Medieval Corporate Social Responsibility

By Mike Strathdee

As printed in The Marketplace – November/December 2017

Businesses have been practicing corporate social responsibility for over 500 years, The Atlantic magazine argues. “The Ben & Jerry’s of Medieval Times” story says that while benefits corporations (B Corps.) — companies whose mission includes the welfare of their workers, society and the environment — only caught on in 2007, there is considerable evidence of “compassionate capitalism” dating back to the Middle Ages.

It cites a British research paper that discusses entrepreneurs donating profits to monasteries to support health care, roads, bridges and education. Later, during the Industrial Revolution, textile entrepreneurs in Manchester supported schools, galleries and parks. Some thought that engaging workers with nature would nurture design skills.

Professor Catherine Casson notes that the medieval economy was more collaborative than the 21st century norm. Happily, that collaborative and sharing spirit appears to be flourishing in business incubators I visited while researching Waterloo Region’s tech and university ecosystem for our cover story.

Corporations as voice of

public morality?

A provocative piece in raises the question of whether corporations “across the political spectrum” are now having a major influence in public morality, akin to the role churches have historically played.

Whether it be GoDaddy or Airbnb shutting out neo-Nazis or white supremacists from their services, or Hobby Lobby’s fight against government requiring contraception to be covered under employee insurance plans, companies are increasingly making statements. Whether you see this as a positive or worrisome development, it’s a trend we need to recognize.

“We affirm our values — and identity — at the shopping till as much as, or more than, the altar,” the article concludes.

Close encounter at the UN

Paul Heidebrecht, director of the Kindred Credit Union Centre for Peace Advancement (see pg. 11), had an unexpected moment at the United Nations in September. He was in New York as CPA incubator participant EPOCH pitched their business to the $1million Hult Prize competition. EPOCH, which Heidebrecht has coached for several competitions, was well received but didn’t win. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton, who announced the winner, was schmoozing with finalists, many eager to get a selfie with him. Heidebrecht watched the goings on with interest, when suddenly Clinton’s security team started pushing the group away and pulled him in. Turns out Mr. Clinton wanted a few minutes of Paul’s time. He didn’t get a picture, but it was a chat he will long remember.

Purple Chickens

One of many remarkable stories in Terry O’Reilly’s highly entertaining book This I Know: Marketing Lessons From Under The Influence comes in a chapter about the importance of counter-intuitive thinking. Kenyan chicken farmers were losing most of their free-range baby chicks to larger avian predators, namely eagles and hawks. They quadrupled the survival rate from 20 per cent to 80 per cent with a simple and unlikely fix — painting the chicks purple. Turns out that neither eagles nor hawks can process purple images, and don’t see purple chicks as something edible. This discovery also led to a demand for a new breed of hired help -chicken painters.

Storm shelter

Tip of The Marketplace hat to Sarasota MEDA board member Jim Miller, who offered his business as a shelter during Hurricane Irma’s late summer attack on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Miller posted a Facebook message inviting family and friends to think about anyone they knew who might need a safe place to be.

“We had fifteen persons plus several pets,” says Miller. “They stayed in our store, played games, and spent the night there riding out the storm. Debra Gingerich, one of our managers, stayed with the group. The storm was not as bad here as in other places, so we only suffered minor damage (a small tree, an outdoor light, our sign). We lost power also, which meant a loss of telephone and store revenues for about three days. Everyone went home the next morning after the storm. I think they were all grateful, knowing that it could have been much worse. Better to be prepared.”

The need to prepare will increase as weird weather becomes the norm. Last fall, a Miami pastor told me that 10 years ago, homebuyers sought waterfront property there. These days, everyone wants to know how far they can get from the shoreline.

Sadly, the most vulnerable don’t have any choice. The rural poor will be most impacted by severe storms and weather changes. Hurricane Maria’s assault on Puerto Rico this fall destroyed 80 per cent of that country’s crops and agricultural infrastructure.

MEDA is helping others prepare. Our environment and climate change work in a number of developing nations focuses on four areas: climate change adaptation and mitigation, green growth, green finance and collaboration on climate resilience. —MS


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