Principles and profits

Departments - Editor's Column

September 2, 2014


Brian Taylor


At a dinner on a recent weekend, a discussion of the future of Hong Kong, where I have been living since 2012, arrived unexpectedly on the menu.

The assembled dinner guests included people born in the U.S., in Hong Kong and in the People’s Republic of China. Loyalty toward and fondness for the Beijing government varied widely among the guests, as did opinions toward Hong Kong organizers of civil disobedience movements designed to pressure Beijing into making meaningful multiparty elections available to Hong Kong residents.

A view expressed by one lifelong Hong Kong resident is common among some of the city’s middle-class residents: Open-election advocates should not engage in civil disobedience that hurts its banking, investment and real estate climate.

Like many Americans, this Hong Kong resident already viewed pending elections in terms of how it may affect his current and future income and ability to provide for his family. In political consulting, this idea often is called “pocketbook voting.”

Hong Kong bankers or traders, even if educated overseas and appreciative of free elections, may decide that these principles nonetheless take a back seat to the importance of their own and their family’s ability to make a living in the city of their birth.

Recyclers, more so than business owners and managers in other industries, face these same kinds of principles-versus-profits choices regularly.

They take part in an industry that is closely watched by nonprofits that view the goal of recycling materials to the highest value possible as a mission of great purpose. At the same time, these owners or managers of recycling companies are responsible for running a business with a profitable balance sheet.

Many recyclers I have interviewed over the years are quick to say that they founded or managed their companies based on the notion of “doing well while doing good.” It is an acknowledgment that both profitability and an altruistic purpose can co-exist: principles and profits rather than principles versus profits.

Downturns in the economy, narrow margins and shifting demand for secondary commodities have severely tested some recyclers’ altruistic intentions.

Business owners have no shortage of challenges in good times or bad, and recycling company owners can be forgiven for backing away from some of their voluntary altruistic principles when the bad times hit hard.

Principles, however, can be more difficult to abandon than profits, and many recyclers continue to treat their core commitment to doing good as equal in priority to doing well.