Why Good can be Bad. And how to make it better.
“We set ourselves up as arbiters of what is good when often our standards of goodness are driven by narrow interests, by what we want.”
-Robin Wall Kimmerer, Braiding Sweetgrass
“The West is deeply obsessed with feel-good-syndrome. It acts as a staunch protector of the values and rule-based global system. Literature is created to craft an image of self assumed guardianship, with campaigns run to spread the message of self assumed greatness.”
-Shakeel Ahmad Ramay, CEO of Asian Institute of Eco-civilisation Research and Development in Pakinstan
This is a post about our increasingly confused and confusing relationship to “Good” (Good Business / Good Products / Good Campaigns / Tech for Good / Design for Good / etc).
It’s important to note it’s not intended as a take down or to cancel anyone or anything. It is a thought I’ve been trying to work out in my own head for a while, and kind of waiting for someone else to work out for me. I haven’t found that work yet, so I’m going to give it a go.
We tend to see good and bad (like many things such as fast/slow, rich/poor, young/old, ugly/beautiful) as a binary oppositions [Fig.1]. Something is either good or bad, one or the other. There are many reasons for this that I won’t go into here, but the long and short of it is that the reality of most binary oppositions is far better positioned upon a post-structuralism spectrum - and as an appreciation of shades of grey [Fig.2].
Thinking specifically about “Good” in the context of business you might be beginning to get a sense of the problematics at hand. The phrase “Less bad isn’t good” is a concise criticism of where we currently seem to be in our adaptations and mitigations of both climate justice and social justice.
An element of the good/bad binary that I’m increasingly noticing is that pretty much anything that moves away from what we consider as “Bad” in business (and that occupies the grey space between good and bad) can now be labeled with any one of the numerous terms we associate with “Good” [Fig.3]. Any brand or product can self-label themselves with these terms, particularly within public relations spaces, without any degree of scrutiny or punity (a distinct failure of journalistic standards as I see it, but we won’t go into that for now).
Only this morning I have been reading an article that describes portable BBQ’s as “environmentally friendly” for example. The portable BBQ in this case is definitely less bad than a disposable BBQ, but to describe it as “friendly” to the environment is like describing Putin as being friendly to Ukraine.
And here lays the confusion.
The best way I’ve been able to make sense of all this is to consider it as a basic A to B journey. We (humanity) need to get to B as a safe and just space for our own survival and the survival of the majority of the more-than-human world, but we’re actively being led to confuse a simple shift from A1 to A2 as the achievement of B [Figs.4a/4b].
A2 is becoming a false equivalent for B. This analogy is in itself problematic in that getting from A to B is never going to be possible in a single overnight transition, and so getting to A2 is essential in order to finally get to B. So what’s the problem here?
The problem, as I see it, is that achieving B (“what good looks like” as they say in business) is going to be pretty radically different from where we are right now [Fig.5]. It’s going to require numerous sacrifices and huge behaviour and mindset changes.
In order to make this transition we’re going to need to make pretty radical changes, pretty quickly. In climate science circles this seems to be referred to as climate “adaptation and mitigation”. And so going back to our false equivalence problem of confusing A2 with B, a new issue presents itself: that of maladaptation [Fig.6]. If adaptation is the driving force of evolution then maladaptation is its hand brake.
Not all adaptations are advantageous to survival, those that aren’t get labeled maladaptations. And so, if survival is the name of the game, then a species that convinces itself it is acting in its best interests to survive (in the short-term) while recklessly risking its long-term survival is arguably an act of maladaptation right?
Continuing to destroy the very environments and resources we depend upon to survive (even if less so than previously) is more harmful than helpful by any rational logic.
Let’s try and unpack this a step further. Imagine a product that’s pretty bad for people and the planet, it’s got 5 Units of badness. Someone comes along and makes it less bad, and its now just 3 Units of Bad. Whichever way you look at it that’s still Net Bad though [Fig.7].
