The Business Covenant: An Ethics Fable

by Paul Klinkman

The Starter

We started out stumbling around with a bunch of ideas on a blog with comments. That's how things were then. We drew up a few vague principles, nothing much. Then the question was, who's going to draw up more principles?

Eventually we put up a wiki devoted to principles on a website called Business Covenant. I got this one person in Cleveland to help me. The wiki got a few hits.

Then the wiki got a clown, a troll on our site. He changed a few documents into mail-order Viagra advertisements. So then the wiki's brain trust had another conversation: how do we keep the trolls out? That was the question. So next we created two categories of members: fresh newbies and experienced people. Only the experienced people could change the documents. But then how do we attract and retain earnest newbies? And what makes experienced people experienced enough? We kept thinking about the problem.

The Farmer

Organic used to mean a lot more, before the government got its fat mitts on the word 'organic'. Now the big commercial guys come in, and they're sort of organic, but they hire sweatshop labor and their workers occasionally have horrible accidents and poisonings. Also they cut corners whenever they can. The big guys cheat because they know the government has cut back on the number of inspectors.

I don't want to be 'organic'. It costs a ton of money for the little guys to get certified, the same price that the big guys pay. It's not fair.

I joined the Business Covenant because they certify, and because they play fair with the little guy. It's part of their principles. They have the Smaller is Beautiful concept near the top of their precepts. If you're bigger, you have to work harder to get approved, and it costs progressively more if you're bigger. Also, they try extremely hard not to make the approval process onerous. They ask the critical questions and leave the chaff out, usually. They don't bug you. Also, they use audits instead of asking every question every time. If they know I'm clean and honest, they give me their approval and pretty much leave me alone. Then I can get back to farming, which takes a lot of time.

So, I have their little Covenant bug on my flyers and on my farmer's market poster. I think Business Covenant approval helps with sales.

The Hacker

Business Covenant looked like a pretty nice site. You can vote and post on it, and they let me register, and soon I started toying with the site. I posted a real smack message just for kicks, you know, used the f-bomb, a few real nasties. I didn't get any response, which was unfortunate. Four hours later my smack message got cancelled. So did my alias's registration.

Next time I registered as two different aliases. When one of my aliases posted a total flame, the other alias couldn't see the first alias's post. Apparently rank newbies can't see the flames of other newbies except for their own messages/flames, at least not until experienced people see the messages first and vote positively for them.

So I posted a half-decent message. As soon as other people voted for the good message, and it didn't do half bad in the voting, my other alias suddenly could see it.

So I put in a bunch of pretty good messages so I could have a high rating and be more experienced on the site, and then I dropped the big flame. Bingo! Well, for a little while. As my flame got voted down, it disappeared from sight, first from the newbies' sight, then from most participant's sight, and then it just got cut completely. Further, that one flame knocked my alias's lifetime score way back to beginner level. After that, my persona couldn't get his score up afterwards very much. Apparently one bad flame on this board outweighs dozens of good messages.

I tried a different hack. Maybe I could screw up other people's messages by voting early and often. So I started to log in as ten different new voters. The machine locked up after I logged in as the third new person. Maybe it just had a limit of new people per hour, or per day. It unlocked at random times to admit another newbie.

Eventually I got all ten of my aliases on, and they all voted zeroes on a fresh message that was previously rated 9 out of 10. After all 10 of my votes were cast, the target was only driven down to an 8. There must be a system that gives long-time voters full voting privileges but newbies and hackers only get tiny flyweight votes. Either that or the sum of all newbie votes can only constitute 10% of all votes.

By the next day my 10 voters were all traced to the same voting pattern or to the same IP address, and all were cancelled. From then on, creating new voters became a bit harder. About at this point I gave up the game and moved on, looking for easier prey.

The Crafter

Our craft group sells, oh, just a pile of things. For example, we make and sell little piggy magnets that go on refrigerators. Anyways, none of us are getting rich. We took a vote and decided to go with the Business Covenant because we like their policies. It just seemed like a good idea. We fit their mold, we often do charity work at church craft fairs.

