Humble Bundle, Panera Cares, and T-Mobile show promise for corporate ethics

“Pay what you can for 10 games from Electronic Arts (EA), a $240 value”. My jaw literally dropped when I read the e-mail a year ago. Yes, partly because I was excited about the video games, but more because of the implications of such a charitable offer. A business (one of those big, non-personal, corporate things) was doing something that actually directly benefited me.

Humble Bundle has been offering deals like this since 2010, but it hadn’t caught my attention until August 2013 when they released the Humble Origins Bundle with EA, their first major publisher.

The EA bundle retailed at $240, but consumer could pay as little as $1 to unlock 6 of the 10 games–to unlock the remaining 4, consumers simply had to pay higher than the average ($5.16 when I bought it). The proceeds are then split between game developers and charities of the consumer’s choice (popular choices have included the American Red CrossChild’s Play, and Action Against Hunger).

Spirits uplifted, I also remembered hearing about how Panera Cares had just opened a store in Boston in January 2013. The logic behind it is the same as the Humble Bundle–pay what you can for high-quality products (food, in Panera Cares’ case). Their website describes the crux of their mission as “We will offer a dignified dining experience in an uplifting environment – without judgment – whether or not a person can pay”.

While Panera Cares only brings in about 70-75% of its expenses as revenues, it’s aiming to ultimately be self-sustaining. Though some customers are not able to pay the full “suggested price”, the management anticipates (and has since observed) that many customers will pay more than the “suggested price”, creating some sort of balance.

Okay, so charitable video game companies and restaurants. What’s next?

Last spring, T-Mobile decided to abolish phone contracts altogether and call bullshit on the phone industry. As it stood, customers were paying more per month to pay off “free phones” they received with their contracts. Everyone knew this was happening, fine. But, what we didn’t know was that the bill payments were never going down, not even after the phones had been more than paid off.

T-Mobile publicly called out other phone companies for being dishonest, apologized for being dishonest itself, and promised to discontinue any excessive billing. It also abolished all fees for going over allocated minutes, text messages, or data. Just a few weeks ago on June 18, T-Mobile announced that customers could now stream unlimited amounts of music without depleting any allocated data.

T-Mobile, Panera, and Humble Bundle have each embodied some form of conscious capitalism. But, as pleasantly surprised as I was by the charitable approaches these companies have taken, I couldn’t help but remember the clichéd but accurate “there is no such thing as a free lunch”, and that all of these organizations are primarily motivated by making money.

I certainly hesitate about promoting the idea that we should make decisions primarily off of what makes the most money, but after looking at what these companies have done, is that even wrong? It actually sounds pretty awesome if the best way for these companies to make money is by being charitable.

Atrocities motivated by money are still far too relevant and frequent for us to ignore (re: FIFA, Texaco/Chevron, Haliburton, etc.), and we should still remain apprehensive about any apparent corporate “benevolence”. But, with Humble Bundle, Panera, and T-Mobile taking lead, others will certainly follow–they’ll have to if they want to stay in business.

And a world where all, or even most, corporations follow in conscious capitalism sounds like a pretty good world to me.


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