I1. Caring Capitalism and its Antithesis
The mission of Ben & Jerrys Homemade, Inc., reads as follows:
Ben & Jerrys Statement of Mission
Ben & Jerrys is dedicated to the creation & demonstration of a new corporate concept of linked prosperity. Our mission consists of three interrelated parts: Product, Economic, & Social.
Underlying the mission of Ben & Jerrys is the determination to seek new & creative ways of addressing all three parts, while holding a deep respect for individuals inside & outside the company & for the communities of which they are a part.
To make, distribute & sell the finest quality all natural ice cream & related products in a wide variety of innovative flavors made from Vermont dairy products.
To operate the Company on a sound financial basis of profitable growth, increasing value for our shareholders & creating career opportunities & financial rewards for our employees.
To operate the Company in a way that actively recognizes the central role that business plays in the structure of society by initiating innovative ways to improve the quality of life of a broad community: local, national & international.
(From Ben & Jerrys 1993 Annual Report, p. 2)
These three statements are an attempt by Cohen and Greenfield to reconcile the idea that there is a non-recognition of "the central role that business plays in the structure of society". But, is this in fact the case? Why are they so resistant to follow the form of business in which their competitors engage? If this statement of Ben & Jerrys represents their view of "caring capitalism", what statements would represent "non-caring capitalism"?
To answer these questions, it will be essential to turn to empirical instances of businesses that exemplify "non-caring" attitudes. But in order to undertake this search, it would be beneficial to know exactly what is sought. I will use the mission statements themselves as categorical frameworks for analysis. A "deconstruction" of each of the above mission statements individually will allow for the discovery of what a socially responsible business may, in fact, not be.
The product statement is more or less straightforward. Those companies that maintain their products from a manufacturing point of view (encompassing the objective quality of the product) and an insurance point of view (i.e., "If you are not completely satisfied with this product...", encompassing the claims made by the manufacturer about quality), can be identified as "caring" about that product. The key words in this part of Ben & Jerrys statement are "the finest quality." A company that manufactures a less-than-the-highest quality product can, then, be seen as interested not in actual workmanship, but rather in selling a large quantity of a product that could be, merely as an aside, considered inferior. This seems to be the case with regard to the findings of one recent Consumer Reports test of rack-system stereos:
You wont find Soundesign, one of the leading names in stereo equipment, in the Ratings. Thats because its rack system isnt what it seems. A Soundesign system appears to offer a lot for the money - CD player, dual cassette deck, speakers, AM/FM stereo receiver, plus cabinet for less than $300 But appearances do deceive. Viewed from the front, the [Soundesign rack] appears to consist of nine components. Its actually just a 10-pound box of poorly designed and manufactured electronics, and a series of false fronts decorated with buttons that dont move on drawings of components that dont exist The Soundesign produces about one-third the loudness of a real rack system. The sound is muddy and distorted, to boot. And for their size, the speakers have the poorest bass capability weve seen. The Soundesigns power supply failed and a mechanical switch broke on our first sample. [The picture caption reads:] The Soundesign cabinet seems to hold a stack of nine components, but many have decal displays and pretend controls. Inside, sloppy assembly and lots of empty space (Consumer Reports, December 1993, p. 93).
Clearly, Soundesign does not place very much value upon the quality of its product. This is not uncommon in modern manufacturing.
On the second point, insurance, a company that is not willing to stand by its product also makes no claim as to the worth of such a product. Take, for example, this "mother of all disclaimers" from Haventree Softwares EasyFlow computer program:
If EasyFlow doesn't work: tough. If you lose millions because EasyFlow messes up, it's you that's out the millions, not us. If you don't like this disclaimer: tough. We reserve the right to do the absolute minimum provided by law, up to and including nothing. This is basically the same disclaimer that comes with all software packages, but ours is in plain english and theirs is in legalese. We didn't want to include any disclaimer at all, but our lawyers insisted (WIRED 2.01, January 1994, p.35).
Haventree presumes that by stating their disclaimer in "plain English" they are going to attract the customer that likes to cut through the "legalese" and get straight to the point. But what is the point? While admittedly somewhat humorous, it seems unintelligible that a company would so blatantly disregard, even denigrate, the quality of its own work.
It should be noted, of course, that insurance for a product does not always necessarily entail that the product will not be 1) defective or 2) of the highest quality. It simply indicates that the manufacturer of the product is willing to recompense the consumer should the consumer deem that the quality of the product is not up to his or her standards. This, indeed, is a large part of the justification for the valuation of quantity over quality in our mass production society, where large corporations know that quality is not going to be challenged by a large percentage of the population. The "If you are not completely satisfied with this product..." label exists on a plethora of items; however, this does not seem to guarantee "fine quality" among these products.
