Gail Gallie on why businesses need to have empathy at their core

How the lack of empathy contributes to the destruction of our planet

Here we are, at the big 1-0!

To celebrate our 10th birthday, we created an awesome print magazine, but the stories were too good not to bring them to life online.

I have a love/hate relationship with business. I find it exhilarating and exciting knowing what can be done (making shoes made from marine-recovered plastic, for example, is thrilling!) But equally I am appalled by what actually is done, on a daily basis, in the name of “business.”

The dictionary defines empathy as: “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” It’s interesting to consider whether businesses in the modern world can actually “understand and share feelings.” Even more interesting to see that the definition of empathy contains a singular noun; “an-other,” when the businesses of today are vast and sprawling organizations with mind-numbingly complex supply chains and marketing operations. At any given point in the chain of production, the notion of considering the feelings of an individual becomes almost impossible. And yet we are a planet made up of seven billion “an-others” and if the businesses that are increasingly the life force of the planet are not able to act from a place of empathy then surely we are hurtling towards Armageddon even faster than Greta says?

The UN Ambassador for the Ocean, Peter Thompson, recently told me about the dramatic rise of “blue crime” in the seafood industry: an umbrella term for all manner of illegalities in the production of the food we all casually pick up from the supermarket freezer, or enjoy choosing from a menu when we dine out. Behind those innocent prawns lurk modern day slaves, trafficked humans who work the “ghost boats” that don’t officially exist. They overfish the groaning ocean and hand their catch over to the official boats, who can therefore avoid owning the nets that would prove their guilt. They in turn hand the fish over to a company who can claim they are only using official boats from within permitted fishing areas. 

Meanwhile, the poor ghost fisherman know too much. When they have exhausted their area of expertise, they’re often pushed overboard, never to return home. Hard to empathise with them when they’re never officially existed, right? Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) advocate Richard Curtis talks about how we must never forget the “simultaneity of the human experience.” In this case, in the same instant as you bite into a prawn sandwich, someone, somewhere may be going overboard. 

Every industry has these back stories, these empathy bypasses, be it child workers who sew on your suit buttons, slave labourers who polish your nails or suicidal phone assemblers that get you your upgrade in 24 hours. In these times when technology really allows us to know everything, we need to ensure empathy is added into the equation. If we don’t support each other, we all go down in the end.

The industries in which the worst empathy bypasses occur seem to correlate with those that are causing the most destruction to our planet: construction, food and fashion for example. They are all being carried out at a ferocious pace and often with a lack of regard or empathy for those required to sustain them, or for the planet that gave us life in the first place. The subsequent deterioration of Planet Earth feels like a bit of a massive “fuck you!” from Mother Nature: “if you’re not going to play nicely together then you can’t play at all...”

Every citizen on this planet who has the luxury of empathy must use it. Every one of those lucky enough to have been born into a corner of the world where their basic needs are met without strife or compromise – and that is only 5% of our seven billion-strong population – must put that empathy into hyperdrive. The science is increasingly clear: we have around 10 years left to fix this mess we’ve created. 

Businesses have a unique, vital role to play within that 5%. They can affect their customers, their employees, their funders and their political leaders all at once. They must use their empathy to stir them into “business as unusual.”

Through the sea of regulatory frameworks – environmental, social, fiscal – each must navigate their own course, but if all are guided at least by a basic and uncompromising sense of empathy for every single person they touch, then we might have a chance of turning the mothership around.