Principled Profit: The Good Business Blog

Musings on the world-wide movement for ethical business, frugal marketing, and how honesty, integrity, and quality combine with deep relationship building to create business success. By the originator of the Ethical Business Pledge campaign and award-winning author of Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First and five other books

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Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Why The Business Ethics Pledge Campaign

By Shel Horowitz

Can one self-employed guy working from a farmhouse in Massachusetts actually have an impact on the way business is conducted in our modern world?

Some people seem to think the whole Business Ethics Pledge campaign is misguided, or at best tilting at windmills. I can tell you this: It's gotten incredibly positive feedback. The last project for which I've gotten so many thank-yous was saving our local mountain from a very poorly-conceived housing development, a campaign I started that involved several thousand people (I still get thanked for it, five years after the campaign started and four years after we won). That campaign confirmed the idea that one person can indeed make a difference, and that difference is most easily achieved if the lone individual joins with others into an organized force.

I wrote my book, Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First, to help change the world's attitude about business. And when I realized that the book by itself wouldn't reach enough people to create the social change I want, the Pledge was a logical next step.

The Ethics Pledge campaign doesn't resonate with everyone. But it is deeply meaningful to some sectors of the business world, and at this point I feel an obligation to continue pushing the Pledge and everything it represents, both to attempt to actually accomplish its (admittedly ambitious) goal, and because I feel an obligation to continue offering support to those who've placed their trust in this campaign and who have helped spread the word about it.

Since the 1950s, the concept of the "hundredth monkey" has been used to describe a paradigm shift that happens when a certain very small percentage of individuals shift their actions or beliefs--and then, like a wave, the new behavior or attitude spreads rapidly through society. Malcolm Gladwell calls that point of critical mass "the tipping point." Usually, a movement starts small, builds for some time while nobody's noticing (often in another culture), and then explodes into the public consciousness. We've seen it over and over again, in every sphere of our lives: politics, art & culture, and yes, business:
  • The Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott created the tipping point in national consciousness to begin the end of segregation, after 50 years of quiet behind-the-scenes activism in small groups.
  • The original Earth Day, in 1970, moved the consciousness of
    American society so that we began to pay attention to our society's effect on the environment. But remember--Rachel Carson's Silent Springwas published back in 1962; the nuclear test ban movement was even earlier.
  • The collapse of European Communism in 1989-90 probably wouldn't have been possible without Prague Spring and the brave resistance to the Soviet invasion, two decades earlier.
  • Business innovations like Kaizen (continuous improvement) were based on the writings of Western business thinkers but pretty much ignored here at first. Bbut they were adopted widely in Japan, and brought back successfully to the US only after the Japanese automakers started cleaning the clocks of the American giants.

    Will the Pledge campaign actually succeed? I don't know. 25,000 each influencing at least 100 may or may not be enough to create the "tipping point"; there's really no way to find out other than to do it. And if it turns out that this relatively small group is in fact enough to change the business culture, and I had abandoned the quest before reaching that point, how would I live with myself? Just because it's Quixotic, doesn't mean it won't necessarily work. I believe it will work, but I won't know until the campaign is complete--not for quite a few years, at the current rate of signing. At the least, the campaign will be part of the necessary groundwork so that when the second wave arrives, the consciousness is ready to shift. At best, the first wave is already laying the groundwork, and the pledge will be a catalyst for that rapid change throughout society.

    After all, I've been involved in "impossible" movements my whole life. When I started in social change, segregation was a very recent memory, the war in Vietnam was raging, and Nixon was calling for 1000 nuclear power plants. Segregation, the Vietnam war, and the (extremely dangerous) nuclear power industry were all brought to a halt by the power of ordinary human beings working together. Some of them had greatness thrust upon them--but they were ordinary people nonetheless.

    I'm an ordinary person who happens to have a combination of organizing skills and marketing skills, and I'm willing to tilt at this particular windmill to see if in fact I can move it around on its axis. When the housing development on the mountain was announced, the experts all said "this is terrible, but there's nothing we can do." It was actually that powerless response, rather than the project itself, that inspired me to form Save the Mountain--I knew I could prove them wrong. I fully expected that campaign to take five years; we defeated the project completely in just 13 months.

    Too few social change agents have a long-term view, IMO. But let's remember that it took 100 years from the time the Quakers set a goal of ending slavery in this country. They had no mass communication and rather poor organizing skills; with better tools, Lech Walesa toppled the Polish communist government in a matter of months. Ending segregation and the Vietnam war each took about a decade of large-scale public organizing, and quite a bit of small-group stuff in the decades leading up.

  • Copywriter, marketing consultant, and speaker Shel Horowitz is the author of six books and publisher of five websites, five webzines and three ezines. His two most recent, Principled Profit: Marketing That Puts People First <> and Grassroots Marketing: Getting Noticed in a Noisy World <> have both won awards. He's currently engaged in a campaign to get 25,000 people to sign--and spread--the Business Ethics Pledge: <>

    This article is copyright 2004 by Shel Horowitz. Permission is granted to reprint it in full and unchanged, including the bio and reprint permission, in any Internet, print, or e-mail medium for which no fee is charged. If you wish to use this article and charge for it, or if you'd like to make changes other than minor grammatical tweaks, please contact shel AT


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