Richard Turnbull: “Deeply Responsible Business” by Geoffrey Jones

Geoffrey Jones is Isidor Strauss Professor of Business History at Harvard Business School and a fellow of the Academy of International Business. He is the author of several books in the broad field of business ethics from a historical perspective.

The author offers us a fascinating and informative historical review of what he calls “deeply responsible business”, a term which provides the framework for the book but which is, perhaps, slightly overworked. 

Jones uses the term “deep responsibility” to characterize the set of values of those “who have seen business as a way of improving society, and even solving the world’s problems” (page 4). He distinguishes his approach from both those who seek to rewrite the rules of the game, as he puts it, and also from the now somewhat discredited approaches of corporate social responsibility (although I could offer some defence of philanthropy in this regard). His central thesis “is that deeply responsible business leaders are motivated by a set of values that shape their practice” (page 5). Some might find that defining characteristic rather weak, but I welcome it, because it enables a proper discussion of values-based business approaches in a realistic way, dealing with character, integrity, wisdom and spirituality, without embracing neo-Marxist opposition to the market economy per se. Indeed, Jones specifically contests any idea that a manager in a for-profit business could never be virtuous.

 The book brings several important and significant insights.  Its most noteworthy contribution is placing the quest for responsible business into a longer historical view. Jones comprehensively demonstrates that it is not simply a recent phenomenon, but one with a long history that has exercised business leaders since industrialisation. He also helpfully places “deeply responsible business” into a global context, reminding us of the pitfalls of a simply western focus.

The book consists of ten chapters divided into three parts. The first four chapters are encompassed together under the heading “A Question of Responsibility.” Here Jones looks at some significant historical figures in business leadership and history. He covers George Cadbury, Edward Filene (the Boston businessman and pioneer of credit unions), Robert Bosch and examples from India (J.N. Tata) and Japan (Shibusawa Eiichi). This is the strongest, most insightful and interesting part of the book.

The first two chapters tell gripping stories, one of which I am very familiar with, and the other of which I knew nothing about. The first chapter deals with the story of the entrepreneurial Quaker, George Cadbury, who together with his brother, Richard, pioneered a moral approach to business. As Jones argues, given “this emphasis on trust and honesty, it is not surprising that Quaker enterprises became some of the earliest examples of socially responsible business” (page 25). Jones notes the central role of spirituality (here and elsewhere in the book in various forms), the importance of housing, welfare and flourishing of the workforce, the challenges of raising capital and the ownership structure and Cadbury’s wider commitment to the community. Virtue, wisdom and spirituality lay at the heart.

The second chapter was less familiar territory for me but I was captivated by the story. Edward Filene, born in 1860, ran the family retail business in Boston with his brother, Lincoln, and pioneered many business practices. Among his ethical approaches, he introduced employee training, paid high wages whilst seeking to keep prices low and was actively concerned with not only employee welfare, but also employee involvement. He introduced health and illness insurance and banking services for employees. Although Filene did not share their faith perspective, there are several crosscurrents here with the Quakers.

Geoffrey Jones quotes Filene that the purpose of business was to:

“serve people, not merely to support the business man concerned in it. I was not an idealist. I wanted profits. I even had a strong preference for becoming rich. Nevertheless, this discovery of what business really is did strange things to me. It made me want to serve” (page 53).

Of real interest was the story of Filene’s involvement in the development and promotion of the credit union network, which is a much more significant feature of the American financial landscape than, for example, in the UK. He was involved in the 1914 launch of the Massachusetts Credit Union and helped draft a series of eight principles of good practice (page 64). He launched the Massachusetts Credit Union Association in 1921 to promote the idea of credit unions which spread rapidly, although there was always some tension between state and federal provision. Filene was elected the first president of the Credit Union National Association in 1935, with 3,600 credit unions and 750,000 members. Those numbers had grown to 7,500 retail credit unions with 92 million members by 2010.

Part 2, “Turbulence” begins with a fascinating chapter on the history of Harvard Business School and its second dean, Wallace Donham, who had called in 1927 for business leaders to adopt what he called a higher level of responsibility (a further and helpful reminder of placing these ideas in historical context). Further chapters deal with the desire to reduce wealth disparities as an aim of business leaders, consumerism and some other matters. In these chapters the book slightly loses its way. They are the least convincing part of the book and certainly, on occasion, fall into virtue-signalling around business leaders’ personal political objectives and detracted from the really significant insights of the book. In particular, chapter 9, entitled “Social Three-Folding”, seems quite disconnected.

In Part 3, Geoffrey Jones brings us back to more contemporary debates with three chapters dealing with the rise of value driven business right through to the issues around ESG (“environmental, social and governance”) and B Corps. He provides a balanced overview of the strengths and challenges of these movements. He is particularly helpful with his supportive critique of B Corps – though there was no mention of the UK’s B Corp movement, which has made some advances. 

In his conclusion Jones reminds us of the reason why his book makes a good and useful contribution:

“As we delved into the history of deep responsibility, we saw many examples of business leaders across time and space who combined making profits and pursuing positive social impact” (page 342).

Jones argues that deeply responsible business will select an industry which does no harm (though that might be easier to define in some instances than others), will engage with stakeholders with respect and humility and support communities. He notes that affecting “a single city might be less glamorous than “reimagining capitalism”, but it can greatly enhance the lives of generations of people” (page 345).

Jones should be congratulated for recognising that a values-based approach to business has a long and honourable history but is not a panacea and that there are weaknesses as well as strengths. In this he is a realist and enhances his overall arguments. He recognises the values which shape character, virtue and spirituality and the need to convince the mainstream of business rather than simply movements on the margin. This is a good book, which I recommend, albeit slightly disappointed with the middle chapters.


“Deeply Responsible Business,” by Geoffrey Jones was published in 2023 by Harvard University Press (ISBN: 978-0-674-91653-1). 431pp.

Richard%20Turnbullweb#1# (2)Dr Richard Turnbull is the Director of the Centre for Enterprise, Markets & Ethics (CEME). For more information about Richard please click here.