, I realize Hillary lost. But we haven’t seen the last of Markham’s intuitive design strategy.)

You get an innovation, a product, or even an entire company engaged in its own skillful dance. The benefits to the public are clear, the business is sustainable, and the individuals are fulfilled in both spaces. It’s not a clumsy, awkward duet; it ebbs and flows (mostly) gracefully, operating above the fits and starts that result from not properly setting the rhythm.

​Let’s look at Uber as an example of a company operating without an ethical rhythm.

Officially launched in 2011, its user-first design transformed not just the transportation industry, but industry in general. Over the last six years, service builders all over the planet have tried to duplicate Uber’s experience, whether by disrupting an existing system and creating the “Uber” of X” or by taking a singular element of Uber’s model and applying it elsewhere, a process known as Uberification.

In some ways, Uber started off as the perfect leader. The public was ready for a better experience – and willing to pay for it – and they didn’t even know it yet. The business was prepared to deliver, leading the public into a whole new world of better on-demand services and user-centered design.

But Uber has been stumbling over ethics for years. They are engaged in what CNN Tech calls a “never-ending stream of lawsuits” over everything from how they treat their drivers to how their drivers treat their passengers. There have been reports of sexism and misogyny at every level of the company, from “Boob-er,” to Emil Michael’s targeting of reporter Sarah Lacy, to – as recently as February – this disturbing reflection by Susan Fowler, an ex-site reliability engineer. The #DeleteUber campaign has been operating at a steady boil since Uber appeared to capitalize on the anti-ban strike by JFK taxis, stymied slightly by Uber’s reactive creation of a $3 million legal fund for immigration services.

The public is wrestling for the lead. That’s not to say Uber won’t recover and/or regain control. But the goal was (probably) not to lose it in the first place. 

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If we were back in 2009, and Uber was just a sparkle in CEO Travis Kalanick’s eye, I’d humbly recommend he build the company with more personal purpose and not lose sight of utopia. You know, the utopia where people are healthy and comfortable, with opportunities to succeed and access to a quick and easy ride-sharing service. Because it’s possible to bring your ethical self to your work the same way you bring it to your life and have both areas thrive.

Simply, don’t wait for the public to care. Do what you know is right from the beginning. Be the music. Set the rhythm. Don’t settle for anything less than a beautiful dance.

Coming back to the question of whose job it is to create the ideal world – I think it’s mine. And yours. It’s our business, and our business’. As Burrows succinctly pointed out in a follow-up email, “No one can sit this one out.”