Faith and the Social Responsibility of Business

Corporate social and environmental responsibility has become a major contemporary focus of business, government and community attention globally. With this increased attention and activity have come debates about corporate authenticity, legislative necessity, and the scope of appropriate strategies. Arguably our church communities have come rather late into engaging with these issues. At the same time, while corporations have been heavily involved both positively and negatively over several decades, they are often accused of accepting such responsibilities simply to win community approval and maintain their financial profits. However exceptions can be found.

Three leading British industrialists of the 19th and early 20thcenturies engaged in social and environmental responsibility programs for their factories, towns and communities that have been widely regarded as exemplars and benchmarks of outstanding corporate citizenship. These were Titus Salt, George Cadbury and William Hesketh Lever.

Titus Salt (1803-1876), a Victorian industrialist, was one of the most successful woollen mill owners in Bradford, England. His woollen mill and the model industrial village of Saltaire, championed environmentally sensitive mill production technology and improvements in his employees’ quality of life. His mill at Saltaire employed 3,500 people and his village housed 4,500 men, women and children and attracted visitors from around the world as a leading example of British industry. He was renowned as a major philanthropist, donating major gifts to a wide variety of organisations and charities.

George Cadbury (1839-1922) was the third son of John Cadbury who founded the family cocoa and chocolate firm. He built a new factory (Bournville) and its associated village and gardens on the outskirts of Birmingham. Here he pursued social welfare strategies for his workforce, including co-operative working practices, employee benefits, and community facilities. The village began with 200 houses and by 1904 housed a population of over 2,600 becoming a town planning showplace and influencing the first British Town Planning Act of 1909. By the 1980s the Bournville Village Trust boasted an estate of more than 7,000 houses.

William Hesketh Lever (1851-1925), a leading industrialist of the late Victorian period, manufactured Sunlight Soap. This product and its allied brands grew until at the time of Lever’s death, his firm Lever Bros. Ltd. was one of the largest British multinational corporations of its day boasting over 10,000 employees around the world. Lever is remembered for his strategies to improve his workers’ social welfare. He built the village of Port Sunlight as a model industrial community, adjacent to his factory. This he saw as a form of sharing corporate prosperity with its workers.

All three of these industrialists built worker housing and community facilities, hospitals, health clinics, schools, and provided community activities, health services, education, unemployment relief for both their workforces and the local surrounding community. What they did went way beyond government services and business practices of their day. Their social and environmental actions stood as a model for community and environmental initiative that attracted global attention.

Research has revealed that their personal philosophical and religious beliefs were primary drivers of their social and community commitment, which was delivered at considerable personal effort and cost. They discharged social accountability through action, reflecting their faith inspired sense of moral responsibility and their connecting their personal beliefs with action for the common good. Salt and Lever maintained a lifetime allegiance to the Congregational denomination, while the Cadbury family were devoted and practising Quakers. These philosophies and beliefs directly impacted upon their industrial practices and CSR strategies.

Salt was a devout Christian, an active member of the Congregational Church community and a radical social reformer. He wanted to socialise and ‘Christianise’ business and working relationships with a view to reproducing the family style of organisational relationships more characteristic of the days of non-mechanised hand labour work. Lever too was a Congregationalist who maintained a belief in self-help and drew on the Calvinistic principles of work, thrift and stewardship of life, for which a person would be held accountable to their Creator. The Cadbury family were devout Quakers reflecting and applying those beliefs and values throughout their working lives. They pursued employee welfare as a fundamental outworking of their religious convictions whereby they saw themselves as responsible for the physical and spiritual welfare of their employees, since their faith saw the seed of God in every human. So profound was the Quaker integration of their faith with their workplace reforms, that for example George Cadbury conducted a daily service to start the working day. For the Cadburys it was an article of faith that money should be earned and spent ethically and that the principles of Christian charity should guide all business and working transactions.  Deborah Cadbury’s book records that in respect for the Quaker tradition, 16,000 people stood in silence at George Cadbury’s funeral service and tributes poured in from thousands of people whose lives he had directly influenced.

These industrial pioneers demonstrated to the world that faith can move people, change societies, and make employee, community and environmental welfare absolutely integral to the conduct of business and community life.

Parker, LD 2014, ‘Corporate Social Accountability Through Action: Contemporary Insights from British Industrial Pioneers’, Accounting, Organizations and Society, vol. 39, no. 8, pp. 632-659.

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