Doing good is tough — As ‘The Good Place’ shows us

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Spend Matters welcomes this post from Peter Smith, procurement expert and author. 

I enjoyed watching the “Thought Leaders of the Future” session on Wednesday, during the Vizibl Collaborate 2021 event. It featured a group of young executives and entrepreneurs talking about how companies could be seen as attractive destinations to young people joining the workforce. As you would expect, sustainability and purpose was high on the agenda.

I’ve also loved binge-watching The Good Place in recent weeks, a US comedy that ran from 2016-20 and is in my view one of the best dozen comedy shows of my lifetime. (Binge-watching for me is one episode a day, I should say.)

Without giving away too many spoilers, I can say that the premise is around a group of people who die and find themselves in the afterlife — the “Good Place.” But by Series 3, we get into some pretty deep philosophical discussions about what it means as a human to “do good” in our lives on Earth. How might our lives be judged if there was a supreme being or a group of celestial accountants, assessing our every action and thought?

Examples are given, such as someone buying a tomato for lunch, or a bunch of roses for their grandmother. Once upon a time, the tomatoes or roses came from our own gardens, or maybe from a stall in the local market, where the grower would bring along what they had picked that morning.

But now, is buying and gifting those flowers for instance a good act? How far have the flowers been transported, and what were the emissions associated with that? Were fertilisers and chemicals used in the growing process? Maybe original forest or other habitats were cleared for the rose farm, or a rare species of newts or bats displaced for the tomato greenhouses?

Then we have the social issues. Are the workers paid properly, with good working conditions? Maybe modern slavery might even be involved. And does the firm pay its taxes? Does it support diversity internally and through its supply chain? Are the owners of the firm horrible old white billionaires with a history of sexually harassing young employees?

And of course all these questions apply not just to the grower, but also to any agents involved in the process, others in the supply chain (such as logistics and transportation firms) all the way through to the website where I saw the flowers advertised, the retailer, the payments firm that handles my credit card … and so on.

The Good Place points out that in our massively complex and inter-connected world, it is really difficult to do good all the time (or perhaps even any of the time). Even if we do our best to research matters, we run into problems. There’s a funny line in the show about what you get when you Google “big juicy natural tomatoes!”

There is no simple solution to this offered by the writers, but it takes the discussion into some interesting philosophical areas. One human, for instance, appears to live a life of perfectly good behaviour, service to others and sacrifice, but is still in danger of missing out on the Good Place because of the unintended consequences of his actions in a complex world.

Coming back to the Vizibl event discussion, we can see the real challenges here. They relate not just to how consumers can understand the effect of what they buy, and take into account their preferences when they assess options in terms of choosing products, services and suppliers, they are also relevant when we choose the organizations we want to work for. But as we see more competition for the brightest and best staff, the temptation will be for organizations to present themselves potentially in an unrealistically positive light.

That is why information and data is key in the world of corporate sustainability and purpose. We need to know as far as we can whether we are doing good or harm — whether these really are juicy, natural tomatoes, if you like. We will always have to rely on the honesty of organizations to some extent, but there also must be checks and balances, independent validation, investor and government oversight and so on.

That need explains why we’ve seen so much growth for young firms such as EcoVadis and giants such as Bloomberg getting into sustainability reporting in recent years. Just as Dun & Bradstreet carved out a market for independent, validated financial information a century ago, we’re seeing this market for sustainability and related information developing fast.

There are other angles to this too, not least the need to collaborate with suppliers and through supply chains in order to build more sustainable behavior. That’s the angle that Vizibl and others are taking in terms of their own technology products and platforms. But if one day we want the business equivalents of Eleanor and her crew (that’s a Good Place reference) to be able to genuinely understand the impact of their rose or tomato buying, we are going to need even better robust, up-to-date and insightful data and actionable information.

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