The auditor called us up. She was really friendly. She asked where we get a few of our materials. When I mentioned the company that we got our paints from, she said it was a cover for an Indonesian producer and they were apparently a sweatshop. I said, well, can we use up what we have and then buy better stuff? She said that would be ok.

So that's what we did. We paid maybe 20% more for the new, better paint, and we got provisionally accredited. Oh and are we ever glad, it was the best move we ever made. Two years later, that sweatshop paint company got busted for distributing lead in its red paint.

We made a good faith effort to recall and replace all of our bad piggies from two years ago, and then we thanked our lucky stars that we weren't completely wiped out by bad paint.

The Greenwasher

I'm the marketing director for Greenie the Greengrocer. We always thought of ourselves as naturally green, because we sell green vegetables.

A Whole Foods moved in half a mile away. All of a sudden our sales started falling. We put in some organic bananas and boxes of natural snacks, but it didn't help. We went from thriving to barely profitable in about a year. Our ad agency tried to show how we were so much greener than Whole Foods, but the customers weren't buying that pitch. We were desperate.

That's when we looked into Business Covenant. They had moderately tough requirements for us, but not too bad. I mean, Greenie's isn't that big of a business. So, to make Level 1 of the Covenant we had to make nice to our labor, bring in a few more local foods, be more energy efficient, give a few things to the community, a whole bunch of little changes. We made it. Certification cost us a bit, but once we got Level 1 certified our business started picking up.

Business Covenant saved us. Next year we're moving up to meet their Level 1.5.

The Anonymous One

If my country's police knew about my activism, I?d lose my job and I'd be arrested. Fortunately, Business Covenant doesn't ask me for an ID, just my screen name and a password. Oh, and I try to put in a few good postings to keep my alias's lifetime ratings high.

The companies in my city can't join Business Covenant--it's an American organization. Also the owners are all so corrupt that they wouldn't want to join. But word gets around: we know who in our city is a little better and who's worse, and who causes injuries to customers, neighbors and workers. It seems like everybody in my city knows these things, probably because of the Internet and because sites like Business Covenant cover these issues impartially. So the owners are starting to do a song and dance, how they're going to clean up their factory wastes and not hire little kids. It's not much, but it's better than even two years ago when they wouldn't do anything at all to clean up their pollution.

My country has an entire section on Business Covenant now. I'll keep posting the latest dirt. I have to be careful in what I say though - never anything about my own job.

The Stockbroker

My brokerage firm asked me to take on the growing "socially responsible" territory of stock advising. I tried cold-calling hundreds of prospects, hung out in booths at socially responsible events, gave away pens, all sorts of stuff, promising people big profits down the road. I got a few prospects. They wanted to know my ethical standards in picking companies, and I had to admit that I didn't have any.

Business Covenant comes with a complete set of standards and a corporate verification process. I could sell clients on Business Covenant's verification system, and they told their friends about me.

After a year of leaning on Business Covenant I decided to firewall my sector of the brokerage firm's business, and get my sector to be Covenant compliant. I swore off a lot of sleazy stocks and I cleaned up the office.

I got my firm's big year-end bonus for outstanding stock selection. It seems that Business Covenant stocks tend to carry less risk, because they stay away from toxic chemicals that can trigger class-action lawsuits. Almost everyone in the brokerage got burned by fallout from a class-action suit one way or another, but not me.

Business has been good. I was given a junior account exec and a secretary. Now we're moving on to Level 2 Covenant certification, the big leagues. I have a feeling that the whole brokerage is now looking into minimal Covenant certification.

The Congressman

They know. When I vote, the whole Covenant crowd knows. Worse, it gets posted in every Covenant business in my district that a big vote is coming next week, and all the customers read about it, and they all write, they call or they e-mail my offices ahead of time.

Truth is, nobody in Washington really wants to vote for fair elections because it kills everybody's gravy train, but these days everybody's getting leaned on. I bet some kind of fair elections bill gets through.