If there’s a sector of society that’s tied to the whipping post right now, it’s the business and financial community. And if that community has a poster boy, it’s surely insurance giant AIG, the archetypal symbol of corporate America getting it all as wrong as you can get it.
Here’s a company bankrupted by suspect practices that were fairly blindly pursued in a rapacious quest for profit at all costs. When taxpayers threw the firm an arguably unearned $170 billion lifeline, it repaid the generosity by sending executives on a series of lavish retreats and, more recently, rewarding its management with $165 million in bonuses, an act that so outraged the public that President Obama himself was forced into the fray.
It’s perhaps the final act in a corporate circus of arrogant mismanagement and greed-fueled excess that has pushed the economy to the brink and left the heavy reek of depression in the air. From AIG to Citibank, GM to Chrysler, the current financial imbroglio and the privilege it’s put on display has put Main Street in a hanging mood where big business is concerned.
At the same time, we’re facing a combination of environmental crises utterly without precedent. Our atmosphere is overheating. Our waters are fouled and diminishing. Our bodies are burdened by chemical toxins. Our food supply is in semi-permanent peril, and ecosystems all over are slipping into the past tense. Here, too, business bears much of the responsibility. No wonder Americans want to slap the shortest leash they can find on any industry within cuffing distance.
Yet despite these many failings and the raging animosity they’ve engendered, business remains the de facto organizing agent of life in the industrialized world. It is still our central operating system. It shapes much of the way we think, what and who we aspire to be, and the frameworks within which we live our lives. Business is the one force that affects virtually everything under the sun. The immense irony is that even as it has become the world’s chief organizing principle, this principle has created a world in which neither we nor our businesses can survive much longer.
While a handful of the corporate leaders have some inkling of this truth and some vague notion of the power behind it, almost no one understands the potential this power holds. For as much as business can royally screw things up, it’s also the only solution for the challenges we face in the time we have left to face them.
It won’t be governments, NGOs, religious organizations or individuals that save us. It will be business because business is the only institution with the strength, resources and reach needed to get a tough job quickly done. Business also transcends boundaries in a way no other element of modern life can match. Unlike those things that tend to divide (think religion, politics, nationalism, ethnicity), business maintains a certain neutrality, for within almost every company there exists almost every worldview and perspective all working in synchronicity toward common goals, whether inspired or dangerous.
The question before us is simply one of purpose: What will those goals be? What effect on the world do we seek to have?
Do we wish, like AIG, merely to pursue profit or do we seek to elevate ourselves and our enterprises to more memorable purposes? Do we look only to lift ourselves? Or do we want to help all people achieve their hopes and dreams?
Do we want to see our planet as a gold mine or a life support system as essential to our lives and livelihoods as it is to the companies that provide these things? Are we willing to play nice, stop gorging ourselves on money we’ll never live long enough to spend, and actually consider what we can do to create a world that is equitable and just?
Wise business leaders have begun to look past quarterly reports and see the better answers. They’re starting to understand that the time for evolution has come. Now we need to understand this: To get there we need more than corporate responsibility. We need corporate consciousness. This new mindset runs much deeper and sees sustainability not as an end but as one step on the journey to a regenerative state in which the activities of business actually serve to improve rather than merely maintain or ignore our social and environmental support systems.
This is what we must achieve, and ours is the generation that must achieve it. Anything less, and all that business has built will fade away. Not because it meant nothing or met failure but simply because the world could no longer bear the great weight it refused to yield.
Jeffrey Hollender is Chief Executive Officer of Seventh Generation, a manufacturer of green cleaners, laundry detergent, dishwashing soap, diapers, baby wipes, tampons, recycled toilet paper, tissues, and paper towels.