Some Companies Look to Combine Business with Social Conscience

December 27, 2006 at 6:55 PM EDT

CLARENCE PAGE, Chicago Tribune: The image of big business has really been taking it on the chin lately: one picture after another, it seems, of corporate executives in suits, ties, and handcuffs.

Too bad. There’s another side of the business world. It doesn’t get as much attention as the bad news, but it’s redefining the way business is done.

You can see it in these hand-woven baskets on sale at Macy’s, all the way from Rwanda. The 1994 genocide in Rwanda killed a half-million people in 100 days of horror. The small African nation’s survivors were almost 70 percent female. What were they to do to survive? Some of them wove baskets, amazingly beautiful baskets.

The director of the United Nations Development Fund for Women was impressed. One thing led to another. An American woman, an artist and activist named Willa Shalit, organized Rwanda Path to Peace to help the women sell their baskets. Macy’s agreed to be their exclusive American outlet.

It’s a modest deal for Macy’s, but a big one for the Rwanda women. A few days of weaving can earn as much as the average Rwandan earns in a month.

But don’t call it charity, Macy’s says. It’s business. True enough. And yet a new promising trend seems to be emerging in this global age: entrepreneurs and corporations who think that a social conscience might be good for business.

You can see that at Starbucks and other places that sell fair trade-certified coffee. Fair trade means a fair price, at least $1.25 a pound, will go to the overseas coffee farmers who grew the coffee. The growers are getting paid more and living better.

And if market forces are working right, that motivates the farmers to produce better coffee. That means fair-trade coffee costs more than regular coffee, but that price difference only seems to enhance its appeal.

A new generation of business people and entrepreneurial nonprofits are finding ways to work together. Daimler-Chrysler, for example, is working in Brazil with a local nonprofit to produce Mercedes car seats out of recycled coconut fibers.

And “Fast Company” magazine presents social capitalist awards for the best income-earning business solutions to major social problems. Like one of this year’s winners, KickStart, a San Francisco nonprofit that sells technology to help poor Africans start their own small businesses. KickStart’s biggest seller: a foot-driven irrigation pump that can pump up a farmer’s profits tenfold.

The late economic guru Milton Friedman famously declared that business had no social responsibility except to generate a profit for shareholders. But socially aware business does not always have to be an oxymoron, and profits don’t always have to compete with social good.

Life should have more meaning than that, even the life of a business. Call it commerce with a conscience.

Give a man a fish, and you’ll feed him for a day, according to an old saying. Teach him to sell fish, and he might start up a business, or she.

That’s the message the women of Rwanda offer the world in their baskets of peace. They’re not looking for charity. They’d rather have customers. They offer, and the global market responds. That’s business.

I’m Clarence Page.