THE NEW GREEN: Conscious capitalism
Published: Thursday, February 6, 2014
Updated: Thursday, February 6, 2014 23:02
I never thought that I would be a capitalist. In high school and early college I was strongly anti-establishment, and I believed that consumerism and Big Business were the root cause of all of society’s ills. Over time, however, I discovered that many aspects of modernity that I have come to rely upon and enjoy are in fact direct products of industrialization and capitalism. So over winter break, the book “Conscious Capitalism,” by Whole Foods CEO John Mackey, caught my attention.
In the book, Mackey and Raj Sisodia present their argument for why capitalism, when performed with purpose, is the greatest force for promoting widespread human happiness and prosperity. They describe how the capitalism that we know today is not truly capitalism at all – in fact, in the foreword of the book, businessman Bill George eschews the term “conscious capitalism” altogether, explaining: “I consider it just capitalism, as it is the only authentic form of capitalism. Other forms of doing business, including ‘crony capitalism’, are simply inauthentic versions of the real thing.” The authors continue this assertion in their first chapter: “The myth that profit maximization is the sole purpose of business has done enormous damage to the reputation of capitalism and the legitimacy of business in society. We need to recapture the narrative and restore it to its true essence: that the purpose of business is to improve our lives and to create value for stakeholders.”
In fact, the need for businesses to pursue a “higher purpose” is one of the four tenets of conscious capitalism outlined in the book. The other three are: stakeholder integration, conscious leadership and conscious culture and management. Mackey and Sisodia make the interesting analogy that attaining profits is like attaining happiness: these treasures cannot be pursued directly, but they ensue as a natural byproduct of working toward a higher purpose. The authors dedicate an appendix at the end of the book to “the business case for Conscious Capitalism,” which presents evidence that businesses with a higher purpose actually perform better in the marketplace than their conventionally-run competitors.
The authors make many good points about the boons of capitalism. Although it is often deemed perilously sacrilegious for a liberal to approve of any aspect of industrialization, the fact is that poverty, disease and famine have dramatically decreased worldwide with the economic development of the past century.
Still, our form of capitalism is certainly in need of reform, and one important area that the authors focus on is the treatment of employees. They assert that conscious businesses naturally empower their “team members” through meaningful work, adequate compensation, and an engaging work environment in order to optimize innovation and productivity. They present evidence that under our current system, an increasing number of employees have become indifferent or even hostile towards their employers – but that the blame for this lies in poor management: “The absence of purpose results in work that is devoid of meaning and that therefore does not tap into our higher human capacities.”
Wrestling our current abstraction of capitalism into true conscious capitalism seems like an almost foolishly difficult goal. However, growing numbers of citizens are becoming disillusioned with our current business model that pursues profit at the expense of health, social services and overall quality of life. We may just be nearing the critical mass of support necessary to enact real and lasting business reform.