Good morning, Quartz readers!
This week, the Business Roundtable issued a new definition of the purpose of a company that places responsibilities to customers, employees, suppliers, communities, and the environment on par with the responsibility to shareholders.
What would the late Milton Friedman say? In the 1970s, the Nobel-winning economist argued that business leaders who talked about corporate social responsibility, ending discrimination, or curbing pollution were “preaching pure and unadulterated socialism.” His theory, which made shareholder primacy the rule for generations of executives, held that businesses only needed to fulfill their duty to provide profit to shareholders. Free markets would look after everything else.
Except the free markets didn’t hold up their end of the bargain—and companies saw that a new generation of employees would not mindlessly bow down to the doctrine of shareholder supremacy. We’ve seen how today’s workers are willing to walk out in protest, calling out bosses when they see misconduct and discrimination, environmental plundering or questionable contracts.
So, yay! The message is getting through, in a big way. As the Aspen Institute’s Judith Samuelson notes, the Business Roundtable, which includes roughly 180 CEOs of companies that together employ more than 10 million people, is “the closest we come to the voice of Corporate America.”
For advocates of a more conscious form of capitalism, the challenge now is to hold business leaders accountable to the newly codified ideals—and also to guard against free-market defenders who may paint these ideals as pandering to a coddled generation, or characterize them as a mere political ploy. The need for corporations that recognize their responsibilities to society is not a millennial whim or campaign fluff. It is what Lenore Palladino, an economist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, believes could actually save the human race from environmental destruction.
If major corporations can agree to do more to protect Earth’s resources and also to pay workers fairly and support innovative research, rather than limit their concerns to quarterly earnings and share buybacks, we might have a chance at repairing some of the world’s serious ills. —Lila MacLellan and Heather Landy
Five things on Quartz we especially liked
Highly irregular. Good random numbers are hard to come by. For those in the encryption industry, they’re a necessary resource. Cloudflare, which recently filed for its initial public offering, has a clever way of finding them—with lava lamps. Amanda Shendruk breaks down the company’s process of harnessing their groovy unpredictability to keep the internet safe.
Up in arms. The US Supreme Court will soon hear arguments in a Second Amendment case arising from a New York City gun transport law that was recently revised to avoid constitutional review. It’s the first time in nearly a decade that the high court will have a chance to opine on the right to bear arms, and Americans are fired up about the case. Ephrat Livni examines the legal issues and surrounding debate.
World-class playbook. Purdue Pharma has been widely criticized—and successfully sued—for its role in America’s opioid epidemic. It’s also a key player in similar crises growing across the globe. The Quartz documentary How to Sell Drugs (Legally) shows how Mundipharma, an international network of companies, has deployed marketing techniques similar to Purdue’s to sell opioids overseas. Both entities, it turns out, are owned by the same family.
Big disaster, little pellets. You might have felt guilty at times throwing away plastic packaging, knowing it could last in the environment for decades. At least you put it to some use. As Zoë Schlanger reports, vast amounts of virgin plastic pellets known as “nurdles” spill into the environment before even reaching manufacturers. With little regulation and many new plastic-production plants in the works, the problem, like the synthetic material itself, will likely persist.
Curious criteria. Peruse job ads long enough and you’ll likely see “courage” listed as a qualification—even for minimum-wage positions. The word’s use in that context has increased dramatically in recent years, making its way from company mission statements to help-wanted posts. But while fighting fires requires courage, does serving cheeseburgers? A brave Rob Csernyik ponders the issue, and finds a good replacement word to use.
Five things elsewhere that made us smarter
Four centuries and counting. Whether Americans wish to admit it or not, the US continues to be shaped by the legacy of its slave trade, which began in 1619. In a special issue, the New York Times Magazine challenges readers to reframe their understanding of history by considering that year the start of the nation. The project sheds light on today’s most pressing issues, among them education and health care.
On the record. Last year Facebook, amid pressure from its privacy scandals, gave users an option to download their data. For Katie Day Good, an active user for 15 years, that wasn’t good enough. She wanted to print it all out as well. As she explains in Slate, the resulting tome—comprising more than 2,700 double-sided pages—feels somewhat empowering. It also includes unsettling sections, including a 116-page roster of companies that used her data to try to sell her things.
Hard-to-break habit. With Washington and Beijing locked in a trade war, companies are looking to Southeast Asia, Mexico, and elsewhere to manufacture parts. Shifting production isn’t easy. For the Wall Street Journal, Niharika Mandhana considers the case of Vietnam, which seems promising but is already seeing labor shortages and clogged ports. It lacks the specialized supply chains found in China. As one observer notes, “there is no ready-made solution in Vietnam.”
Vilification busters. Many eco-conscious consumers look for labels indicating that a food item is free of palm oil, the production of which has been tied to tropical deforestation. To counter this, an industry group backed by Malaysia’s biggest producers retains a PR firm that has also created campaigns for Big Tobacco and Big Oil. For Reuters, A. Ananthalakshmi and Emily Chow report on the consultancy’s strategies, which include using small farmers as “messengers” in seemingly grassroots initiatives.
Calendar cacophony. Did you forget to celebrate National Fajita Day this week? Don’t worry: National Cheese Toast Day is around the corner. If you’ve sensed that the number of such days is increasing—and it’s hard to miss them trending on social media—you’re not alone. For the Atlantic, James Hamblin asks why millions of people are so eager to celebrate fake holidays created by corporations, and tries to register a day of his own.
Our best wishes for a relaxing but thought-filled weekend. Please send any news, comments, lava lamps, and cheese toast to email@example.com. Join the next chapter of Quartz by downloading our app and becoming a member. Today’s Weekend Brief was edited by Steve Mollman and John Mancini.