The Business of Doing Good & Creative Self-Disruption

Updated: Dec 2, 2019

For my coursework in Ecological Economics with Tim Jackson, I attempted the hairy feat of discussing Sustainable Capitalism in our Globalized World. I had been so unsettled by the end of our lectures, thinking that perhaps by working to make the world's largest transnational corporations more "responsible" and "sustainable", it would just continue to fuel a faulty system. And so, foolishly (or bravely, you decide), I endeavored to write an essay on the topic of sustainable capitalism. At the end of it, I had more questions than I had answers, but I hope by sharing some of my thoughts from the assignment, I can engage you in this inquiry as well. While much of the below was taken from an academic paper, I hope I write in a less "academic" way, such that folks outside the academia and/or with no background in economics will be able to follow.


This is post 2 of 3 parts. You can read the complete series here: Part 1 on Capitalism and Freedom in a Globalized World, Part 2 on The Business of Doing Good & Creative Self-disruption, and Part 3 on 4 Ideas to Tame the Capitalist Beast.

In Part 1 of this series, I wrote about how perhaps it is not capitalism in its entirety that is flawed, but our assumption or acceptance of the refutable idea that humans are selfish beings, driven only by selfish interests, solely in the pursuit of pointless material gain.


In Part 2, I hope to shed light on just a few examples or proof that a new breed of business leaders and networks have emerged in recent decades with the desire to change the world for the better, and live in mindful coexistence with the planet's other inhabitants, human and non-human alike. We need different ways of doing business -- ways that uphold higher human values of empathy, honesty, community and connectedness.


The business of doing good


More than simply ceasing with the relentless pursuit of profit maximization, capitalists can channel that energy towards purpose maximization. And by this, I mean a real drive to create something of meaning and significance in this world; something that fights to uphold our moral obligation to protect the planet and the people who reside in it, regardless of class, color or creed; not simply a token mentioning of Purpose and the pursuit of it as some kind of motherhood statement in company missions and visions.


The Rise of Social Enterprises & B Corps


In the past 10-15 years especially, there has been a heightened interest in Social Enterprises, a model of capitalism that takes from the altruistic motives of non-profit organizations and combines it with business strategies to generate revenue to sustainably carry out the good work it does, whether it involves providing sustainable livelihood, poverty alleviation, education, health and nutrition, renewable energy, environmental conservation and so on.


The Ashoka Foundation was established in 1980 to identify and support the world's leading social entrepreneurs, and learn from the patterns in their innovations. Other enablers had also come into the scene with Echoing Green in 1991, the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship in 1996, the School for Social Entrepreneurs in 1997, and the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship in 1999 (Bornstein, 2005). I am mildly (or moderately) cynical about foundations named after individuals (Skoll and Schwab), but I am generally glad that these "philanthropists" have decided to redistribute a portion of their wealth to social enterprise incubation and acceleration.


Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, and his wife Hilde Schwab established the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship, and have included social entrepreneurs in cross-sectoral conversations with leaders in corporations, government, foundations and multilateral agencies at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos (Bornstein, 2005). The WEF has been criticized for being a highly exclusive, fossil fuel-wasting gathering that “serves to advance global business interests but does not sufficiently address social concerns” (Ellyat, 2018; Wearden, 2019; Worstall, 2016); but I sincerely hope that the purposeful, cause-driven energy and influence of social entrepreneurs will prevail in otherwise dry and dull discussions on economic growth and wealth accumulation that some corporate leaders in such an event might prioritize.


The first cohort of B Corps was also certified in 2007, and interest in certification has been on the rise since (Kim et al. via hbr.org, 2016). These corporations are driven to tackle society’s most pressing problems, redefine business success for a more inclusive and sustainable economy (Bcorporation.net, 2019). Other corporate structures or entities have also come about that are in the pursuit of more than just profit: cooperatives, not for profits, community interest companies, benefit corporations are all driven more by the common good (Raworth, 2017).


But are social enterprises, B corps, or other similar terms or buzzwords or phrases like “creating shared value”, “responsible business”, “sustainable capitalism”, “corporate social and environmental responsibility” just different ways of saying the same thing? Shouldn’t all businesses also exist to serve a greater purpose? Do we need to make these distinctions? In his imagining of a future, Porritt (2013) also envisioned that we wouldn’t call B corps “B corps” in 2050, as they would simply be the norm, the way business should be done.


Creative self-disruption


There is much that the “Davos class”, the rich and powerful corporate executives and other global leaders that gather at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, have to learn from social entrepreneurs, in terms of imbibing a greater sense of purpose in their companies; creating more sustainable materials, products, and business models; having dignified working conditions for their employees; building collaborative partnerships with their suppliers; and increasing transparency with their customers.


