THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES AND A NEW BUSINESS IMPERATIVE
“It is the business of the benevolent man to seek to promote what is beneficial to the world and to eliminate what is harmful, and to provide a model for the world.” — Mozi (c. 470 — c. 391 BC, Tengzhou, China) on consequentialism.
We need to be that little boy who saw that, in reality, the Emperor was naked. We need to question even more than ever those long-accepted commercial and associated social mores as it becomes self-evident that they are in an unholy alliance based on exploitation of people and planet.
We can no longer hide behind the mantra: “It’s business, isn’t it?”
Exemplified for me recently by an offer to invest in tobacco shares with the message: “Smoking… It’s a bad habit. We all know that. But like most vices that’s no barrier to either starting smoking — or taking up the lucrative opportunities it provides.” Oh, that’s alright then. Can we also become suddenly myopic when presented with evidence of cruel and destructive products and business practices on the basis that they protect jobs and pensions?
Given what’s going on in the world, it’s really time now for a new commercial imperative.
The vital change of attitude is already happening but we need to keep up the pressure on the companies still refusing to relinquish their short-termist practices despite the obvious and potentially disastrous consequences, hiding behind carefully crafted CSR and other greenwashing. One very effective way to encourage a change of behaviour is by way of exemplars:
To show through the way we establish and manage our own enterprises that it is possible to have both a good head for business and a good heart for business.
A few years ago that notion would have been ridiculed: now it is becoming clear that it is not only possible but necessary.
Our commercial activities are no longer immune from normal human morality, from the need to care. The very word “economy”, (from the Greek oikonomia — steward — oikus: house + nomos: manage), hijacked by our financial institutions and their political apologists to mean maximising profit and chain-letter commerce, must now assume its original meaning.
Indeed, Aristotle held that in contemplating any endeavour, any project, one should first consider its possible impact on the community of which one is part. If the impact is negative, the enterprise should be altered or abandoned. Consequentialism divines the rightness or wrongness from the outcome of the act itself. And that community he was referring to is now a world-wide one.
Okay, so what does “good” business look like?
What can we do to ensure that our actions contribute to the welfare of this increasingly vulnerable habitat, the natural world that so loyally sustains us? We could do worse than adopt a quadruple bottom line approach to our business, ensuring that our activities are equally in harmony with and contribute positively to the spheres of finance, environment, society and — recently pioneered by the Welsh government — the needs of future generations.
And if we are smart, we will recognise the extraordinary gift of our technology and harness it well.
It has come at just the right moment in human evolution, when it can help us build a Values Revolution to follow and complement the Information Revolution. Basing our endeavours on our values can lead to generous business, responsible business, compassionate business. Business which has as its main aim the solving of the many problems that beset us in exchange for a reasonable return. Business based on the principles of consequentialism.
It’s already happening.
Veganism has caught on in the last few years and plant-based food is making significant inroads into our traditional methane emitting meat diet. Tomatoes are being grown in dry deserts, utilising free sun and sea water. Although some countries are struggling with this, renewable energy is slowly overtaking that generated by fossil fuels. Large parts of the world are far more aware now of what’s at stake if we don’t halt climate change and we are slowly adapting to using less plastic, to phasing out gas in favour of — perhaps — hydrogen, and changing over to hybrid and electric cars. The pandemic has demonstrated that for many of us, our work can also hybrid, reducing travel emissions and optimising our use of assets such as offices.
Between these incredible changes that are gradually becoming commonplace — when did you last pay for something in cash? — there are numerous gaps, unsolved issues, huge opportunities for imagination and innovation.
These gaps are rapidly being filled in; witness some of the extraordinarily clever solutions emerging from our creative and scientific colleges, as young entrepreneurs grasp the challenge of protecting and shaping their own future.
And it’s no longer considered worthy — in the derogatory sense of the word — to do this stuff. Quite the opposite! It’s exciting! Carbon-hungry organisms are being painted on roofs to help clean the air. We’ll soon be 3-D printing our food! We are re-creating the old Aztec way of cultivating plants in water — hydroponics. And M&S are experimenting with tattooing avocados to eliminate plastic labelling.
Meanwhile the fruits of these amazing innovations are being shared more equitably: it seems we have replaced BOGOF with BOGO — “Buy one:give one” — with catering firms providing good, wholesome meals to schools in economically deprived areas every time you buy your lunchtime plant-based whopper.
So what’s in it for us apart from the excitement of harnessing imagination and technology, playing with our new techno toys?
A palpable sense of co-creating a more equitable, more enduring and less conflictual business imperative, one driven not by fear and its briefly antidotal counterpart greed, but by collaboration and a sharing of the riches we still have — and can create, inspired by a centuries-old concept of fairness and our responsibilities towards each other.
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