The nature of the systems we live within means that it’s nearly impossible to make any single thing entirely Net Positive. And so the danger, as I see it, is that we are at best wilfully avoiding this fact, at worst cynically hiding it.
We’re becoming obsessed with our new found ability to do good, and knowingly ignorant of its remaining associated bad [Fig.8]. And that’s where maladaptation comes in, those 3 Units of bad when amplified by the millions of units of production associated with economies of scale and on-demand consumption add up to more harm than help.
Which brings us to the question what exactly is Good and Bad? Shakespeare wrote in Hamlet “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.” He was probably onto something as a few centuries of theology and moral philosophy later objective definitions of good and bad are still an entirely subjective matter. For business, however, the three P’s of People, Planet, and Profit seem to currently be the go to ambition. Yet within these our current best efforts at good are still coupled with enabling bad.
I’ve left my most contentious thought for last. Within all of this talk of “getting to B” and “doing good” B-Corp has arguably become the singular vehicle for change and benchmark of choice. The “B” of B-Corp alludes to a plan B for business, and its strap line defines its associates as “a force for good”.
A seismic, but largely unnoticed, event happened to the B-Corp ideology in early 2022. The citation of B-Corp status is being increasingly used a validation of good, a signifier of meeting the very highest standards of environmental and social impact for good. And yet when innocent cited their own B-Corp status as a pseudo “get out of jail free” card [below] to the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) as a means to support the rejection of claims of greenwashing in a recent advertising campaign their B-Corp status seemingly held no legal or moral stature.
The ASA’s reasoning was stated as below;
“Although we acknowledged that Innocent were undertaking various actions which were aimed at reducing the environmental impact of their products, that did not demonstrate that their products had a net positive environmental impact over their full life cycles. We also noted that their drinks bottles included non-recycled plastic and that the extraction of raw materials and subsequent processing of those materials in order to produce the bottle would have a negative impact on the environment.”
The most important bit here is the inability to demonstrate “Net Positive” as condition of what a consumer might reasonably expect from a company claiming to “fix up the planet” and being “a force for good”. This is significant in materially addressing the post-structuralist, A2 isn’t B, 3 units of bad is still Net Bad, of how we’re still confusing less bad with good.
This is a reality of sustainability that we all need to confront and converse upon, rather than hide from or posture around.
The counter argument, as I anticipate it, is that it is B-Corp’s exact purpose to help business’s get from A to B. That “B” is coming, its on the horizon. My concern with this argument, and with betting the future of the entire planet upon it, is that at best its simply not happening quick enough, and that at worst its allowing cynical and performative actors to profit from a consumer/ societal/ political demand for change.
It also remains a distinct concern that B-Corp’s criteria are written entirely by, and for, the niche reality of Westernised-growth-orientated-neoliberal-economics and make no acknowledgement or co-authorships with the essential paradigms of indigenous knowledge, nor that of more-than-human realities.
The reality of climate justice is one in which the geochemistry of our planets atmosphere simply isn’t going to negotiate its terms just because we invented B-Corp’s and Patagonia. Empirical reality will make no concessions for our ideological realities.
The only conclusion I can come to is that we’ve got a pretty messed up definition of what “good” actually is. And in order to traverse the spectrum of bad to good, through the less bad and the nearly good, we first need to transparently and pragmatically address this messed up relationship to good. To do anything less is to go back to the same binary oppositions that got us here. Putting those guilty of greenwashing back into the “bad” basket will arguably take us backwards rather than forwards.
We simply need to get better at getting better, as I’ve argued before. We need to help the companies that are at least trying to be good holistically achieve good. We need to translate the current achievements that are seen as the highest bar into the lowest bar of legal regulatory standard. We need to stop hiding the remaining units of bad behind the feel good achievements of good.
“Do the best you can until you know better.
Then when you know better, do better.”
- Maya Angelou
We should know better than this by now.