In the Philippines, earlier this year, Unilever launched their Love Beauty and Planet line of vegan, cruelty-free, sulfate-free hair beauty products in 100% recycled plastic (Cupin via rappler.com, 2019).

Image from Love Beauty Planet

Being that it is a big firm, and one associated with being one of the top corporate polluters of seas in the Philippines (Hallstrom, 2017), the product launch was met with mixed reviews from some online zero waste advocates questioning whether or not this was just a greenwashing tactic.


Adapt or die


When I saw the news about the launch, I was happy to see this transnational corporation (TNC) finally listening to conscious consumers. It seemed like they were putting more money where their mouth was (that, or perhaps it was also a matter of “adapt or die”). Here in the UK, and even in CES (Center for Environment & Sustainability, my department at the University of Surrey), Unilever seems to be a favorite example of some academics as stalwarts of Responsible Business. Around the same time they launched Love Beauty and Planet in the Philippines, I also saw that Unilever had decided to be one of the key partners of Loop, a subscription delivery platform for FMCG companies who want to give consumers a convenient, zero waste option to get their regular essentials of their products through a recurring delivery system (Peters via Fast Company, 2019). This improvement not only on their product but also on their programs / practices / packaging seemed like it gave more cause to love Unilever.


Chatting with one of my other environmental activist friends here in the UK, she questioned why Unilever would only do it with a new brand vs. existing products? Why limit the sulfate-free chemical properties and recycled packaging to one brand, a new one at that (and one that is way too obvious branding-wise with "Love Beauty Planet" as a name), to probably capture another market, she speculated. She had a point, but on the other hand, I was initially just glad they were trying, and I hypothesized that this was probably one way of showing shareholders that there is a market for such products. But again, her point was that it need not be marketed as such, and they could simply just change what they're doing with other brands or product lines.


About a month later, discussions about power imbalances and the value of smaller, local businesses during our Ecological Economics module also got me thinking: Should big corp even exist? Does helping TNCs become more purpose-driven, diplomatic free-market capitalists simply slow down the rapid change we need to see in how we produce, consume and distribute goods and services? Doesn’t it just perpetuate the centralization of power on TNCs, while rendering smaller players in developing countries more incapable of competing?

How must we redesign the system so as not to render all these attempts to “do better business” as futile attempts within a system that is still broken?

This is the big question. And while I attempt to provide some possible answers in the next post in this series, I am only beginning to scratch the surface. I hope you continue on in this inquiry with me. :)

This is post 2 of 3 parts. You can read the complete series here: Part 1 on Capitalism and Freedom in a Globalized World, Part 2 on The Business of Doing Good & Creative Self-disruption, and Part 3 on 4 Ideas to Tame the Capitalist Beast.

References:

  1. Bcorporation.net. (2019). Certified B Corporation. [online] Available at: https://bcorporation.net/

  2. Bornstein, D. (2005). How to Change the World: Social entrepreneurs and the power of new ideas. India: Penguin Books.

  3. Cupin, B. (2019). First impressions, prices: Eco-beauty brand Love Beauty and Planet. [online] Rappler.

  4. Ellyat, H. (2018). Is Davos nothing more than an overpriced, ineffective ‘talking shop’?. [online] CNBC.

  5. Hallstrom, J. (2017). Nestlé, Unilever, P&G among worst offenders for plastic pollution in Philippines in beach audit - Greenpeace International. [online] Greenpeace International.

  6. Jackson, T. (2017). Prosperity Without Growth. 2nd ed. Oxon: Routledge.

  7. Kim, S., Karlesky, M. J., Myers, C. G., and Schifeling, T. (2016) Why companies are becoming B corporations. [online] hbr.org

  8. Love Beauty and Planet. (2019). The Journey to Love Beauty and Planet. [online]

  9. Peters, A. (2019). A coalition of giant brands is about to change how we shop forever, with a new zero-waste platform. [online] Fast Company.

  10. Porritt, J. (2013). The World We Made. London: Phaidon Press Limited.

  11. Raworth, K. (2017). Doughnut Economics: Seven ways to think like a 21st-century economist. London: Random House Business Books, pp.13-23.

  12. Wearden, G. (2019). Davos 2019: do the global elite have the will to fix the world's problems? [online] The Guardian.

  13. Worstall, T. (2016). Bad Economics From The World Economic Forum At Davos. [online] Forbes.com.

©2018 by Jen Horn. Proudly created with Wix.com