Take for example the General Mills Corporation. It has for years printed a label similar to this one on each box of breakfast cereal that leaves their factory:
[Corporate Symbol Here] A Symbol of Quality
We invite your questions and comments. Please call toll free 1-800-328-1144 weekdays 7:30 AM to 5:30 PM (CT). Or send your name, address and comments, along with the entire box top to: General Mills, Inc., Box 200-BG, Minneapolis, MN 55440. If you are not satisfied with the quality or performance of this product, a prompt adjustment of equal value will be made,
However, a recent article from Organic Gardening magazine points out that Cheerios, as well as many other General Mills grain products, are not exactly a "symbol of quality", much less a real example of it:
Our very first Organic Gardening Black Thumb Award goes to General Mills and Y. George Roggy, the contractor who has been charged with spraying the unapproved pesticide Dursban (chorpyrifos-ethyl) on millions of bushels of oats that were then used by General Mills to make Cheerios, Lucky Charms, Trix, Kix and other breakfast cereals. Consumers...ate over 110 million boxes of contaminated cereal before FDA tests detected the Dursban.
Roggys Minnesota-based Fumicon company allegedly saved over $80,000 by substituting the illegal Dursban for a more expensive chemical that was approved for such use. Roggy has been indicted by a federal grand jury (Organic Gardening, January 1995, v.42, no.1, pg. 22).
Additionally, General Mills did not voluntarily recall the adulterated cereal, nor did the government require such a recall. General Mills has reportedly lost over $100 million because of this incident. The National Academy of Sciences estimated in 1993 that children (the target market of many General Mills cereal campaigns) already received 10 times the safe level of the toxin found in Dursban just from eating "fresh" fruits and vegetables!
This issue of product quality versus product quantity will re-appear as it is central to the discussion of the economic rationalizations made by mainstream corporate culture. But first, let us continue the examination of Ben & Jerrys mission statement. In the economic portion of their statement of mission, Ben & Jerrys affirms its commitment to capitalism and its goal of "profitable growth" and "increasing value". They maintain that this will create increased share value, career opportunities and financial rewards for those involved in their enterprise. By implication then, in a non-caring company there might be little financial reward for the bulk of the employees of such a company. "Financial reward" is an ambiguous phrase; certainly most people expect to be paid for their work at a business. However, one way of estimating the financial rewards to the worker is by comparing the pay schema of Ben & Jerrys to those of other companies. The nature of this comparison will necessarily be relative; while a company that offers less recompense than Ben & Jerrys current starting wage of eight dollars per hour, it may not follow that said company is "non-caring". Rather, the ratio of highest-paid-worker to lowest-paid-worker might prove a more reliable measure of the quality of the financial reward gained by the individual employees of the company.
In 1985, a Ben & Jerrys company policy was formalized with respect to this kind of comparison: the five-to-one compressed salary structure. One of the incentives to adopting such a policy was "to recognize the contribution made to our companys success by people throughout the organization" (Lager, 1994:131). When questioned by the underwriters of the stock that Ben & Jerrys was preparing to sell (in order to gain the capital to build a larger production plant), based on the assessment that they could not attract senior level managers to the company, Cohen countered: "Theres no limit at all on what the upper managers can get paid; all they have to do is make sure they raise the bottom first" (Lager, 1994: 130). In the following years, this ratio has increased from five-to-one to seven-to-one, until most recently, in the fall of 1994, when the formal policy of a compressed salary structure was eliminated altogether in order to hire a new Chief Executive Officer for Ben & Jerrys.
So, how does corporate America compare with respect to the relative financial rewards garnered by its employees? According to The Indianapolis Star (June 26, 1994: A1), the top-paid executive of 1993 was Stephen Hilbert of Conseco Incorporated; "as chairman, president and chief executive officer. Hilbert pocketed $42.48 million, including $25.05 million in stock option profits and a $14.11 million performance bonus. Hilbert's hefty haul amounts to $116,387 per day or $816,951 a week. It's enough money to put 4,805 people to work at minimum wage for a year." While Hilberts enormous compensation package is not typical of the average corporate executive (he made more than the next nine executives on the list combined), it is certainly not uncommon to find a huge discrepancy between the compensation of management and "floor" workers. "Even excluding Hilbert's $42 million as a statistical fluke, the average CEO paycheck still totals $508,099. That's more than 57 times the annual $8,840 paycheck for a minimum-wage worker." How does Hilbert account for such a discrepancy? "[He] makes no apologies, saying the huge paychecks are a just reward for outstanding performance. I think it's the American way, isn't it? he said."
Indeed, Hilbert has a point. This "American way" he speaks of, alternately known as the ethic of rugged individualism, the Darwinian survival of the fittest, or the Horatio Alger myth, has a long and complex history. It comprises, in fact, a crucial piece of the aforementioned debate between private and public welfare that has been going on long before America was even established as a sovereign nation. Why should Hilbert not make an exorbitant amount of money, despite the fact that people who work for the same company that he does make, perhaps, 4,805 times less? Did he not earn the rewards that are now being lavished upon him? It seems difficult to make a justification for such extraordinary recompense, at the expense of, say, homeless people, based upon the idea that he earned it. Since this explanation is indeed the one that holds, however, we must ask, What are the forces that have created an unquestioning atmosphere among those people who are so greatly disadvantaged at the expense of Hilberts advantage? Why do so many people believe that opportunity lay around everyones corner, that the streets are "paved of gold", that we all can "pull ourselves up by the bootstraps" if only we worked hard enough and fast enough? To answer these questions, it will be necessary to examine the foundations of this myth that can be unearthed in the sociological phenomena that have occurred since the Renaissance.
Next section - I2. Capitalism and the Renaissance
Back to Title Page
Back to Cyberstudies