Is Your Business Socially Useless or Worse?

Socially Useless Business

There are many things we can do with our careers. Some work can make the world better. These are socially good businesses. At the other end of the spectrum are socially destructive businesses that, regardless of profitability, bring net negative benefit to the world. In the middle, are socially useless businesses that are basically just a waste of human brainpower and effort. These are often zero sum games where someone only benefits from another’s loss. While it’s not always easy to clearly identify where a business lies on the continuum, I think it’s pretty safe to say that very little business currently falls on the social good side of the spectrum. Is your work making a difference?

The Problem of Progress

Almost everything we do is evaluated by profits and growth.

Oil spill – Great, that’s billions of dollars in clean up costs.
Plane crash – Fantastic! That means the sale of a new plane, as well as search and rescue costs which is a net benefit to the economy.
Natural disaster – Jackpot! Economic growth will be great this year.

Everything that doesn’t have an immediate economic benefit is grossly undervalued by our economic system. What’s the value of clean air, unpolluted food supplies, friendships, good parenting, safe communities and early childhood education? Unfortunately, not much in modern societies.

As John F. Kennedy said,

“The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.”

Socially Useless Endeavours

One of the clearest examples of a socially useless way to spend your time is gambling. It’s only possible to win if someone else loses. Spending hours a day in a casino or playing online poker doesn’t bring anything of value to the world. It’s a complete waste of human effort.

There are many other activities of similar dubious value. Creating niche websites, spamming Amazon with low quality ebooks, a lot of SEO, even marketing in general can often be considered socially useless.

Most of these types of activities are designed to “game the system” to get a temporary win against the competition. None of this is bringing something new and valuable to the world. It’s just about diverting traffic for the purpose of making money. Often, these entrepreneurs don’t care what they are selling, as long as they make money.

Socially Destructive Businesses

At the ugly end of the spectrum, there are entire industries that bring massive negative value to the world. The tobacco industry is one of the obvious examples. They’ve spent decades and billions of dollars to make smoking look glamorous and cool.

Back when it was still called propaganda, early marketers linked the suffragette movement to smoking to encourage women to smoke. They’ve marketed to children with cartoon-like logos and have deliberately made their products more addictive to increase sales.  When I was born, mothers were smoking while breast feeding their children in hospitals.

It wasn’t so long ago when doctors were hired to advertise cigarettes. While that seems unbelievable now, I don’t think it’s much different than all the harmful drugs the pharmaceutical industry is pushing on us now.

The global tobacco industry creates many billions of dollars of negative value in terms of early deaths and medical costs. I believe that it’s inevitable that other industries like fast food, soft drinks, children’s breakfast cereals and even the US interests promoting high fructose corn syrup derivatives will ultimately face similar lawsuits and condemnation as the US tobacco industry has.

Corporate Fraud

Even more frightening is the institutionalized corruption at executive levels in corporations.

The Forbes Wall Street Fine Tracker, which curiously stopped in 2004, tallied $4.5 billion in fines after just four years. That pales in comparison to the charges levied against financial firms in recent years.

While billions sound like lots of money, it’s important to remember that these fines typically equate to just a few of weeks of profits for large firms.

The HSBC $1.9b settlement for laundering Mexican drug cartel money, occurred in a year when they made $16.8 billion in profits. Of course, no criminal charges were laid against executives.

Here are some more examples:

We are All Guilty

I want to be clear that this is not some type of corporate or government conspiracy. These are just individuals acting in their own self interest. We all make similar decisions. We all want to minimize the taxes we pay and maximize our own income and comfort. Look at how many entrepreneurs in the startup and digital nomad communities are focusing on largely socially useless businesses.

Social Good Business

It’s not all bad. There is a growing movement of social entrepreneurs, non-profits and activists that actually care about making the world a better place.

While a thousand varieties of craft beer, gourmet hamburgers and bow ties might make us feel more sophisticated, I’m glad that we are starting to see a more productive form of innovation take hold.

Imagine what the world could accomplish towards water shortages, hunger, poverty, education, and environmental destruction if we could shift even 1% of our socially useless entrepreneurs to do something productive with their skills.

The shift is happening. The change is slow, but it’s accelerating. It just takes a maturity and awareness that most of the world doesn’t have yet.

We can criticize government, corporations and the 1% for their corruption and excess, however, I think it’s more constructive to start with ourselves. What are the total effects your actions are having on the planet? Is your career, your consumption and your contribution leaving a net positive or negative effect on the world?

It’s easy to justify any business or job, when profits are good. The real test is if you can do what’s right, even if it means less material possessions.

Is a great life measured by maximizing our bank accounts, consumption and waste? Unfortunately, judging by the way most of us live, we think the answer is yes. It usually takes death bed reflections to realize how much of our lives were wasted, and by then it’s too late.

Enjoy the Article?

Go ahead, you know you want to! :-)

Subscribe for articles and interviews about achieving your dreams and making a difference.

My name is John Bardos. My wife and I gave up our business, house and possessions in Japan to search for more meaning and fulfillment in our lives. We've discovered that a satisfying life is about rich experiences, quality relationships and meaningful contribution, NOT consumption.

7 Responses to Is Your Business Socially Useless or Worse?

  1. Cayleigh-May says:

    This is a timely post for me.

    My social utility is not currently at the level I would wish for but I think it’s also important to note that sometimes it takes time to get where one would like to be and in the mean time, as ugly as it is, there are things one might have to do (or end up doing) which are simply ‘for the money,’ to sustain oneself while one strives to get to the other side. Hopefully one can learn skills during this work that, combined with the learning that comes from out with work, will help one get there.

