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profit motive?

February 20, 2010

Should the profit motive be the overarching principle and primary value for corporations, for farmers, for businesses?  Does this result in better, cheaper goods for consumers, or does it end up hurting people, and in the case of farmers, animals?  I’ve been reading, Slow Food: the case for taste by Carlo Petrini, the founder of the international Slow Food movement.  The book caught my attention at the library with its opening description of a 1986 gathering of protesters armed with bowls of penne pasta against a McDonald’s opening at the Spanish Steps in Rome.

Here is an extended quote describing the scandal of a wine-maker whose only aim was maximizing profit (Slow Food, Columbia University Press, 2001, pg. 41,21):

In 1986 quantities of wine that had been diluted with methyl alcohol in order to “create” a cheap drink caused the deaths of 19 people and poisoned hundreds of others throughout northern Italy.  The epicenter of the earthquake was Narzole, a small town in the province of Cuneo where the Ciravegna firm, the one responsible for this criminal fraud, was located, and the shock waves spread through Piedmont first, and then through the rest of Italy and the world, causing exports to fall from 17 to 11 million hectoliters.  In hindsight (and even without it), such a radical break with bad old habits had to happen sooner or later.

The methanol scandal, like the more recent ones involving dioxin in chickens and mad cow disease, arose from an ancient cluster of vices–downscale patterns of consumption and the drive for profit without regard for quality–that the Italian wine industry has since overcome.  The calculation was shameful: methyl alcohol was cheap, and with it you could make wine that would sell at rock-bottom prices and still bring in a handsome profit.  Long before then the pioneers of Slow Food had begun to insist on ideas that would later become the guidelines of the movement, applicable to the whole wine and food industry: produce less and improve quality; consume less and pay a fair price (i.e., pay more) for quality.  As remedies go, this one was blindingly simple, and the methanol scandal made it appealing.  Obviously nothing justifies the loss of life; those who died were victims of a way of understanding agriculture and the work of country people with nothing but the rules of profit in mind.  Remembering them today should make us wary of all those sectors of agriculture that are still controlled by large-scale feed producers, with farmers reduced to the status of assembly-line workers who, on their own farms, do no more than serve their livestock feed mixtures developed in the laboratories of the giant producers, with no respect for the well-being of the animal or the consumer.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 20, 2010 1:33 pm

    Profit is a legitimate goal for business. But there are many other goals that can be sought. A culture is which profit is often the sole motive or always the primary motive is in decline.

    • February 20, 2010 6:56 pm

      I agree that profit is a legitimate goal for business, and in many cases it is necessary for the business to remain viable. The problem is when profit is the sole goal, it tends to reduce people to merely consumers.

      Thanks for pointing out that the business culture of profit as the sole motive is in decline. Perhaps that will help preserve the humanity of both the customers and the business workers, rather than reducing them to mechanistic consumers and producers, respectively.

  2. March 5, 2010 5:04 am

    I think that many people, myself included, cannot emotionally separate the fact that businesses don’t necessarily care about the consumer, rather they care about making money. Having said that, I think ethically profit should be 50-75% of the motive, because let’s face it, without money you can’t do much. However, with that remaining 25-50% of the motive, it should be in the interest of the people.
    Really interesting post! Very much enjoyed it.

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