REVIEW: What Matters Most
Business Not As Usual
Trying to make big business more responsible

Reviewed by Constantine Markides


What Matters Most: How a small group of pioneers is teaching social responsibility to big business, and why big business is listening

Jeffrey Hollender and Stephen Fenichell, Basic Books, 2004; ISBN 0-7382-0902-3; 318 pp; $26.00 cloth.

September 28, 2004: Multinational corporations have clearly become the most powerful institutions on earth. It is also clear enough, even to big business enthusiasts, that such companies are often guilty of exploiting workers and degrading the environment, whether in First or Third World nations. What is less clear is how best to reduce the harm. Some argue for increased governmental regulation and stiffer penalties for corporate malfeasance. Others, especially businessmen, argue for trade liberalization and minimal bureaucratic interference. Jeffrey Hollender and Stephen Fenichell, co-authors of What Matters Most, are more interested in a third approach: convincing big business of the “need for a good reputation, a strong brand, and a reduced risk of liability, not just legal, but moral liability” (95).

It may sound pie-in-the-skyish (“Now be nice, Mr. Megacorporation”) but Hollender and Fenichell are not naïve about the profit-maximizing nature of multinationals. Hollender is the CEO of Seventh Generation, a company that makes household cleaning products based on sustainable principles, and he did not develop the company by holding hands with his employees and singing "We Are the World" (although a masseuse does show up each Thursday morning, compliments of Seventh Generation). He knows that ‘fiduciary responsibility’ to stockholders can drive businesses into a tooth-and-fang approach to moneymaking and that it is hard to disclose unsavory information to the public when no one is demanding transparency. At the same time, Seventh Generation is devoted to the sustainable principle behind its name, derived from the Great Law of the Iroquois Confederacy: “In our every deliberation we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations.” By holding to this principle, Seventh Generation has developed a loyal base of customers who want products free of petrochemicals and other toxins. In this light, sustainable business practices are not only commendable but also profitable.

Only in the epilogue does Hollender go into extensive detail about the rise of Seventh Generation. Instead, he and Fenichell devote the bulk of the book to demonstrating how other companies, especially the largest ones like Dow, Nike, McDonalds and Intel, are making small but important changes. In 1998 the CEO of Nike, Phil Knight, announced a six-step plan to improve labor conditions in its factories, including opening them to independent NGO monitors, raising the minimum age of workers, expanding worker education programs, and ensuring that all offshore factories meet U.S. Health and Safety Standards for indoor air quality. Nike factory conditions did subsequently improve. Of course, this did not stem from a sudden upwelling of humanitarianism in the Nike leadership. Activist groups like Global Exchange helped make public Nike’s factory conditions, and it was not long before the Nike swoosh became equated with sweatshops. Nike didn’t want the bad press, and so it made minor but significant changes. In the age of information, the public’s perception of a company is crucial to the company’s success. Transparency, accountability, and responsibility (all chapter titles, tellingly, in What Matters Most) may seem anathema to many CEOs, despite their rhetoric. But a tarnished corporate image will bode ill for that important asset known in business jargon as ‘brand equity,’ or in English, customer loyalty.

Hollender and Fenichell do not deny that greenwashing—the disinformation spread by a company to present the image that it is environmentally responsible—exists. It is not without reason, after all, that ‘greenwash’ is now listed in the Oxford English Dictionary. Nor do they gloss over corporate corruption and criminality: Shell’s complicity with a brutal Nigerian government in order to extract oil from the Ogoni region of the Niger Delta; Intel’s schmoozing with local and national government to evade environmental reviews of its toxic emissions; Union Carbide’s refusal to claim responsibility for the gas leak that killed thousands in Bhopal, India; Exxon-Mobil’s continuing effort to fight damage claims for the Valdez oil spill “to their everlasting dishonor” (93). But the authors also argue that in times where the public is more attuned to looming environmental catastrophe, companies are doing more than just spreading disinformation: Starbuck’s has introduced a fair trade and organic line into its coffees; McDonald’s Sweden branches recycle ninety-seven percent of their solid waste, and fifty percent of those stores run on sustainable energy; Nike uses three percent organic cotton in all of its materials (a small percentage but a large amount of the global organic cotton market) and is the only shoe brand to have eliminated all PVC from its sneakers.

Although Hollender and Fenichell seem to think these are all laudable steps taken by the titans of the corporate world, they acknowledge that many others committed to socially responsible business would disagree. For example, they quote Paul Hawken, author of The Ecology of Commerce (one of the holy books of sustainable business) on McDonald’s Corporate Social Responsibility Report:

“[The] Report presupposes that we can continue to have a global chain of restaurants that serves fried, sugary junk food produced by an agricultural system of monocultures, monopolies, standardization and destruction, and at the same time find a path to sustainability… [N]othing could be further from the idea of sustainability than McDonald’s Corp.” (102)

Another critic of the ‘greening of big business’ is Judy Wicks, a friend of Hollender's and owner of White Dog Café in Philadelphia. She sees big business as fundamentally opposed to social responsibility: when wealth and power are so concentrated, sustainability becomes a pipe dream.

The charm of What Matters Most is that it offers a mélange of ways to examine what is called ‘social corporate responsibility.’ Can there be anything positive in the fact that conglomerates are buying out the small independent organic companies? Gary Hirshberg, founder of organic yogurt company Stonyfield Farm, thinks so. In his view, selling 40 percent of Stonyfield to food conglomerate Group Danone was a way of ‘infecting’ them with organic products. Ben Cohen, on the other hand, regrets the decision—made under financial pressure—to sell Ben and Jerry’s to the giant Unilever. His advice to others who are considering selling off their independent companies: “Don’t do it!” At the end of the book (after a handy ‘Resources’ section that gives a comprehensive list of books to read and organizations to contact on sustainable business practices) is an appendix of “Who Owns Who.” An example from the appendix: Company—Ben and Jerry’s. Which Makes—Ice Cream. Now Owned by—Unilever. Which Produces—Lipton, Slim-Fast, Skippy, Dove Soap.

Although I may raise a cynical eyebrow at What Matters Most when I read, “Like Starbucks, Nike’s heart certainly appears to be in the right place,” I can also shrug a shoulder and keep reading. The writing is intelligent and refreshingly replete with a rainbow of perspectives. The authors are not out to knock corporate scoundrels and ideological scalawags off their pedestals (although they do make a few gleeful stabs at Milton Friedman’s economics) but rather to sing to the public and to big business—using non-toxic biodegradable dishwashing liquid for their guitar—that the times they are a-changin’.

Constantine Markides is a writer and former farmhand living in Portland, Maine. He can be reached at