“One of the first Indian words to make it into the English language was loot.”
William Dalrymple, a famed historian of the British Empire—and particularly, India’s role within it—shared this unsettling fact during a talk about his new book, The Anarchy, which explores the rise and fall of the British East India Company. Over the course of its 250+ years of strength, the company systematically looted India of its gold, jewels, and other vast sources of wealth, transforming the country from one of the world’s richest superpowers, to one of the most vulnerable nations by the time the British government occupied it. He quickly debunked a common misconception: that it was the British government that had the biggest impact on India. In fact, he said, it was a non-governmental organization—The British East India Company—that changed the country forever.
Within a few decades of its founding, The British East India Company became one of the fiercest, and most aggressive colonial powers in the world, with a strong presence across Asia, from the Middle East to China to India (Dalrymple). But unlike many of the other major colonizers at the time, the Company was not a country, but in fact, as its name suggests, a company—one of the first multinational corporations, with wealth and influence equaling, and even surpassing many countries. As Mr. Dalrymple said, the company set many unpleasant precedents for corporations to come, showing what the unrelenting search for profit, and disregard for humanity, can create (he described, for example, how the company would replace cannonballs with young Indian boys).
When we look at some of the most pressing challenges facing the world today, we can see Mr. Dalrymple’s statement playing out. Take this statistic: as of 2017, 100 of the largest companies on earth were responsible for 71% of total global greenhouse gas emissions (Riley). Or this one: According to UNICEF, 170 million children worldwide are currently engaged in child labor, largely due to the large-scale, “fast fashion” industry (Moulds). Whether today, or 300 years ago, multinational corporations can have negative global impacts that meet, and even surpass, the level of individual countries.
But as Dalrymple shared his cautionary tale, I couldn’t help but wonder—what is the potential for gigantic, profit-driven companies to create positive global impact?
Just as I started asking this question, Microsoft made a historic set of commitments: by 2030, they will be carbon negative (meaning they will remove more carbon from the atmosphere than they produce); by 2050, they will remove all historic carbon emissions (meaning they will remove every emission they have produced since their founding); and they will invest $1 billion in a climate innovation fund (meaning they will invest in innovation to create affordable carbon-removal technologies) (Smith). Microsoft is a classic example of a multinational behemoth—in fact, the combination of Microsoft with Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Alphabet surpasses the total economy of the United Kingdom (a fact which surely would have drawn praise, or more likely envy, from the British East India Company) (Associated Press). But at a time when action on climate change can feel frustratingly slow from global governments, Microsoft’s commitment offers more than a glimmer of hope: that large, wealthy, powerful corporations could just save us from the mess that large, wealthy, powerful corporations got us in.
I call these the “other” non-governmental organizations. As we know, NGOs exist to solve social and environmental problems; Impact is their bottom line, and it allows for them to pour all of their resources into solving the most intractable problems facing the world. Having worked at an NGO for 5 years, I believe deeply in the idea of a company existing to solve problems, without profit being their driver. Doing good for the sake of doing good, we can say. But with the “other” NGOs, the pursuit of profit, I’d argue, is actually what helps them do good at a massive scale (if they choose to).
For those of us in the social sector, the statement I just made might sound like sacrilege: “the pursuit of profit is what helps corporations do good at a massive scale.” But for more evidence, we can simply look to this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this January. Climate change—and the devastating impact it can have on communities, nature, and ultimately, the global economic order—was the hot topic (no pun intended), with companies making pledges and commitments to transform how they operate in order to change the trajectory we are currently on. It was a unique moment when passionate social activists (like teen Greta Thunberg) and famed scientists and conservationists (like Jane Goodall) came together with Fortune 500 CEOs with a shared goal and sense of purpose (The New York Times).
Of course I would like to believe that the corporate powers that be were fired up and inspired by the pure message of protecting nature and ensuring a healthy future for their children (a moral argument that generally is quite resonant); but, as Rachel Kyte, a climate leader and Dean of Tufts University’s Fletcher School, told Time Magazine, “I can remember when climate was talked about in a tent outside.” The polar bears and children’s futures needed securing then too. But this year—for the first time ever—the top 5 risks to the global economy, as identified by the World Economic Forum, are climate-related (Worland). And this makes all the difference.
Now, I see how this argument might at once come off as deeply naive and as deeply cynical. Am I proposing that big evil corporations will suddenly right their wrongs, and make the world a safer healthier place? Am I proposing that the only reason they’d be compelled to do that is money, not for the inherent value of making the world a safer, healthier place? Either viewpoint is too reductive, and misses out on the nuance that makes humans such an interesting, frustrating, and beautiful species. We are motivated by so many things—by personal gain; by urgency and crisis; by leaving our mark. We are motivated by collective responsibility; by the long view (when we have patience to stop and imagine it); by purpose. And when those motivations can come together and allow us to do well, and do good—as Microsoft, and the companies that made big pledges at Davos are hoping to do—I believe this is a recipe for sustained, sustainable progress.
We are also a species that grows and evolves. Microsoft is far from perfect, but when compared with the original multinational corporation—the British East India Company, who made their mark by looting India—their commitment to solving the problems that they’ve created show that we are trending in the right direction. We still have a long way to go, particularly for the many issues that still are reserved for the tents outside. To repair the world, the “other NGOs” have to acknowledge the way they’ve looted it, and make bold commitments to restore what was lost, and then follow through with those commitments. But in the cautionary tales of our past, we can find a blueprint for our future, and that makes me hopeful.
Associated Press. “Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Alphabet, and Microsoft Are Collectively Worth More Than the Entire Economy of the United Kingdom.” Inc.com, Inc., 27 Apr. 2018, www.inc.com/associated-press/mindblowing-facts-tech-industry-money-amazon-apple-microsoft-facebook-alphabet.html.
Dalrymple, William. “The East India Company: The Original Corporate Raiders | William Dalrymple.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 4 Mar. 2015, www.theguardian.com/world/2015/mar/04/east-india-company-original-corporate-raiders.
Moulds, Josephine. “Child Labour in the Fashion Supply Chain.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, labs.theguardian.com/unicef-child-labour.
The New York Times. “What Was Said at Davos on Climate Change.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 27 Jan. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/01/27/climate/davos-climate-change-solutions.html.
Riley, Tess. “Just 100 Companies Responsible for 71% of Global Emissions, Study Says.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 10 July 2017, www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2017/jul/10/100-fossil-fuel-companies-investors-responsible-71-global-emissions-cdp-study-climate-change.
Smith, Brad. “Microsoft Will Be Carbon Negative by 2030.” The Official Microsoft Blog, 28 Jan. 2020, blogs.microsoft.com/blog/2020/01/16/microsoft-will-be-carbon-negative-by-2030.
Worland, Justin. “How Davos Became a Climate Change Conference.” Time, Time, 27 Jan. 2020, time.com/5771889/davos-climate-change.