Consumers believe that someone holds businesses accountable and forces them to do the right thing. If there’s no customer, there’s no business, so it makes sense. But the late Milton Friedman argued more than 50 years ago that businesses have a single purpose: to increase profits. Don’t be fooled by corporate values and media-friendly CEOs; this hasn’t changed a single bit.
Doing right by shareholders or doing right by customers is a tough one. Who’s more important? With the chicken and egg, both opinions of who was there first are plausible. No one can hold anything against you if you side with one or the other. However, when higher profits are more important than the customers, tragedies happen. When companies cut corners, it suddenly becomes important for every single one of us.
The property manager of the Grenfell Tower in London was well aware of the building’s safety issues. But fixing them wouldn’t have returned anything to the shareholders, so why bother? The housing crisis in London is so massive that people are willing to pay to live in this shithole. There’s always someone who needs a roof over their head – with fire alarms or not.
I walk past the tower every day, because I live around the corner from it. It serves as a reminder for me that ethics should be at the core of every company, big or small.
It’s time for consumers to do right by themselves, if companies are not willing to. We should stop paying for what we don’t want more of in the world. Then, and only then, will companies prioritise customers over shareholders.