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Businesses have all faced a similar situation: should they pursue profit exclusively or should they risk reducing it by spending money to minimize or eliminate their products’ and services’ harmful effects?

It’s a scenario that has played out for decades. Union Carbide’s gas leak, which was blamed on lax maintenance, killed thousands in Bhopal, India. Love Canal affected the health of hundreds of families decades after Hooker Chemical stopped using it as a dumping site. And, in this century, ten thousand homes were affected by airborne lead related to battery recycling at an Exide plant in Los Angeles.

Ignorance is Not Bliss

It could be argued, of course, that industry managers at Bhopal and Love Canal weren’t aware of the consequences (or the remedies to prevent them). But the same can’t be said about the far more recent events in Los Angeles. The film Erin Brockovich made sure of that.

Yet even in the 1940s (Love Canal) and certainly by the 1960s (Bhopal), industrial scientists and engineers understood the potential for harm, and their corporate bosses were surely informed. Yet the costs of mitigation would have eaten into profits, and the executives were so far away from the affected areas that the situation was – probably – out of sight, out of mind.

Harm and the Government

That avoidance led to government intervention to reverse the damage. Now, however, government may be on the verge of abandoning its role as regulator (to prevent harm to the environment and, in situations like Wells Fargo’s fraudulently opened accounts, to individual consumers). If many of the people under consideration for Cabinet appointments in the new administration are confirmed, then there may well be changes that will jeopardize the health of the planet, of the individuals who inhabit it, and of the finances of ordinary citizens.

Without oversight, there is less motivation to “do the right thing.” And the right thing, of course, is a matter of opinion. If the right thing is to maximize profit in the belief that money isn’t everything (but it’s way ahead of whatever’s in second place), then that perspective redefines what is ethically acceptable.

Unoffocial Influence

If companies will face less regulatory scrutiny, they may still be confronted by consumer objections. That kind of pressure has resulted in improvements in overseas manufacturing facilities (Nike) and ingredients in processed foods. And, despite having recovered – somewhat – from the Great Recession, Americans remain sensitive to pocketbook issues and can influence the market by buying from companies whose ethics match their own.

If better quality air and water will keep them and their families free of disease, they’ll choose to buy from non-polluting companies or move out of states that condone them. If the food they eat might keep them healthier, they’ll purchase it… and hopefully reduce the need for expensive medical care.

From Conservative to Reactionary

Though the House of Representatives backed away from removing its own ethics watchdog, the fact that they attempted to abolish it and let the fox protect the hen house is revealing. It begs to understand whose behavior is affecting whose profits to benefit whose political or corporate survival… or whose desire to return to the unregulated era of the Robber Barons in the 19th Century.

What 21st Century Americans have that their forebears lacked is the ability to communicate instantly and globally. If that power can be used to support ethical behavior and reveal what’s unethical, then it might be more profitable to move to or remain on the side of commendable conduct.

Otherwise, Mark Twain might be more right than we’d like to admit: “It could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except Congress”… and the businesses that back members’ campaigns to be assured of business-friendly legislation. In America, of course, that’s something they have the right to do but, ethically, that doesn’t mean it’s right to do.

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