The Boss Show

Workplace wisdom with heart and humor

August 3, 2012

Paying for the Planet

By Steve Motenko

In last week’s The Boss Show — Walmart, Suicides & Facebook Access — Jim proposed a thought experiment: What if, in order to pay employees a living wage, Walmart raised its prices by 2%?  Would you support that price increase? Would you continue to shop there?  Might you even make more of an effort to shop there, knowing your purchases would contribute to a higher standard of living for the historically low-wage clerks who serve you there?

I want to carry this thought experiment a step further.  What if Walmart – and every other company, for that matter – took complete stock of its “footprint” – environmental, carbon, and social justice – and decided that its product pricing would support a net zero impact on the planet over the entire life cycle of the product, from resource extraction to disposal?  — not to mention supporting a living wage and humane working conditions for all employees of that company and all its suppliers?

Lots of complex, important, and appropriate questions here:

  • Is it even possible for a company to figure out its impact on all life on the planet?
  • How do you determine what it takes to balance, reverse, or negate that impact?
  • What’s a “living wage”?  What are “humane working conditions”?
  • How do you resolve a multitude of ethical questions? It’s easy, for example, to criticize paying workers a pittance in developing countries. But on the other hand, these are jobs these workers would not otherwise have, thus significantly raising their previous standard of living while contributing to the gradual building of that country’s economy.

But there’s one question that is inappropriate:  How would a global ethic impact the pricing of products? My answer: it doesn’t matter.  Every time we purchase a product that contributes to pollution, global warming, species extinction, resource depletion, or social injustice, we are engaged in an unethical act.  Call it harsh, call it impossible to avoid — it’s the only logical conclusion.

If my purchase harms another living being – directly or indirectly – then I don’t need that product (unless I must have it for my survival).  Do I honor that high standard 100% in my purchases? No.  I’m working toward it.  And working toward creating a culture that honors it as well.  Without that cultural shift, my individual ethical purchase decisions are not just hugely challenging, but also of minimal impact.

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About the Author

Steve Motenko is an executive coach, leadership trainer, and co-host of The Boss Show, a weekly podcast on workplace dynamics. Steve and his Boss Show co-host, Jim Hessler, are co-authors of Land On Your Feet, Not On Your Face: A Guide to Building Your Leadership Platform. Steve lives on Whidbey Island, Washington, with his wife and dog, whom he loves, and a cat he tolerates usually pretty well.

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