More than 550 health professionals and organizations have signed a letter to McDonald’s Corp, asking the maker of Happy Meals to stop marketing junk food to kids and to retire Ronald McDonald today. These advocates have run a full-page ad in six newspapers, stating that McDonald’s has a responsibility for the health of children and that they expect the company to change many of its practices.
McDonald’s has said little in response yet, but in the past their main themes have been: We don’t make the decisions, parents do. Parents tell us they are happy with the choices we offer. We have continued to stay connected to our customers and will respond to their wants and needs. But is this enough? The old saw that we provide what people want and they can make choices for themselves is not the stance of The Responsible Business.
Responsible businesses know that societies, nations, and even they, themselves, depend on the creation of value beyond the demands of consumers. Umair Haque calls this thick value, in contrast to thin value. I call it taking responsibility for the well-being of customers, ensuring that they are able to generate better lives for themselves as the result of their engagement with the business’s offerings. In fact, this is what it means to be value generating: Our products and services result in better lives and, through their use, enable customers and other stakeholders to create more value in the world, themselves. This definition holds universally for all organizations, for-profit and non-profit.
A better life can be assessed in terms of value in three arenas:
Personal, constituent, and customer relationships increase health, capability, and understanding when they make it possible for the people involved to make better choices for themselves and others. This is the sweet spot of a business or partnership. For example, as businesses create new food products they can educate consumers about how their bodies keep themselves healthy and how they can become healthier. Education increases the number of choices available to consumers by increasing their awareness. More importantly, it also increases consumers’ ableness to make choices based on informed comparisons, which over time leads to ever more profound understanding. Education creates transparency. In marketing, it shines. In the case of McDonald’s, the questions are, Do our offerings improve our customers’ choices about how they and their children live their lives, now and in the future? Can we help educate children to make great choices based on their own understanding and not on the choices we market to them.
Throughout their lives people grow their abilities to live up to principles and values and manage their behaviors and states of being. Personal, constituent, or customer relationships enable this growth by increasing self-respect and self-determination. For example, most people want to eat right, to provide themselves and their families with really great tasting meals that make them healthier. Businesses accept some responsibility for building character when they show people how and provide them with options that are also principled and emotionally satisfying. For McDonald’s, the question is, Can we give people ways to eat well, enjoy food, and live more closely to their principles and values.
All of us want to make a difference with our lives, although many of us have not connected to that idea or to its possibility. When a business is deeply responsible, it makes contributions not only in the arenas of choice and character. It also fosters its customers’ ableness to make meaningful contributions, themselves, as they use its products and because they use them. Responsible businesses provide offerings that are unique and meaningful to pervasively better, more generative families, societies, and ecosystems and to all the systems that create, maintain, and evolve them. Personal, constituent, and customer relationships increase our abilities to be unique and distinctive in the addition of new value into all the areas of life that we affect. For McDonald’s this might consist in asking, How can our employees, contractors, and suppliers actively contribute to better lives and support our customers’ connections to their communities through product creation, education, and the ways we site, develop, and build each new McDonald’s location.
These are the domains in which The Responsible Business holds itself accountable. Responsible businesses know that their charters are to meet these conditions for each and all of their stakeholders—customers; employees, contractors and suppliers; Earth; communities; and investors—without trade-offs, throughout the business, in all aspects of their work. It is mental laziness to claim that this isn’t possible, that there must always be trade-offs. For it turns out that holding to the standard of pervasive improvement of all lives is the only real source of creativity and innovation—for individuals and businesses—and the only guarantee of an organization’s or individual’s non-displaceability.