Towards responsible capitalism: 3 essential boardroom questions

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To what extent can we create products and services that enable humans to meet several of their fundamental needs at the same time? My suggestion is the more we do that, the more genuinely ethical and sustainable our organisational footprint is likely to be.

The pope’s recent challenge to the “unfettered pursuit of money”, and his call for a new economics, got me thinking about what questions I should be asking in the boardroom.

I rarely meet a business leader motivated by money alone, yet I see the privileging of “capital” taking centre place in every boardroom conversation.

Every one of us in leadership positions could ask better questions, rigorously and regularly, about what needs we serve when we act.

The work of Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef is useful here. He challenges the traditional economics based on the satisfaction of a limitless universe of “wants”. Instead he argues for a sharp focus on underlying human needs.

Max-Neef offers a list of the fundamental needs:

    • Freedom
    • Subsistence
    • Protection
    • Affection
    • Understanding
    • Participation
    • Leisure
    • Creation
    • Identity

 

We can use these in our boardroom conversations to check out our deeper intentions and impacts.

I’d say that the first test for organisational and political leaders is to ask to what extent does our activity genuinely serve these human needs?

So, let’s take a look at London store Selfridges’ decision to stop selling water in single-use plastic bottles, announced this week as part of the Project Ocean initiative. At one level you could say that selling water in bottles is fine: it addresses the most fundamental human need – subsistence.

But let’s apply some other tests from Max-Neef ’s thinking. He talks about needs being met by either “single satisfiers” or “synergistic satisfiers”. So buying a convenient disposable plastic bottle of water certainly meets the need for a drink in a one-off convenient way – meeting a single need.

However, when you use your own refillable bottle, or buy a refillable one at the shop, and fill it at the water fountain you are employing a “synergistic satisfier”.You get your water and you get to meet several other needs too – protection (of the earth), participation (in action for the planet), identity (this action says something about who you are), and so on….

So there’s a second test for leaders: to what extent can we create products and services that enable humans to meet several of their fundamental needs at the same time? My suggestion is the more we do that, the more genuinely ethical and sustainable our organisational footprint is likely to be.

But let’s go back to Project Ocean and those convenient throwaway bottles: isn’t it OK to have them anyhow, and to address that single human need for convenient water?

This is where we bring in one more level of Max-Neef ’s analysis. He also talks about destroyers and violators – these are products and activities that damage our ability to meet our fundamental needs, undermining the ability of ourselves or others to get needs met.

This then presents a third test: to what extent do our products act as destroyers or violators of fundamental needs? My view would be that we should all be asking this about our products, services and activities and making a clear statement about it in our corporate communications.

So, selling a convenient throw-away bottle meets one need, but does it actively violate others? I think it does – which is why Project Ocean makes sense. Filling the oceans with plastic debris undermines the fundamental needs of subsistence, protection and affection for both future human communities and some existing ones – and directly damages our participation in the “more than human” wider web of life.

I think the sustainability team at Selfridges deserves credit as a leader in its bold experiment.

It’s a first step of course. They now could continue to apply that thinking to everything they do – and that’s a great stepping off point into a bigger strategic question about responsible retail.

I have a hunch that if all of us as leaders employed the three tests I’ve suggested above in our boardroom conversations, we’d get more effective action on shifting our products and processes towards sustainable and ethical activity; towards a capitalism that serves the world in ways that creating a never ending spiral of “wants” can never address.

But what about investors and their hunger for monetary returns? The investors are us. It’s our cash, our pension funds, chasing the short-term dollar, in pursuit of the need for security and subsistence.

The “profit-above-all capitalism” that Pope Francis criticises is a violator: real security cannot come from work that damages life.

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Photo credit: James from Flickr

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