The Business of Planting Trees:
Under Whose Shade You Do Not Expect to Sit
by Danielle Dhillon, 2022 Business Fellow
I feel the hot sun on my skin. I see clothes made for little kids. I hear children screaming.
I’m in Disneyland and it’s May 2022. I’m celebrating my graduation from business school in the “happiest place on earth” when I see this Princess Jasmine Wish Come True onesie. In that moment I remember how excited I am about my soon-to-be-born little niece—my requested graduation gift from my sister—arriving in October. I’m excited about all the baby clothes I can now buy for her. All the experiences I’ll get to share with her like baking cookies, sharing souvenirs and stories with her from my travels and watching her grow.
“Too many people spend their lives being dutiful descendants instead of good ancestors,” Adam Grant tweeted1 earlier this year. “The responsibility of each generation is not to please their predecessors. It's to improve things for their offspring. It's more important to make your children proud than your parents proud.” This duty is not unfamiliar for an immigrant family (like mine), one in which one or both parents come to the United States seeking better lives for their children, their loved ones. My parents made the decision to immigrate from India and Malaysia to give me and my siblings, as well as the next generation, a chance for better opportunities. They left behind family, friends, and familiarity, and, in doing so, taught us to question traditions and accepted practices—in other words, the status quo.
If it is the responsibility of humanity to improve things for future generations, then it’s the responsibility of businesses to do the same because businesses are about people. They are run by people and for people, after all—true from the small mom-and-pop shop on the corner to the huge multinational corporation based in a major urban center. Business is about taking care of people: customers, employees, suppliers, investors, and even possible future clients. Business is about serving and addressing people’s needs and wants; it therefore has the capability to better life for human beings through economic mechanisms. But we all know that companies and people sometimes reverse this order (e.g., that humans serve businesses), which leads me to ask: why this inversion? What does responsible business look like? What are some possible pitfalls?
My starting point in these reflections was a simple truth: what matters is not merely generational progress but how improvement and innovation come. Echoing Immanuel Kant’s deontological approach, I believe people should be treated as ends-in-themselves and not merely means-to-ends. Business must recognize that the creation of a better world for future folks cannot be at the cost of people today. To care for people is to recognize the sanctity in a human being that is alive now and not 1000 years from now, 100 years from now, or even 9 months from now. To care about people is to recognize their individual and intrinsic dignity, to foster equality, and to address inequity. The Third Reich and its professional class accepted and assisted the genocide of innocent people in the name of doing what they thought was best for the future generations of Germans, for example. This disregard for the dignity of human beings malignantly seeped into the moral fabric of their own society, making them willing to sacrifice the physical and psychological wellbeing of their own people. Had these professionals recognized the sanctity and inherent dignity of human beings they could not have stripped away the basic rights of groups like the Jews, Roma and Sinti, homosexuals, intellectuals, and dissidents. Many corporations bought into this vision for the future during the Nazi period, echoing governmental propaganda, capitalizing on slave labor, maliciously neglecting working conditions, and more. What future can come of such an approach?
This problem has its roots in an intrinsic part of running a business: othering. There are, at the end of the day, people that companies care about (like customers and employees) and others that are not as important (like the employees of a competitor or a non-potential customer). This structure assigns value to people and ranks their needs in order of importance to the business. It creates a world where the most impoverished and vulnerable aren’t interesting to many businesses because their problems aren’t profitable enough to solve. Again, we can find a parallel in the Nazi period. During the process that led to the Holocaust, Jewish people as well as the Roma and Sinti and others were stripped of their rights and property, thereby made unappealing as customers. How could businesses have made more ethical choices if they didn’t think of certain groups of people as clients? Removing such people from the company’s bottom line made them that much easier to other and abuse. It’s not surprising, then, that the few business leaders who resisted the regime did so in a way that made economic sense: delaying or preventing deportations for their valuable Jewish employees.
Business is, of course, not a panacea. At most, business leaders could have frustrated or slowed down this genocide. They could not, by themselves, have prevented it. Businesses are subject to the systems within which they operate; they work based on incentives. National Socialism forced businesses to put society’s needs before individual profit, seriously affecting how business leaders felt they were able to react. But there’s something even scarier operative here: this prioritization sounds like a path we might want now, a way to fight, for example, climate change. The challenge, then, is keeping business leaders aware of the systems in which they operate, and the histories, memories, and traumas borne by the people they affect. They need to reflect on what the means to their profitability are, whether they care more about certain values than maximizing profit. And if so, do these goals contribute to a more dignified, equal, and equitable world, a question corporate titans during the Third Reich largely failed to address adequately.
I feel the hot sun on my skin. I see clothes made for little kids. This time I hear silence.
It’s a month later and I’m at Auschwitz. I’m with FAPSE in what I believe is the “most awful place on earth” when I step inside one of the endless, disorienting brick buildings in the main camp of Auschwitz I. My eyes adjust to the darkness as I turn the corner and see the faces of crying children captured in black-and-white photographs. I trace the rows of faces and stop at a wall of glass displaying children’s clothing and shoes. I notice a faded, worn red heart delicately hand-sewn into a little white dress and feel struck by the effort that went into its creation, the thought that may have gone into its purchase as a gift by an aunt or other relative. I can feel the love woven into the fabric that adorned this little girl when long ago she arrived at this place, and soon after was murdered in a gas chamber. I’m crying, broken by the weight of all the unlived lives, the never-to-pass experiences, by the loss of humanity. The cruelty done at the hands of other human beings overwhelms me. I struggle to digest the banality of the ruins left behind; they become painful to look at in all their horrible simplicity.
How do you make meaning out of something so meaningless, so awful? I continue to be disturbed by the economic engine of the concentration camp system, by the countless businesses and business leaders who profited from the forced labor, who stood to gain so much that they built many camps themselves. What if more business leaders had opted out? If enough had, maybe there would have been no capital for the crematoria. Maybe the war or the genocide wouldn’t have lasted as long or happened as they did. While business alone cannot prevent atrocity, it can be an organizing force, understanding the system in which it exists, opposing its own incentives to those offered it by unjust societies. It can decide what gets made, who gets paid, and whose needs are worthy to be addressed or ignored—that’s power. Surely the future depends on whether businesses can reconnect this power to the people they serve and their interpersonal feelings and relationships— love, compassion, friendship, empathy. These were needed then and are needed now.
The struggle for a better life is universal. The conditions under which that hope exists are not; they vary. I’ve left FASPE with the recognition that we must make space for both life’s greatest joys and worst tragedies. There is no easy way to overcome this paradox. Dandelions can, indeed, be both weeds and wishes; our fields can be places for growth and death. The struggle for a better life for future generations can be both good and bad. But, above all, I know one thing for certain—the end never justifies the means.
Danielle Dhillon was a 2022 FASPE Business Fellow. She is an associate at the Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation.
- Grant, Adam [@AdamMGrant] Twitter, 18 February 2022, twitter.com/adammgrant/status/1494708914922954759?lang=en.