I’m taking a class called Operations Strategy this mini. I’ve already learned so much in just the first two weeks. I really like the professor, as he started off the first class with very compelling reasons on why ops strategy is important. He talked about how a good business without good operations behind it won’t succeed, and how a supply chain can get a company into a lot of trouble. Consider Apple’s issue with Foxconn a few years ago. How do you, as a huge company that’s concerned with selling iPhones in perfectly-branded Apple retail stores, ensure that your manufacturers are doing what they’re supposed to do? And who sets that standard of “supposed to do”? There are many countries where child labor is expected and accepted. Who sets the standard of what age is too young to work?
In America, we have a privileged view. We think that we can send our items overseas to be manufactured and let the social issues, environmental issues, and other problems be carried out there, and then receive the product back here in the US without even thinking about what has happened to get us our product. (Guilty as charged — I generally don’t care, or even think to care, about how my product reached me. I just know that it was cheap and I needed it).
In Operations Strategy we talked about an IKEA case where child labor was occurring; because of the hype that was brought up about it, IKEA needed to do something to reduce the PR concerns. However, is solving this problem for the sake of a PR issue (because some people don’t like kids working) actually helping? Or are they just doing it to make more money, because they look better for not having caused social problems? I really liked the way that IKEA approached the issue. At first, I didn’t have an issue with children working; I mean, I’d rather have them work than starve to death. And if my company doesn’t put them to work, there are plenty of other companies that will give them work — that’s business right? Economics? When there’s a desire, it will be filled by someone wanting to make money/get cheap labor. So why not have it be your company, where you could profit from it and then send the money back to help create schools or something for the country? (Yes, remember privileged white girl viewpoint.) Anyways, but IKEA decided that rather than just doing it for the sake of PR and removing themselves from having child labor (an almost impossible task when your business strategy is low-cost goods, and you use developing countries to keep prices low) was to actually impact the community around them. They started working with their manufacturers to learn why kids were working in the factories. What was the root cause? And after finding some issues, they decided to build a school at the factory (I hope I am remembering correctly from our class discussion…). So maybe you can’t totally eliminate child labor in a country such as this; but you can help still educate the children, which will in the long-term reduce low wages and child labor. Child labor reduces adult wages, because the market is more saturated with workers. I didn’t really think about how this just contributes to a cyclical way that the society works. Why not step in and try to change it? Sure, you might fail, but you might help some people while you’re at it.
What I’ve learned this past week is that businesses can be valuable initiators of change in the world. I probably should have known this before, but it really hit me this week. Many people think that only non-profits can do this. Although there are some good non-profits doing well, a majority of non-profits fail because donors decrease during downtimes, there is less accountability, and if you’re doing something because you’re interested in it, that doesn’t necessarily mean that other people want it or that it makes good sense to do it the way that you’re doing it. This is the reason that free-trade markets and the way that the US economy works so well; you have people who want something, and someone else who is willing to provide it. At a certain point, they will find a price that is beneficial for both parties. If the price is too low for the seller, they will hold out for someone else to purchase it at a higher price — if that is not an option, they will recognize that the originally buyer was the best price and sell it.
I went to Biola University and studied Business Administration at the Crowell School of Business. One of the big ideas that we learned was to use “Business as Ministry”: To have businesses that impact the world as missions. God has called some people to be linguists and be missionaries. God has called some people to use their business as their mission field. We each have different skills, and Biola tried enlighten people that they could use their specific talents to impact the world for the Lord in their specific field — ours: business. The goal is not to use business as an “undercover business” while you’re doing missions work; it’s to use business to bring about change in the world, to use business to spread the Gospel. So why did it just hit me now? I guess I’ve still been in the camp of people who don’t really think that I can change the world. How can I extinguish child labor from not happening (and do I really think that it’s important to do so?)? Really? I don’t think THAT highly of myself and my capabilities. Yet, at the same time, if God gave me a position to do that, I don’t know if I would! But, why not? There are some companies, like Nike, that are out there working to improve the way that they reduce waste, reduce the hazardous chemicals they use in products, and give fair wages. If you’re a good business, you will still have to figure out how to do this and make a profit (unlike non-profits). As a huge player in the field, Nike can provide leverage to get other companies to change their manufacturing practices. So if I was someone working at a company like this, I would be able to help possibly get the world to change.
Something else that got me thinking about privilege was the Unicef water project. “Millions of children lack clean water. How long can you go without something far less vital….your phone?” is their home page for the month of March. Giorgio Armani Fragrances and others have partnered with Unicef to donate one day of clean water for a child in need for every 10 minutes that you don’t touch your phone. It’s actually pretty cool technology, as they use your gyroscope to determine if you pick up the phone or use the screen to determine your “lack of use”. A great way to make people aware of what is happening in those 10 minutes of “need”. Can you imagine having to fetch water? Most of the people who spend all day getting water are young women. I’m so grateful that this wasn’t my job in my family growing up. They don’t get to go to school because of their taxing job requirements. But not playing with your phone is hard for us! I mean, it doesn’t compare to their “hard” but it’s not easy, when it’s a tool you’re used to using all day. Pretty cool project for a company to sponsor to get people aware of the issue, and actually to provide help to those without water.
Sometimes I think changing the world takes huge steps. It seems like giant changes are required. I am just one person. How can I do it? However, the beauty of community, the beauty of being an American, the beauty of all the privileges that I’ve been given, including wealth, education, and a job where I actually will be working at a company that influences and touches the lives of a majority of the world, means that I might be able to do something. Well, I can do something, if I’m willing to do so. It will not be easy. But I can use the skills I’ve been given to make this world better. To not exploit people, just because “that’s the way that it’s always been done”. What if it was your kid? What if it was your water supply that was getting polluted producing products for Americans? I’ve never been the “green” person, although I recycle pretty fastidiously and always try to conserve water, because I’m from SoCal and that’s what you do. And I’m marrying an environmental engineer who went to Berkeley; okay, so maybe I ended up becoming more “environmental” than I thought 😉
But anyways, I’ve been given a position in which I can do something about it; maybe not necessarily today, but in the way that I support purchases, I guess I could. It’s hard because we’re so removed from what’s going on. The only effect that I can think is that it “harms” me: it costs more oftentimes to buy responsibly. Think of the way that you can make a difference by having a good business. You can actually help the world in ways that you might have never thought possible. The impact can be large with such a large entity choosing to do good.