Compassion as a model for business

We need a new paradigm for business – one that’s based on compassion.


Back in the 1980s I worked on the promotion of the “Responsible Care Program” in Singapore. For its time this was quite revolutionary: it was a self-initiated program from the chemicals industry which aimed to demonstrate the sector’s commitment to people and planet.

I learned a number of lessons from this experience. Firstly, that companies – under scrutiny – could be persuaded to act in ways that improve society. Secondly, that a movement in one place could spark worldwide change. It was from the ideas that we and others were promoting that the “Dangerous and Poisonous Chemicals Act” emerged in Germany – an Act that was soon adopted the world over. That was only the starting point, and later on more were adopted. By the Millennium the principles had reached China – a nation that has often struggled to balance economic expansion with environmental protection and action on climate change.

I see this as the first stage in the development of socially-conscious business. The first because, ultimately, it is still based on the idea that first companies ought to make a profit and then they can feed back to society. This sits at the heart of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) – a theme very much in vogue even today.

We need companies which start with compassion as their motive.

Compassion, though, requires us to move beyond this. Rather than giving back what we’ve received, we need to give first. It should not be a case that companies which make profits can then be expected to repay society for what they’ve achieved. We need companies set up with the purpose of returning to the integrity of humanity and caring for our planet.

Neither can this work be simply about report filing and self-congratulating. It has to mean something. That means genuine and systemic change to the way businesses function and operate. It means making societal benefits the primary purpose for companies, not a nice-to-have. We have to move beyond profit to people, planet, and purpose.

To me this is all about balance. Allowing the profit-motive to be supreme is unbalanced: it tips the scales against humanity and the planet. We need to find a new role for business in which while, yes, it provides for its staff and investors, it also builds a healthier society. This is where my interest lies. Similarly at a personal level – we have to find that balance between our free will and independence and our duties and responsibilities to others; to love and be loved and to live and let live. In business it should be no different.

For that we need organizations like the GCC who can create public awareness of the benefits of compassion and from that to initiate a self motivation that companies will behave consciously from the inside out. The more people engaged in our work, the more persuasive we can be and the more likely it is that we will reconstruct the outdated notions of the role of business toward the principles of care, compassion, and cooperation.

Cheng Yi Heng is Asia Deputy Director of the International Ecological Development Union and member of the GCC Board. He is writing in a personal capacity.

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