Whose ‘deep’ responsibility?

Deeply Responsible Business: A Global History of Values-Driven Leadership by Geoffrey Jones, a professor of business history at Harvard Business School, is a sobering read. It does have many examples of what Colin Mayer might describe as purpose-driven companies, those whose commitment to socially beneficial and fair outcomes is baked through their activities. The case studies are mainly from the US, UK, India and Japan, and date back into the 19th century including some well-known Quaker-founded companies.

What’s sobering about it is how hard it has proven to be to sustain this ‘deep’ (beyond ESG compliance) responsibility. Very few of the examples could still be described in this way. Sometimes the irresistible tide of events has been to blame – the coming to power of the Nazis or other nationalistic imperatives such as war or independence movements. Sometimes the change has been driven by the arrival of professional managers in a family firm, and the imperative of profitability. Sometimes it has been slow business failure or acquisition by a more conventional business.

So I enjoyed reading this and was particularly interested to read about Japan – including the concept of gapponshugi, which refers to capital but can include the meaning of human and social capital, very interesting for those of us interested in the measurement and use of inclusive wealth. But in the end I had to conclude that highly motivated people and corporate actions by themselves are insufficient to bring about deep resonsibility. It confirmed my presupposition that a more responsible capitalism will require government action too.