Just Coffee (copy)

Madison's Just Coffee Cooperative is one of five B Corporations based in Madison.

Although the Bible (as well as sacred scriptures representing other faith traditions) has precious little to say about human reproductive matters, it does place a great deal of emphasis on social justice, economic fairness and creation care. Some 2,000 references to those few topics can be culled from the two Testaments.

As a preacher, at times I found occasion to support my ethical brief against contemporary corporate culture with citations from holy writ. To routinely discount the interests of other crucial “stakeholders” (labor, communities, ecological systems) in the process of generating wealth and value struck me as unconscionable. And to prioritize short-term profit at the expense of long-term well-being seemed utterly irresponsible. The term “predatory capitalism” aptly describes an all-too-familiar outlook that would have made capitalism’s patron saint, Adam Smith, cringe.

During the years when I was serving my parish, such criticism didn’t always endear me to the capitalists sitting in the pews. Despite specific references to corporate malefactors like Enron, Wells Fargo and Exxon, some of these good folks rankled at my remarks, taking them personally. In the end their distress did prompt me to look for role models that could serve to inspire rather than shame.

Which brings me to a recent New York Times op-ed in which Columbia University’s Tim Wu argued that the label “virtuous corporation” wasn’t an oxymoron. Referencing the outdoor outfitter Patagonia and the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter, Wu wrote that, “while profit is essential to business, large profits are not the same thing as true success. The running of a business is a test of character, rich in intellectual, practical and moral challenges.”

I would agree and, like Wu, I don’t believe it’s possible to heal the planet and create a more just society without buy-in from a new and more enlightened generation of entrepreneurs and economic heavy-hitters.

But what was missing from Wu’s laudatory article was any mention of B Corporations — a growing, multinational network of businesses that have passed a rigorous certification process and become B Corporations (there are currently five based in Madison).

“By harnessing the power of business,” the organization’s website says, “B Corps use profits and growth as a means to a greater end: positive impact for their employees, communities, and the environment.”

B Corps have been on my radar for years, and I routinely look for the small “B” logo on products I’m considering for purchase. My office desk was manufactured by a B Corp, one of more than 1,700 worldwide.

Of course, a great many “virtuous companies” exist outside of this network, some of them close at hand. But how do consumers determine who they are and whether they’re legitimate? Presently, the B Corps movement is providing an indispensible service — one that allows capitalists, in the words of Wu, to obey “their better instincts.”

Michael Schuler is minister emeritus of the First Unitarian Society of Madison.

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