    For me, if I think continually (as opposed to frequently) of the social efficacy of my work, or lack thereof, I find it to be paralysing whereas if I turn up and do the work, I *hope* I can use the questionable method to propel me forward into a future where I hope my contribution will have a positive value.

    It’s only a partially relevant example, since I believe you’re talking more about bottom-up socially conscious work, but to take an extreme case, Bill Gates became the Bill Gates we know (and either revere or revile) before we had the Bill Gates Foundation.

    I also think an individual’s net contribution to life is fundamentally unknowable but nonetheless it’s worth following the educated guesses we can make as to what is a positive action.

    I think that’s my tuppence worth and thanks for the reminder to keep these questions in mind.

    • John says:

      Thanks for the great comment Cayleigh-May! (You have a great name also.)

      Actually, I think even the old Bill Gates created a lot of value for the world. He played a critical role in getting computers to be ubiquitous in our lives. As much as people may dislike Microsoft, I do consider that socially valuable work.

      I think there is a lot of socially beneficial work that might not have the appearance of saving the world. We need people to clean our schools, fix our water pipes, collect our taxes, sell us groceries, etc. They may not be saving children in Africa, but they still bring a lot of utility to the world.

      By socially useless businesses, I meant to focus more on the people who have never really thought about their own values or the contribution they can bring to the world. Far too many people think that acquiring money is the ultimate goal, in and of itself.

      Earning a living is important, but it’s only a means to afford a quality life and maximize your own contribution. Sacrificing friends, family, your health or the environment just to be able to acquire more money and possessions seem a foolish trade-off.

  2. John, I first read your post a few weeks ago from Italy. Having been around the “location independent” scene for over 20 years. Back then it was known as PT or “permanent tourist”, “perpetual traveler”, and was wrapped up in a whole libertarian philosophy. It seemed to attract the “sell anything to anybody for as much cash as possible and be damned the consequences”.

    I remember my first reaction to your post: “Blimey this guys balsey, he’s telling it like it is, and obviously doesn’t care about pleasing the other location independent ‘authorities’ out there… I did the same between 2002-2004. I used to be a 2nd tier IM guru (under a totally different name), and I simply walked away because of the disgusting attitudes pretty much all the ‘gurus’ had towards their customers and the world, and I was in on the weekly private conference calls so got to know them pretty well. ‘Know’ in the sense of hearing their inner most thoughts about marketing, where they revealed their true face.

    They had total and utter contempt, and they could not care less who they shat on or hurt, while all the time smiling into the camera saying how much they where there for their clients… Yeah right.

    So I respect you for telling it like it is. You are a rare breed, and I subscribe to all the top LI sites, and the crap I see them spew out just reminds me of the old days. Caveat emptor!

    I’m 50 this year, sold my first ebook in 2000 on personal sovereignty and privacy and haven’t looked back. I’ve also been officially LI for the past five years and see LI as a movement to guide people to their own path to freedom. And in a world where nation-states have gone predatory on their citizens I see it as the only realistic escape route.

    So thanks for ‘telling it like it is’. I hope to meet you down the trail sometime, and I suspect telling it like it is has sidelined you from many of the LI ‘authorities’. Believe me its worth it. You reclaim your heart and soul, while the others get sick (too much drugs and alcohol I suspect for many of them along with the biggest addiction; the fear of never having enough money, shiny wobbly things etc).

    The beauty of getting older is I’ve seen it all before, and from where I am standing… there aient nothing new from what I see. Same old crap being sold just different packaging… Onwards…

    • John says:

      Greetings Robin,

      Thanks for the comment.

      Yes, I don’t think I’m gaining too many friends in the LI community with posts like this. 🙂

      To be fair, it’s not just that community. It’s the whole startup mentality. Everything is about extracting as much profits as possible. Combined with out rampant consumerism, our values are so screwed up. Everyone is trying to sell us something and it’s generally overpriced and unnecessary to our lives.

      What really frustrates me is that so many people talk as if they are “making a difference”. They talk of revolutions, non-conformity, following your passion, living the dream etc. just to sell expensive info products that don’t really help.

      I don’t get it. Is that the best we can aspire to?

      Safe travels.

  3. Cheryl says:

    Hi John, this post really sits with me. I even work against the tobacco industry, albeit in a big bureaucracy. Even so, my work has only a small impact and is work that leaves me at the whims of management. I think a lot of businesses are wrapped around the bottom dollar. Even someone I know mentioned their friend living abroad and being successful selling e cigarettes (which also have carcinogens and are not even proven safe, but hey they are making lots of money and can live abroad doing so. So then, it does go back to the question is your business creating something good or causing harm. I am interested in a change in career and my only thoughts are working towards something that can create and influence health in a positive way. In business, I think it is important to surround yourself with those people that are trying to do something positive. Once your on that path, it seems more people appear that are making a conscious effort towards something good. Keep up the great posts John,

    • John says:

      Thanks Cheryl!

      I definitely agree with the benefits of surrounding yourself with the right people. It can be hard to do what we know is right when our family and friends are still caught in the consumer focused mindset. However, once you start making those friendships, it’s becomes easier to find more like-minded people.

      We’re only crazy until we find our people. 🙂

  4. TCI says:

    Unfortunately there is a trend on the wrong direction. Today nobody wants to be farmer or produce real goods. Farmers and producers get cornered by big supermarkets to a point that they are hanging in there with a thread. You will have this problem when working in an hedge fund or similar jobs offer you social status. More of our brightest and best will seek employment on those areas.

Leave a reply

Please enter your real name and not an alias. People like to talk to real people. I'd love to hear from you, but please comment to extend the conversation, not promote your business.

CommentLuv badge