Recently, the book Het Grote Gevecht (“the great fight”) came out, describing the internal struggle within Unilever regarding acquisition for $143 billion by Kraft Heinz in February 2017. Then-CEO Paul Polman stated that Unilever should not be sold to Kraft-Heinz to please its shareholders, but that their company should be a “force for good”, and that this would sustain its leadership in the long-term. Since then, both in the Netherlands as well as internationally, there has been fierce debate about the moral purpose of companies, the “social contract” between companies and countries.
What does this mean?
More generally, morality seems to be becoming an important source of comparative advantage for companies in this era of ever-more critical and ethically conscious consumers and investors. As such, the survival and success of companies increasingly depends on their moral message and standpoints (though this still has not reached a critical existential level). Driving this is the growing sentiment of moral outrage, with vocal and tech-savvy individuals willing to take up the collective fight against larger organizations and structures (e.g. protesting against governments, businesses, the inadequacy of international institutions tackling climate change).
On a speculative note, these developments could be a sign that we are increasingly looking beyond our immediate individual interests and feel more responsibility for our planet, other people, local communities, our cultural heritage and history. In her book Egolutie (“egolution”), psychologist Susanne Piet compares this broader social and cultural transition of our times to the psychological development of a human being. She states that the lessons of psychological philosophy and spirituality are now helping us in our search for a greater and broader Good Life. As such, we are looking for practical wisdom to live a genuinely fulfilling life, rather than mere intelligence to satisfy our egoistic inclinations and individual preferences.