Strategy – There’s kosher, and then there’s kosher

By Andy Savitz

Ethical Corporation • September 29, 2008

To succeed, the responsible business movement will need to redefine the terms of management thinking, argues Andy Savitz

For many Jews, the word “kosher” conveys deep meaning, associated with ideas of goodness, purity and quality. For me, it evokes memories of both of my grandmothers, for whom preparing and serving kosher food was a way of saying: “I love you, so eat.”

In the US, the multicultural melting pot, kosher has entered the vocabulary of millions of non-Jews as a synonym for legitimate, honest or trustworthy – a kind of verbal Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval. But the meanings of words can be fragile – as the current news from Pottsville, Iowa, demonstrates.

The nation’s largest producer of kosher meat, Agriprocessors, has been accused of violating a slew of environmental and safety laws including, most egregiously, those prohibiting child labour. State investigators identified 57 under-age workers at the company. The Iowa labour commissioner said he had never seen anything like it in his 30 years in the field: children as young as 13 reportedly wielding knives on the killing floor; some teenagers working 17-hour shifts, six days a week. Allegations have also been made of sexual harassment, short wages, favouritism and bribery in work assignments, inadequate safety practices, food contamination and environmental violations.

If even a fraction of the allegations are true, it is very sad state of affairs. Among other things, this episode should lay to rest the common notion that child labour is not a problem in the US. For Jews, it has rekindled a longstanding argument about the meaning of kosher.

Traditionalists say kosher means simply that a food product conforms to the technical requirements of kosher practice as defined by Jewish law, interpreted by rabbinic experts, and certified by specially designated organisations. Progressives argue kosher should embody a broader set of standards, closer to the secular meaning of the word, including healthy and safe workplace conditions, legal compliance and environmental protection, as well as more general concepts of corporate responsibility and fairness.

A third position has also emerged, something of a middle ground, called “hekhsher tzedek” (“justice certification” in Hebrew), which seeks to create a new kind of certification alongside the traditional kosher one. This God Housekeeping Seal (forgive me) would include standards for wages and benefits, worker safety, animal welfare and environmental protection. Food sourced in a way that did not meet these standards could still be described as kosher, provided it was prepared in line with ancient kosher dietary laws.

Separated by words

This is a big mistake. Words must evolve if our thinking and actions are to evolve. In striking down government-sanctioned racial segregation in 1954, the US Supreme Court observed that the phrase used to justify it, “separate but equal”, was a contradiction in terms. As the historic decision noted, “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”. In effect, the court declared that the word equal had to evolve to meet the demands of a higher standard of justice. Eventually, practically all Americans came to agree.

Relying on a separate vocabulary will almost always impede rather than hasten the transformation of mainstream thinking. We see this in the way the language and practice of corporate responsibility tend to separate it from mainstream business thinking. Corporate responsibility reports, for example, unintentionally provide an “alternative certification” separate from – and unequal to – the company’s financial reporting.

Companies that claim to want sustainability as part of their DNA, but rely on corporate responsibility reporting as the chief mechanism, are actually providing evidence that sustainability is not part of their daily business regimen, but rather a separate way of thinking.

The time is ripe to challenge the traditionalists by working towards one vocabulary, and one standard of measuring and reporting progress.

In time, this may entail redefining some basic business terms and concepts. Efforts are under way to modernise “gross national product”, an indicator created in the 1930s, to include unpaid childcare, the cost of environmental degradation or obesity. Some day the word “profit”, for example, may expand to include, at least by inference, some indication of how the profit was made. (We already have phrases like “blood diamonds” and “dirty gold” to describe illegitimate profits.) The simple word “trade” is developing a counterpart with ethical implications: fair trade. A change in thinking demands, or drives, a change in the very language of business.

Words shape thoughts; thoughts shape actions; and actions shape the future. Are profits made by exploiting workers, violating law or despoiling the environment kosher? It depends what you mean.

 

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