What price a social conscience?


Today the hard copy Guardian headlines this article (http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2012/aug/17/zara-inditex-profits?INTCMP=SRCH) about Spanish retailer Inditex thus: “Jobs, a social conscience and big profits: what’s not to like about world’s biggest fashion store?” and notes “Profits up 30% for group run by billionaire recluse.”

The billionaire recluse in question is Amancio Ortega – named by Bloomberg as the “third richest man in the world” and sitting on a personal fortune of €37.5 billion

My instinctive assessment of anyone sitting on a personal fortune that size is that they can’t have much of a ‘social conscience’, but hey! it’s worth at least reading to the end of the article to find out what the Guardian business pages think a social conscience costs these days.

So – evidence of social conscience? No sign of one at all for most of the article, but 3 paragraphs from the end the piece notes that “it uses renewable energy sources at its main plant in Arteixo in Galicia” and also that “when it discovered a supplier in Brazil was sub-contracting to sweat shops, its response was as firm as it was quick”. What the quick firm response was, exactly, the article neglects to tell us.

The main claim to a “social conscience” comes from the work of the Armancio Ortega Foubdation. This, we are told, has “just dished out €11million to create 750 nursery school places in Galicia.

I’m as happy as anyone to hear of nursery places being created, but let’s understand what the scale of this largesse is:

€11million as a percentage of a personal fortune of €37.5billion is 0.029%. The equivalent ‘social conscience’ for a worker on an annual salary of £25,000 would be a donation to charity of £7.25*. I don’t denigrate that as a gesture, but really, there’s no justification for blowing Ortega’s trumpet.

If the bar for a headline-grabbing ‘social conscience’ is set so low, no wonder our unequal world is in such a mess.

(*Strictly speaking this assertion isn’t accurate as Ortega’s social conscience is expressed as a share of wealth rather than income, but I hope the scaling point comes across clearly. Ortega’s social conscience costs him peanuts.)



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