Companies are usually driven by maximization of profit. Increasingly, though, the social responsibility of companies is becoming a concern for societies and consumers alike. People enjoy buying from companies selling high-quality products at affordable prices, but which also have a positive impact in the community.
In Caritas in Veritate, Benedict XVI acknowledges this increased awareness of the need for greater social responsibility. Even if he is prudent not to embrace all ethical considerations currently informing the debate on corporate social responsibility, Benedict also says that “there is nevertheless a growing conviction that business management cannot concern itself only with the interests of the proprietors, but must also assume responsibility for all the other stakeholders who contribute to the life of the business: the workers, the clients, the suppliers of various elements of production, the community of reference” (40).
The Compendium of Catholic Social Doctrine tries to see business precisely through this communal prism: business cannot be considered only a “society of capital goods,” but also a “society of persons in which people participate in different ways and with specific responsibilities” (338). This draws from John Paul II’s thought: a firm would be “a community of persons who in various ways are endeavoring to satisfy their basic needs, and who form a particular group at the service of the whole of society” (Centesimus Annus 35).
Portugal boasts of one of the earliest examples of a company embracing this notion. Vista Alegre is the oldest porcelain brand in the Iberian Peninsula and has always been lauded for the quality of its products.
But how did this company come into being? More importantly, what has been its impact on society? Indeed, Vista Alegre completely transformed a small Portuguese town.
In 1812, a Portuguese businessman named José Ferreira Pinto Basto bought a property in the town of Ílhavo. He was not satisfied with merely buying a property, however. His entrepreneurial spirit pushed him to create a porcelain factory there.
It was not just entrepreneurship that drove him—he also sought to make a difference for the local population. After all, the local residents were mostly poor fishermen, accustomed to sailing to the far north in search of codfish.
At a time when the term “corporate social responsibility” did not even exist, Pinto Basto’s enterprise was already exceeding today’s prevailing understanding of the concept. The Compendium affirms that “Business owners and management must not limit themselves to taking into account only the economic objectives of the company, the criteria for economic efficiency and the proper care of ‘capital’ as the sum of the means of production. It is also their precise duty to respect concretely the human dignity of those who work within the company” (344).
That is exactly what Pinto Basto did.
Beside the factory, he built a Workers’ Neighborhood (“Bairro Operário”) to house the factory workers and their families. Whereas most factory owners at the time would just give their workers dormitory housing, Pinto Basto wanted his workers to live comfortably, with access to drinking water and sanitation. The monthly rent was only one day’s salary.
He also built a kindergarten and a school for the workers’ children, a health center, and a private fireman corps. Part of the property that Pinto Basto acquired became a community farm, where the workers could grow fresh fruit and vegetables. Payment for the produce was deducted from employees’ salaries at discounted prices.
But Pinto Basto and his descendants did not merely take care of their workers’ material needs. They also worked to address the workers’ spiritual and cultural needs. A very beautiful theater would eventually be built in the Workers’ Neighborhood, where they would host cultural activities, such as balls or movie nights. The workers even started a football team, the Sporting Club Vista Alegre.
Before founding his factory, Pinto Basto acquired the neighboring Chapel of Our Lady of the Penha of France. After the establishment of Vista Alegre, this chapel was used by the workers for religious worship.
The factory, chapel, theater, and farm were all part of a complex that flanked a very pleasant plaza that still exists today, and where one can have a very peaceful stroll.
Even though Vista Alegre no longer belongs to Pinto Basto’s descendants, social responsibility remains one of the brand’s concerns. This historical case-study is interesting because it demonstrates the far-reaching impact of a socially-conscious business. It showcases how there is no contradiction between social responsibility and product quality or a company’s success. This is precisely what the Compendium says:
“It is essential that within a business the legitimate pursuit of profit should be in harmony with the irrenounceable protection of the dignity of the people who work at different levels in the same company. These two goals are not in the least contrary to one another, since, on the one hand, it would not be realistic to try to guarantee the firm’s future without the production of useful goods and services and without making a profit, which is the fruit of the economic activity undertaken. On the other hand, allowing workers to develop themselves fosters increased productivity and efficiency in the very work undertaken. A business enterprise must be a community of solidarity, that is not closed within its own company interests” (340).
Let us hope that more and more companies will understand this and conduct their economic activity in a way that seeks not only profit, but the integral development of their workers.
A version of this article was first published on Pedro and Claire’s website, A Love Without Borders.
The other images were supplied by the authors.