Meeting the Needs of the World Through Goods and Services

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Useful goods and services

Successful businesses identify and seek to address genuine human needs at a level of excellence using a great deal of innovation, creativity and initiative. They produce what has been produced before but often—as in the arenas of medicine, communication, credit, food production, energy, and welfare provision —they invent entirely new ways of meeting human needs. And they incrementally improve their products and services, which, where they are genuinely good, improve the quality of people’s lives.

In contribution to the common good:1 As the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church puts it: “Businesses should be characterised by their capacity to serve the common good of society through the production of useful goods and services”.2 Business is inherently other-centred: a business joins together people’s gifts, talents, energies and skills to serve the needs of others. This in turn supports the development of the people who do the work. The tasks they perform in common bring forth the goods and services needed by a healthy community. “The business leader is not a speculator, but essentially an innovator. The speculator makes it his goal to maximise profit; for him, business is merely a means to an end, and that end is profit. For the speculator, building roads and establishing hospitals or schools is not the goal, but merely a means to the goal of maximum profit. It should be immediately clear that the speculator is not the model of business leader which the Church holds up as an agent and builder of the common good”.3 Rather, the Christian business leader serves the common good by creating goods that are truly good and services that truly serve. The goods and services that businesses produce should meet authentic human needs, so they include not only things with clear social value—such as lifesaving medical devices, microfinance, education, social investment, fair trade products, health care, or affordable housing—but also anything that genuinely contributes to human development and fulfilment, ranging from simple products, such as bolts, tables and fabrics, to complex systems such as waste removal, roads and transportation.

In 1931, Pope Pius XI wrote in his encyclical letter, Quadragesimo Anno , of the importance of businesses “producing really useful goods" for others.4 The good entrepreneur is one who “gives first thought to service and second thought to gain, who [. . .] employs workingmen for the creation of goods of true worth; who does not wrong them by demanding that they take part in the creation of futilities, or even harmful and evil things; who offers to the consumer nothing but u seful goods and services rather than, taking advantage of the latter’s inexperience or weakness, betrays him into spending his money for things he does not need, or that are not only useless but even injurious to him".5 Needs ought to be contrasted with mere wants, which might be characterised as those desires that are not essential to human well-being. In extreme cases, satisfying mere wants may even be detrimental to human well-being as, for example, in the sale of non-therapeutic drugs, pornography, gambling, violent video games, and other harmful products. This preoccupation with wants, often called “consumerism,” severs production and consumption from the common good and impedes the development of the person.6 Goods that are truly good serve the needs of consumers in a hierarchical order; the need for nutritious goods, for example, clearly outweights the wants of gambling entertainment. This is an objective order, which is why the production of goods and services must abide by truth instead of mere utility.

In solidarity with the poor: The production of goods and services has "a progressively expanding chain of solidarity", which raises several critical issues and opportunities for the business community.7 One is the importance of identifying, in a spirit of solidarity, the real needs of the poor and the vulnerable, including people with special needs, which are often overlooked in a marketplace driven by short-term profit.8 The Christian business leader is alert for opportunities to serve these neglected populations and sees this not only as a proper social responsibility but also as a great business opportunity. Developments in the field of the “bottom of the pyramid” products and services—such as microenterprises, microcredit, social enterprises, and social investment funds— have played an important role in addressing the needs of the poor. These innovations will not only help to lift people from extreme poverty but could also spark their creativity and entrepreneurship and contribute to launching a dynamic of development.9