Quakers have been involved in business since the start of the movement in 17th century England. Most early Quakers were involved in small-scale local trade, as farmers, craftspeople and artisans.
As the Industrial Revolution unfolded in Britain in the 18th century, many Quakers poured their energies and talents into innovative business ventures. Like other nonconformists, they were barred from university, and most professions, so business was a natural outlet for their talents. They also often had ready access to advice and support, and start-up resources, within their community: Quakers had become a close-knit network of mutually supportive families, many of whom were involved in interconnected businesses.
Quakers sought enterprises that were non-military and also useful - the ‘innocent trades’. They pioneered the mass production of iron, and there were mining and metal production concerns, all central to the early Industrial Revolution. Alongside older occupations such as wool and cloth production, farming, craft and shop keeping, they made domestic china, cast iron utensils, engine and railway components, medicines, chocolate, and much else.
The Quaker network and associated business activity were not confined to Britain. Both were increasingly transatlantic. During the 17th and 18th centuries many British, Irish and German Quakers went to the new colonies along the eastern seaboard of North America, especially to Pennsylvania, where Penn’s Holy Experiment was under way. There was also considerable Quaker missionary work during this time, and sizable Quaker communities developed in Rhode Island, Nantucket and elsewhere, as well as Pennsylvania. Philadelphia merchants traded in both directions with their counterparts in Britain, in many sectors. Nurserymen traded in plants. The Nantucket whaling industry, providing fuel for lamps, was largely a Quaker enterprise.
From the beginning, Quakers brought new standards of truth and honesty to the conduct of business, putting into practice the testimony to Integrity and Truth. People realised they could trust Quakers with their money and in the 18th century this led to the rapid growth of Quaker banks such as Barclays and Lloyds. Quaker communities oversaw local Quaker businesses in order to maintain these standards and prevent over-indebtedness and bankruptcy. They also regulated the master-servant and employer-employee relationships in the interest of equality and fairness. People who fell short of these standards were disowned if they did not change their ways.
In the nineteenth century there were more changes. The US was independent, and expanding westwards, and new Quaker communities emerged. In Britain and the US opportunities in politics, academia and the professions were opening up to Quakers, and many took advantage of this. Some wealthy Quaker businessmen resisted community oversight, and left. There were some Quaker bank failures due to speculation and over-extension. Nevertheless several family businesses became enormous and thriving concerns – such as Clark’s shoes, Western Union, the chocolate manufacturers (Frys, Rowntrees, Cadburys). Quaker employers did much to improve the general living conditions of their employees, building houses, schools and infirmaries for their benefit. Some became involved in general issues of social justice (like the anti-slavery campaign), and in philanthropy.
By the 20th century, things had changed again. Changes in company law meant that businesses on both sides of the Atlantic were usually public companies rather than family concerns, and far fewer Quakers were involved. Some family wealth was channelled into Quaker philanthropy and there are several charitable trusts.
A large community of Friends Churches had begun to grow in East Africa, especially Kenya, at the turn of the century, and today many of them run small local businesses to generate funds for Quaker work. In Africa and elsewhere there are micro-credit schemes, community projects, and some initiatives focused on building business skills.
With a few exceptions, such as the international Scott Bader Commonwealth, most Quaker enterprises nowadays are small-scale. Work on business issues focuses on ethics and governance, (including ethical investment and business education) and QUNO work on the global business framework. QUNO Geneva has worked on Labour Standards with the International Labour Office, and helps to bring about a more even playing field in international trade negotiations at the World Trade Organisation, through capacity building work with developing country missions.