Ben and Jerry's can say what it likes, but there is a darker side to corporate political correctness

The environmental, social and governance agenda is stifling risk taking and innovation in corporate Britain

Maybe it’s moral decrepitude on my part, but I struggle to get too worked up about the latest piece of virtue signalling by the ice cream maker, Ben and Jerry’s, or indeed much of the rest of today’s “cancel culture”, characterised by some as one of the great scourges of our age.

Intensely irritating and occasionally offensive though it can be, are there not more important things to worry about?

Round at Ben and Jerry’s, they must have been utterly delighted with the response. Their holier than thou series of tweets, urging the Home Secretary, Priti Patel, to show a little humanity over the plight of migrants, prompted a great outpouring of rage on social media, and even succeeded in making the front page of the Financial Times

As cynical, brand-boosting, marketing initiatives go, this one was a corker. The hypocrisy was quite breathtaking, coming from a mass produced international brand which in its time has been up there with the rest of them in flogging a product of questionable value, quality and pedigree.

But on the old marketing adage that all publicity is good publicity, it scarcely seemed to matter.  Seemingly everyone was talking about Ben and Jerry’s, and I’m willing to bet there would have been a consequent surge in sales. If you don’t agree with the tweets, take a hike; the brand isn’t aimed at you. 

Companies shouldn’t of course be making political statements. It’s none of their business. But rather than rising to the bait in spittle-flecked fury, Ms Patel’s supporters should instead have called the company’s bluff, and asked for its social media team’s ideas on how to deal with what is plainly an enormously complex issue. Needless to say, they would have had nothing constructive to offer.

Beyond the ability of social media to exaggerate grievances and causes far beyond their real importance, there is nothing particularly new in today’s rush to take offence. When I was at college back in the mid-1970s, even only mildly Right-wing, pro-business and geopolitical views routinely got shouted down at student union meetings.

Today we are even quicker to take offence, but these things tend to come in waves, and I suspect the faux outrage of contemporary political correctness won’t be of much lasting significance.

The growing pressure for environmental, social and governance conformity in the corporate world is, however, something we do very much need to start worrying about. There is a certain irony in our rush to condemn Ben and Jerry’s for criticising Ms Patel, when it is plurality of views that is the very basis of an open, democratic society. In trying to silence the ice cream maker, are we not ourselves guilty of the same cancel culture we criticise in others? All the same, the whole row is essentially just a lot of hot air.

The wider corporate social responsibility agenda is on the other hand becoming not just an intolerable, box ticking burden on companies that distracts them from their core business purpose, but a major deterrent to risk taking and innovation in the round. Chief executives can barely move these days for fear of breaching some code of practice or otherwise causing offence.

Again, there is nothing at all new about the idea that companies should behave in a socially and economically responsible way. Of course they should. The modern pursuit of shareholder value to the exclusion of all other considerations doesn’t seem to have served the wider economy particularly well.  Some of America’s greatest firms were built on answering to a much wider array of stakeholders.

In its famous “Credo”, crafted in the Forties, the medical devices and pharma company Johnson & Johnson states that its first responsibility is “to the patients, doctors and nurses, to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services”, and then to its employees, whose “diversity and dignity” must be respected above all other things, providing them with an “inclusive work environment where each person must be considered as an individual”. It could almost have been written for today’s world. 

Similarly with Henry Ford’s decision to pay $5 a day, then way above the going rate, not just as an inducement to skilled workers, but also so that they could afford to buy the products they were making. All truly sustainable business models are built on this wider sense of moral purpose and mass advancement.

Yet it is one thing for companies to set their own compass, quite another to have it forced on them by do-gooders and policymakers with little understanding of specific needs and purposes.

Difficult choices are about to confront virtually all firms as they approach the post-pandemic economy. Do they abandon the workforce, and any sense of collective economic responsibility, or do they take the long view, and trust in the notion that the lasting competitive advantage comes from expanding when everyone else is contracting?

Just double your workforce, Ben and Jerry’s, and as far as I am concerned, you can say what you like.