At that moment, many other businesses, from Google to
Starbucks, were publicly fghting policies proposed by President Donald Trump, most notably in the area of immigration.
But Zuckerberg didn’t mention the president or politics.
Instead, he posed a broader question: “Are we building the
world we all want?” Facebook, he argued, had a responsibility to help people.
It was a mission statement, shared just as discussion of
business leadership’s relationship to government leadership
was reaching a fever pitch. Facebook itself had been stung
by critiques of its role in “fake news” and “flter bubbles.”
Implicit in Zuckerberg’s letter was the idea that, despite
Facebook’s vacuuming up of ever-larger piles of cash, its real
purpose—its reason for existence—wasn’t to make money. It
was to make the world a better place.
Such moralizing from a billionaire CEO can come across
as disingenuous or naive. Zuckerberg devoted most of his
letter to outlining how Facebook could be instrumental in
“building a global community,” which of course isn’t too far
from what the company’s business imperatives would dictate.
Was it all just self-serving rationalization? Is Zuckerberg—and
any business leader claiming that values matter more than
dollars—simply a hypocrite? This is the tension underlying
a rising movement across the business landscape. From
automakers such as Ford and Audi to fashion houses like
Gucci and Ralph Lauren, from health care frms to consumer-packaged-goods makers, companies are increasingly seeking
to align their commercial activities with larger social and cultural values—not just because it makes them look good, but
because employees and customers have started to insist on
it. Some efforts are clearly reactions to the political environment and the divisiveness surrounding Trump; the impact
of boycotts (witness #grabyourwallet) and buycotts can’t be
ignored by CEOs or investors.
Yet whatever impetus the current political climate offers, the business community was moving in this direction
well before a new president claimed the White House. An
organization called the B Team, which includes the CEOs of
major businesses such as Unilever and high-profle leaders
like Richard Branson and Arianna Huffngton, was launched
several years ago “to catalyze a better way of doing business”
(as its website puts it). Uber’s recent troubles are rooted in issues that long preceded its awkward dance with the Trump
administration. Budweiser’s much-discussed Super Bowl TV
ad about immigration had been planned for months; Audi’s
Super Bowl spot highlighting the gender pay gap was almost
two years in the making. Even Zuckerberg’s missive, it turns
out, had been in the works for a year.
A practical question looms over this phenomenon: Does
business have a higher responsibility to address social values,
as Zuckerberg asserts about Facebook, or should the pursuit
of proftability—maximizing shareholder value above all
else—be the chief purpose of a company? Quickly chasing
that question is another one, supported by many acolytes of
this new movement: Is it possible that embracing values can
actually help profts and share prices in the long run?
These issues are roiling executive leadership at enterprises large and small, and in no place more prominently
Photographs by Chloe Aftel
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