The Social Responsibility of Business: Alex Edmans (Full Transcript)

Full text of Alex Edmans’ talk: The Social Responsibility of Business at TEDxLondonBusinessSchool conference. Alex is a Professor of Finance at London Business School. In this talk, he explains the long-term impacts of social responsibility and challenges the idea that caring for society is at the expense of profit.


Alex Edmans – Professor of Finance

Why do businesses exist?

  • To earn profit? or to serve a purpose?
  • For shareholders? or for society, customers, employees and the environment?

Well the conventional view is exclusively to earn profit. And that’s not as narrow-minded as it sounds.

Because to earn profit, a company is forced to care about society. It has to make high-quality products or customers will stop buying. It has to treat its work as well or they’ll leave. And it can’t pollute the environment or its brand will be hurt.

Indeed leading economist Milton Friedman once famously wrote:

“The social responsibility of business is to increase profit. So just head to the land of profit and you’ll get all of these other decisions rights.” 

But this theory assumes that you can calculate the effect that ethical behavior has on your profits. In practice, you can’t reduce every decision to a mathematical calculation. 

Take Marks and Spencer, the UK high street store now. Former Chairman Simon Marks… he had a policy where all top management had to walk around the shop floors to see first-hand how customers and workers were being treated.

And one day, back in the 1930s, on one of his own visits, Simon sees a shop assistant faint. And he’s concerned. He wants to find out why. And it turns out that her husband’s unemployed and she’s not eating, so that her family can.

So the very next week, Simon introduces nutritious meals for all staff at nominal prices.

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Well, Milton Friedman would say, ‘Do a calculation. If I provide nutritious meals, this many workers are not going to faint. So I’m going to make this much more money.”

There’s obviously no way you can calculate that number.

Instead Simon’s thinking was different, “I’ll provide nutritious meals even if it costs me a bit, because I care about my workers. I want to make them eat well. And because it goes above and beyond, Marks & Spencer has an excellent reputation for quality and that in turn leads to profit.”

So that’s the second view which is called ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’.

Now you might see it’s a bit tree huggy and out of touch. But it’s actually not too different from the first view. It agrees that profit is good. But profit is only a by-product. It’s not the end goal. Instead businesses exist…

  • to serve a purpose,
  • to make products that transform customers’ lives for the better,
  • to provide employees with a healthy and enriching workplace, and
  • to preserve the environment for future generations

…even if you can’t calculate the bottom-line impact of doing so. And if you do that, profits will come naturally.

So take George Merck, the former President of Merck Pharmaceuticals. His mindset wasn’t, ‘How can I make as much money as possible selling drugs?’ It was, ‘How can I use science to save people’s lives?’

Now back in 1942, Penicillin was still a new drug. It hadn’t been made outside the lab before as it was too expensive. But George takes a punt and Penicillin becomes available… made by Merck, a first company for the first time.

Now this is a photo of Ann Miller. A thirty-three old woman. She lives in New Haven. Her husband’s Ogden Miller, the athletics Director of Yale University.

And on March the 14th 1942 and lies dying in a hospital bed, stricken with Streptococcal septicaemia, which she’s caught after suffering a miscarriage. Her fever struck 104 to 106 for 11 straight days, and everything the doctors have tried has failed. Until Penicillin.

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