Adam Smith's "invisible hand" suggests that if you follow your own self interest, you will promote the interests of society. I have had some posts on this issue of being selfish vs. being altruistic and if they can actually be separated before. So those links are at the end.
Adam Smith talked about the invisible hand and how profit seeking firms would provide what the public wanted. But what about trying to make the world a better place?
Here is an excerpt from The Wealth of Nations found at The Library of Economics and Liberty.
"But the annual revenue of every society is always precisely equal to the exchangeable value of the whole annual produce of its industry, or rather is precisely the same thing with that exchangeable value. As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it. By preferring the support of domestic to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the public good. It is an affectation, indeed, not very common among merchants, and very few words need be employed in dissuading them from it."Now excerpts from Professor Padmanabhan's article, which says if companies want to make a profit, they have to do good.
"Rightly or wrongly, firms now believe that they should routinely report their performance along financial and nonfinancial lines to outside stakeholders. It seems important for them to prominently display their social and environmental performance in addition to their financial performance to stakeholders. Arguably, each generation of stakeholders believes it is more conscious about social and environmental issues than the previous generation. Hence, firms may seem to be pandering to the needs of these generational stakeholders by showcasing their nonfinancial performance as well.Related posts:
Blue Apron and Plated are two firms offering meals that target young adults and provide information on their websites to appeal to these stakeholders. Plated, for instance, indicates that its produce is grown organically and its poultry and fish originate from sustainable sources. “Look,” it seems to say. “We are good custodians of the planet and take care of our stakeholders!”
Additionally, in today’s social media world, good and bad news about anything or anyone is instantly disseminated globally. Firms and individuals must increasingly manage information flow very carefully. Together, increased stakeholder focus on environmental and social issues, and the relative ease of information dissemination, can be a deadly combination for firms.
One faux pas on either of these counts can prove disastrous to a firm’s image. Witness the response to the United Airlines CEO’s apology blaming the victim in reaction to a video circulating on social media of a man dragged off a plane. And how about tweets from Adidas congratulating Boston Marathon survivors? It was forced to take down that ad after furor from Twitter followers who suggested this ad reminded individuals of the tragedy.
The cost to erase these errors in judgment proved extremely expensive to the firms involved. To avoid costly missteps like these, firms are more proactively inclined to expend valuable resources to hire people to manage their corporate social responsibility, or CSR, profiles and their advertising campaigns."
"But in today’s globalized, social-media-filled world, a firm cannot be profitable unless it takes care of the people and the planet. The most profitable firms of today are successful because they are good stewards of the planet and take good care of the people."
Research by my colleagues and me also indicates a direct link between a firm’s CSR activities and its future financial performance. We found evidence that current CSR activities for a group of service firms are strongly positively correlated with how much future profits the firms can generate from its assets, after controlling for other factors.
In another study, we found that global manufacturing and service firms use CSR dollars as strategic dollars to be spent carefully for maximum financial benefits.
Another related analysis found that banks offer lower interest rates on bonds to firms that follow good CSR principles relative to firms that do not. Bankers may feel good about firms that implement good CSR practices, but they still follow the money. They offer lower interest rates to such firms since they may recognize that such firms are likely to attract higher revenues in the future — lowering their business risks, which translates into more money — capital.
Ultimately, firms cannot make money unless they take care of their stakeholders. The harsh limelight of social media punishes irresponsible firms because potential, and even loyal, customers will avoid its products. Decreased revenues, in turn, lead to lower profits. Lower profits can negatively affect the stakeholders of the firm. It is essentially unimaginable for any firm today to earn sustained profits while being irresponsible custodians of the planet and/or not taking care of its employees and customers."
Why Doing Good Makes It Easier to Be Bad
Is it a retailer’s job to keep shoppers from their vices? (or Adam Smith vs. CVS pharmacy)
Can You Find Virtue by Investing in Vice?
What if companies pledge to adhere to social and environmental accountability guidelines?
Conspicuous Consumption, Conspicuous Virtue, Thorstein Veblen (and Adam Smith, too!)
Data show that socially responsible investments can outperform the S&P 500 index
Is altruism a result of selfishness?
Do you have to be selfish to make more money?
Does collective self-deception mask selfish behavior?
For a humorous view of this issue see
A Snickers a Day Keeps the Doctor Away: Why does CVS want to make my migraine cures hard to find? by Joseph C. Sternberg of the WSJ