RURAL ROUTES/Margot Ford McMillen

Bottom-Line Feeders

What do these people have in common: Don Imus and the Sam Walton heirs.

One point for the obvious -- high-achieving folk. Nine points for the subtle: Suffering from bottom-line mentality.

As the understanding of economics has blossomed, our society has been increasingly willing to embrace financial profits as the measure, and I mean the only measure, of success. This has allowed all sorts of weird aberrations to gather weird subcultures around them and sell weird ideas for profit. These weird ideas range from outmoded racism and sexism to outmoded cheap consumerism.

The more hurtful the idea, the easier it is to gather a band of wounded and vengeful consumers. For Imus, it was the inarticulate radio listener looking for words to describe their frustrations. For the Waltons, it's the insecure shopping junkie. And, as indebtedness climbs in this nation, it's more and more easy to find frustration and insecurity.

Bottom-line mentality makes life pretty easy for a business. Sell more, spend less, export the environmental and social costs. This means you can send any kind of violent language over the public air waves, move a factory to a place with cheap labor, or expect taxpayers to pay for things you don't want to pay for. Examples are new roads and land fills, pollution clean-up, employee health costs.

If government was a watchdog, business would have to pay for these things. But government is big-business's lap dog. Besides these taxpayer boondoggles, there are taxpayer-financed subsidies for the bad actors. Subsidies include such things as government-financed employee training, and grants to build new facilities. Did you know the Bush administration is offering new nuclear power plant builders billion-dollar subsidies? And building a facility to take their radioactive waste? How far would a billion go if it were put to wind power or solar power to individual homes and businesses rather than a gigantic centralized power plant?

Fortunately, there are new paradigms emerging. A small number of entrepreneurs are developing business models that note all expenses, including social and environmental costs. This idea, sometimes called triple-bottom line accounting, or people, planet and profits, is a fledgling strategy, but it holds the promise that capitalism and democracy can survive without killing the planet.

It is very hard to count savings of land in acres or species in terms of number of animals, but some ideas are emerging. Carbon emissions, which create the greenhouse effect, can be counted and the good businesses can buy excess emissions from the bad. This new idea is turning into dollars for good businesses, paid according to the price offered at the Chicago Board of Trade.

The worst businesses pollute land, air and water, and abuse labor with impunity. A coal mining business, for example, may blast the tops off mountains and leave the refuse in the creeks, poisoning the environment for nature and for people. They can hire locals, who may be isolated from other jobs, for low wages and offer no health care, child care, educational benefits.

These practices may mean that the profits of the business are big, but the costs to taxpayers are high. If taxpayer costs are taken into account, as a matter of fact, the profits may be nonexistent unless there are substantially higher prices to consumers.

If the businesses are stopped from their abusive practices, they may have to declare bankruptcy, but the profits may have been diverted into management or stockholder pockets and, thus, there are no assets to recover for cleanup.

But there's hope.

Most triple-bottom-line businesses today are small businesses with owners that dare go up against the big guys. Independent movie theatres going head-to-head with Hollywood by showing indie films and serving locally-produced snacks. Independent property owners maintaining and improving their apartments for low-income people. Independent farms selling direct to the public and encouraging people to know what their farming practices are.

To make ends meet, the owners sink their life savings into their visions or borrow from friends and relatives or (like the polluters) look for grants and subsidies.

But, interestingly, the owners of these businesses report that after a few years of struggle, the social justice and environmental strategies pay off in financial profits. This is because, as the corporate responsibility story gets out and becomes visible, consumers can pick the good actors from the bad.

Apartment owners that maintain and improve their properties find out that tenants stay, so there are fewer vacant months to cover. When someone has to leave, new tenants are easier to find. And, when a property has been newly painted or landscaped, tenants do a better job of caring for it.

Retail businesses find that they develop customer loyalty that benefits them in unexpected ways. When the indie theatre and bakery in Columbia, Missouri need a paint job, they put out the call and loyal patrons show up to put in a day's work.

And, in contrast to big employers that treat employees like changeable widgets in large machines, triple-line employees develop pride and loyalty to their businesses. This means that the owners can promote people from within, finding folks that know the ropes and saving the expense of searches.

Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email

From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2007

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