The Need for Deeper Roots: Making a Mission-Driven Case for Poverty-Related Issues in Business Education

by Michael Naughton, Ph. D. and Rachelle de la Cruz

Business, like all institutions, has a great capacity for good, but it also can exercise forms of exclusion, catering to one particular group at the expense of another. Cognizant of this very real tension, guiding social principles are needed to develop rather than instrumentalize humanity in business practices and principles that promote the common good…

This paper focuses specifically on how Catholic business schools might take into consideration the role of business education as it relates to the university’s larger mission, thereby incorporating multidimensional poverty-related issues (both material and spiritual poverty) into its curriculum. While the paper focuses only on the Catholic university and its related social tradition, future research could compare and contrast our work with other faith-based and non-faith universities….

As an institution, business plays a pivotal role in producing and giving a great number of people access to food, shelter, credit, clothing, communications, transportation, medicine, and so forth — the goods and services that promote our well-being. Underlying “good goods” is what the Catholic social tradition calls the “the universal destination of goods and the right to common use of them.”[1] By observing and anticipating society’s needs, businesses like Cargill, Bimbo, Kraft, Want Want, and Aldi, as well as thousands of small to medium-sized companies and farms, create efficient methods in production and distribution to significantly bring down the cost of food, allowing families to eat using a smaller percentage of their income. These businesses have served everyone, but have also demonstrated how some of these efficient and accessible goods can directly or indirectly produce negative externalities such as bland and unhealthful food options, widespread obesity, food deserts, soil erosion, and commoditization of labor, to name but a few. It becomes too easy for markets to overlook their just treatment and impose upon consumers a “poverty penalty” through higher prices, lower wages, inconvenient locations, inferior and unreliable products and services, deceptive advertising, exploitation of superfluous products, and the like.[2] Goods cannot be truly good when they violate the poor. The work of fair trade and environmentally friendly goods producers, microcredit enterprises, and other movements have sought to mitigate these problems, although they too have generated their own negative externalities.

These poverty and prosperity issues in relation to “good goods” raise significant concerns associated with the institutional discipline of marketing. What is marketing’s role in the development, promotion, pricing, distribution, and development of products and services, especially as it relates to economically disadvantaged consumers? A thoughtful examination of this question does not require a special course within a business curriculum, but can easily be integrated into most marketing courses. A Principles of Marketing course, for example, can be a place where the faculty engages and connects students with the reality of the economically marginalized, fostering “solidarity” with their plight.[3]

Marketing professors Gene Laczniak and Nicky Santos, SJ, have developed what they call the Integrative Justice Model (IJM) to help the marketing discipline see its underlying principles.[4] This method addresses common trappings when marketing, as a discipline, sees itself as only a “descriptive” or “value-free” inquiry. Because no education is value free, any notable professional education attempts to “profess” a set of principles that distinguishes its discipline. IJM aims to enhance fairness and equity in economic transactions, especially those involving impoverished consumers. The key principles of the IJM for ethically marketing to the impoverished are:

  1. Authentic engagement with impoverished consumers without exploitative intent.
  2. Co-creation of value with all customers, especially those who are impoverished or disadvantaged.
  3. Investment in future consumption without endangering the environment.
  4. Genuine interest representation of all stakeholders, particularly impoverished customers.
  5. Focus on long-term profit management rather than on short-term profit maximization.

Through a rudimentary foundation, the IJM opens the floor for marketing education to seriously engage poverty-related issues. Case studies show that when the IJM protocol engages poor and vulnerable markets, it produces a generation of customer empowerment, longer-term relationships, sustainable enterprises, and a fairer, more ethical marketplace. A Principles of Marketing course can utilize IJM to engage students in how the customers — and especially the poor — can to be regarded in economic exchanges, avoiding the advantage of information asymmetries and providing fairer exchange situations for vulnerable consumers. These are not marginal issues for marketing but ones that must be explicitly examined from its foundation….

Business school students undoubtedly need specialized forms of knowledge and technical skills, but they also need a tremendous amount of wisdom. This wisdom entails a rich dialogue of various disciplines, a human ecology, in which things are seen in relation to one another. Catholic business schools, along with other mission-driven universities that take the liberal arts seriously and foster interdisciplinary work, can lead the way in this important work.

[1] See St. John Paul II. Encyclical Letter Laborem exercens (1981), 14, (accessed April 8, 2015).

[2] See C.K. Prahalad, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education Inc., 2006), 11. See also Gene Laczniak and Patrick Murphy, “Distinctive Imperatives for Teaching Marketing in a Catholic Business School,” (accessed April 8, 2015).

[3] For ideas on a Principles of Marketing course, see Gene Laczniak and Patrick Murphy, ibid. See also Wolfgang Grassl on truth claims in marketing in “Marketing Concepts and Issues,” (accessed April 8, 2015).

[4] Gene Laczniak, Nicholas Santos, SJ, and Thomas Klein, “On the Nature of ‘Good’ Goods and the Ethical Role of Marketing.” In Poverty, Prosperity and the Purpose of Business, (accessed April 8, 2015). See also Nicholas Santos, SJ, and Gene Laczniak, “’Just Markets’ from the Perspective of Catholic Social Teaching,” Journal of Business Ethics 89 (2009): 29-38. Nicky Santos, SJ, and Gene Laczniak, “Marketing to the Poor: An Integrative Justice Model for Engaging Impoverished Market Segments,” Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 28(1): 3-15. Nicholas Santos and Gene R. Laczniak, “Marketing to the Base of the Pyramid: A Corporate Responsibility Approach with Case Inspired Strategies,” Business and Politics 14 (2012): 1.4.1.

Michael Naughton, Ph.D., is director, Center for Catholic Studies, and Koch Chair in Catholic Studies in the John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought, University of St. Thomas, Minnesota. Rachelle de la Cruz is research intern, Center for Catholic Studies, the John A. Ryan Institute for Catholic Social Thought, University of St. Thomas, Minnesota.

This piece is an excerpt of an article that will be published in the Journal of Catholic Higher Education, vol. 35, no. 2.  To learn more, please visit the JCHE site.

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