The Business of Healing Capitalism

By Ian Doyle, co-author of Healing Capitalism

 

I’ve just come home from lunch with a friend of mine who is part of the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) research team. He confirmed so much of what my co-author, Jem Bendell, and I believe is happening, or rather not happening, when it comes to responsible business practice.

He shared that while working on a smart-grid contract with a large electricity distribution and energy management company, he was brought close to a legal battle over the confidentiality of research methodology, which he developed. More specifically, the very questions asked during the semi-structured interview process were to remain the property of the company in question, a company that extols its sustainable business practices. Now my purpose is not to enter a debate on property rights (or transparency for that matter) because there are people far better equipped to do so (see Ha Joon Chang, Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and The Secret History of Capitalism), but what this story highlights is a tragic situation whereby the façade of corporate responsibility (CR) is driven by the self-interest of business, rather than an examination of the social utility of business inline with broader societal goals. CR had become a domesticated management paradigm that did very little to facilitate collective awareness so that the company could embody the true sense of what responsibility means. In other words, CR was simply understood as another part of business, rather than an underlying philosophy that had a transformative agenda for business.

Since the beginning of the 21st century, we have seen a veritable corporate responsibility (CR) movement, as business attempts to respond to social and environmental issues. But the question running through our minds was, ‘what is the impact of this movement?’ And with good reason: since 2009, MIT Sloan Management Review in collaboration with Boston Consulting Group (BCG) has published its annual Sustainability and Innovation Global Executive Study on how business is addressing sustainability challenges. The 2013 findings suggest that although close to 90 percent of executives believe that sustainability-oriented strategies are essential for current and future competitive advantage, most are yet to fully embrace sustainability as a transformative business concept. The report concludes,

“Our findings are both encouraging and disconcerting. Although some companies are addressing important issues, we found a disconnect between thought and action on the part of many others. For example, nearly two-thirds of respondents rate social and environmental issues, such as pollution or employee health, as “significant” or “very significant” among their sustainability concerns. Yet only about 40% report that their organizations are largely addressing them. Even worse, only 10% say their companies fully tackle these issues.” [1]

These findings confirm our analysis of the key issues, events and trends in corporate responsibility for the 2006-2010 period: that CR had not been effective in helping business to better understand how it makes sense of its responsible business practice, nor had it created greater awareness on social and environmental issues. As such, we conclude in our new book Healing Capitalism that for contemporary CR to be truly transformative, business needs to think about its healing role in capitalism, one that will require collective action and the renewed role of government.

My co-author proposed the ‘healing’ theme as a way of framing how business organizations view their role in contributing to societal wellness. That is to say, did business understand its role as treating symptoms or did it want to be part of the cure? If the latter, did business contribute to supporting existing system structures that were unhelpful in the healing journey? If business did understand the possibility of playing a healing role, what would be the level of engagement? Would business act as an anti-inflammatory, a placebo, or a potential cure?

Because capitalism is the dominating economic system of our time, did business understand the implications of how such a system organizes our society and the fundamental features of that system. So it was helpful to ask two simple questions, what is capitalism and what are the systems that support its ideology?

Grammatically speaking, the suffix –ism in capitalism directs our attention to a belief in capital, and a system that creates and maintains capital. This naturally raises the question of, what is capital, which Jem has succinctly defined as follows,

“Something is ‘capital’ because of a specific power relationship: ‘capital’ is anything physical or virtual that someone or group can control sufficiently in order to extract an income or benefit from.”

It follows, says Bendell, that capitalism,

“is the belief that more and more resources should be managed by specific individuals or groups to generate incomes or yields, i.e. to be managed as capital. Therefore, to believe in capitalism is to believe that it is good to control bits of existence to extract revenues or yields from them, mostly through controlling how other people interact with that bit of existence. It is a belief in creating and using property.”

This understanding of capitalism facilitated our questioning. If property is such a key part of capitalism, had business reflected on what constitutes responsible ownership and how it could be a lever in addressing social issues? For instance, economic inequality is one of the most pressing social issues of our time yet the executives interviewed as part of the BCG survey did not identify it as such. This, in spite of the public outcry associated with the disproportionate earnings of executives compared to the average employee within large organizations. Our own study of economic inequality, which analyzed the best Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) social reports of leading companies supports this finding as no company was addressing the issue in a significant way. If CR is at the heart of a business’ strategy, then the management systems in place would at least identify economic inequality as an issue. By not identifying this issue, it is unlikely that a corporation would begin a reflection on the causes of inequality, either within the organization, or outside of it.

For instance, the money system, whereby banks issue money as debt with interest creates scarcity and a competitive process which guarantees that many will miss out. This process is not only undemocratic in that private banks control the issuance of money with very limited accountability, but it imposes a growth imperative through the consumption of resources to pay back exponentially increasing usury. So if business is going to be part of the cure, it is in the interest of business to be aware of the nature of the money system if it wants to play a role in building a more sustainable world. This is a key theme of the introduction to our book, but need not be repeated here in light of Katie Teague’s article Money and Life: A Renaissance Moment, (http://bit.ly/1k5huH1 ) outlining her documentary on the theme of money in the March edition of GreenMoney Journal.

In the same vein, the question of ownership raises the issue of accountability. If capitalism embraces the control of bits of existence by individuals and groups, what are the accountability mechanisms for those that have property privileges? It is clear that the role of government is essential for any healing to occur.

As such, our book presents a new vision and form of capitalism, one that will require collective action and a new role for government, as well as providing insights into how CR can shape the thinking that guides the social utility of business. Healing Capitalism is also a first in contemporary CR analysis in that it highlights how the CR movement has ignored one of the fundamental issues that impede progress towards sustainability – the money system, including the nature and issuance of money itself, and the damaging consequences of such a system. This in turn has radical implications for CR and SRI professionals alike and challenges current discourses on CR.

By differentiating between capital and money as we have, we have also invited readers into a reflection on their values. As a belief in capital is simply a mechanism to obtain more money, the question needs to be asked, ‘why, do I need this money?’ My friend’s story highlights a deplorable situation whereby language is appropriated to be transformed into property for the purposes of making money. When a company wants to own the very language that defines humanness for profit motives, our humanity is undermined. It is this kind of thinking that encouraged financial analysts to use the impending financial crisis as leverage for making money, rather than working with the relevant authorities to reduce the harmful impact on society. It is at this point that an organization can embrace the full meaning of healing. That is, is the level of social engagement of an organization symptomatic, or is it transformative by furthering life-giving existence. Such a reflection can be confrontational, but brings with it opportunity and dare I say hope.

Key to any transformational agenda will be an understanding of the aspirational nature of values. Becoming more aware of the systems around us isn’t enough. We also need to reflect on what those systems say about us and do they express the vision of the world that we want. In this light, healing capitalism may only be the start of a greater personal and collective transformation. Will business be part of the cure? Only time will heal all wounds.

Article by Ian Doyle, the General Manager of Lifeworth Consulting and is based in Grenoble, UK. Doyle is co-author of “Healing Capitalism: Five Years in the Life of Business, Finance and Corporate Responsibility” (May 2014, Greenleaf Publishing).

Article Note

[1]  David Kiron et al. ‘Sustainability’s Next Frontier: Walking to Talk on Sustainability Issues that Matter Most’, MIT Sloan Management Review. December 2013. Details at- http://bit.ly/1e17blJ

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