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Building a better world through business

American workers are struggling with the reduction of manufacturing jobs. Refugees are fleeing conflicts in the Middle East. Antarctica is melting before our eyes. Grim headlines fill our screens every day, and we need real, grounded solutions. We need businesses to work toward good, and now's the time.

While we face challenges in the United States, we're also seeing an increase in consumer and business confidence. The consumer confidence index in February reached its highest point since August 2001, which means consumers are feeling better about the economy.

Increased consumer confidence means consumers are willing to spend more. At the same time, consumers expect a lot more than goods and services from business. As consumers wrestle with societal challenges, there is an opportunity now more than ever for businesses to demonstrate, through their words and actions, the social value of capitalism.

Businesses do good in two ways: by performing effectively as businesses with a clear mission and through philanthropy and social programs.

From basic consumer necessities to highly specialized business services, businesses provide useful, needed products and services. They create opportunities for dignified work, distribute wealth and pay a return to their investors.

Businesses do good as a consequence of serving their own economic goals. For example, they employ people and help them become self-sufficient not because they're running a charity but because their workers add value to the businesses and help produce profit. This healthy exchange of work and money illustrates the value of capitalism to society.

Businesses' relationship with their customers is similar. For example, in lending money at a reasonable interest rate to mid-sized businesses, banks profit and simultaneously facilitate growth for their clients, which results in hiring more people, serving more customers, paying more taxes and contributing to economic growth and social stability. Banks join a sea of businesses that bring this kind of value.

I'm referring, of course, to ethical businesses. If businesses narrow-mindedly seek tax breaks, regulatory carve-outs or other special privileges, they will reinforce the negative views of their opponents. Instead, businesses should lobby for an end to policies that create barriers to growth which would benefit both themselves and their communities.

In addition, a business must stay focused in these challenging times. They should weigh every decision and public statement in light of their mission. This applies regardless of the challenge, whether financial crisis, natural disaster or divided political environment. Even a decision on whether to make a public statement should be grounded in mission.

This is never more important than for businesses that, in addition to earning profits, position themselves as social enterprises that support humanitarian causes.

Patagonia, for example, manufactures outdoor clothing and gear while ethically sourcing raw materials, donating millions to grassroots environmental organizations and supporting conservation efforts. The business sticks closely to its mission to "build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis."

Another example, Kiva, opened an office in Baltimore this year. Kiva facilitates microloans to small businesses that don't qualify for traditional financing, in Baltimore and around the world. Supporting these small businesses helps both the entrepreneurs as well as those they serve. Kiva co-founder Jessica Jackley spoke at Loyola University Maryland's "Building a Better World Through Business" event series earlier this week.

All this amounts to what Whole Foods co-founder John Mackey calls "conscious capitalism," an ideal that should be developed by schools. Good businesses start with good business education, which teaches students both traditional business operations and the importance of ethical leadership, strong communities and the relevance of business as a vital contributor to economic and societal well-being.

Kathleen Getz is dean of Loyola University Maryland's Sellinger School of Business and Management in Baltimore. Her email address is kgetz@loyola.edu.

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