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Making Strides toward Greater Sustainability, but Is the System Flawed?

zarnett, brad, TSSSWhat Would Gandhi Do?

Companies are making admirable strides towards greater sustainability yet the question remains: Can these new and progressive companies thrive within a system that is fundamentally flawed?  Can capitalism in its current form support a new ecosystem of sustainable business?  What are the flaws of the current system and what systemic changes are necessary to usher in the era of Capitalism 2.0?  And perhaps most importantly, what would a sustainable society look like?

For 8 years I’ve been working in the sustainability movement and when I look back at our success I’m at best uncertain as to whether we’re making progress.  We’re good at measuring carbon and other impacts, finding eco-efficiencies, engaging at the c-suite level and giving awards to each other but are we really making the necessary changes that will lead us to a truly sustainable society?

After all, carbon levels keep rising (we just passed 400ppm), coal plants continue to be built, employee working conditions continue to be unsafe (e.g. Bangladesh factory collapse and fatal fire), conflict minerals continue to be mined, financial institutions “too big to fail” continue to exist, wealth concentration persists and even intensifies, species extinction is a daily reality, deforestation is rampant – is this the change we want to see?  Would Ghandi (“be the change”) be proud of us?

It’s interesting to reflect on the quote often attributed to Gandhi, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”  In fact, there is no documented evidence Gandhi ever phrased his thoughts so simplistically.  He is quoted as saying, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him.”  Ghandi did tell us that personal and social transformations go hand in hand, but he also taught that real change is achieved by great numbers of people working together with discipline and persistence.

Towards a Sustainable Society

Let’s explore some of the flaws of our current capitalist system and begin to imagine what a sustainable society would look like – a society that would comfortably house the emerging ecosystem of sustainable business and provide wealth, opportunity and satisfaction for the greatest number of people.

Too Big to Fail

How is it that we didn’t identify and correct flaws in our current system after the worldwide economic collapse of 2008?  How did we miss this opportunity?  Do we have collective amnesia? Or is it that we simply can’t come to a consensus about how to move forward?

There is much debate about how we should deal with a crisis like what we experienced in the financial sector in 2008. Some of us contend that we must avoid “bailouts” and allow for these giant and potentially economy-shattering institutions to be allowed to fail.  Others point out that such an approach would only create further havoc for our economy and society.  The question we should be asking is: How is it that we still have a system that allows such a crisis to develop in the first place?  How do we systematically address these behemoth companies so that we will no longer be held hostage, as individuals, communities and societies, to their unrestrained and risky behaviour?

Wealth Concentration

In the last 30 years the pace of wealth concentration has escalated.  In the US today, the top 1% take home a whopping24% of national income and own 50% of stocks, bonds and mutual funds.  Has this led to greater job growth, investment and prosperity for our society as a whole?  Many would argue that wealth concentration in the US is systematically eroding the middle class – the ultimate engine for a strong economy and a flourishing society.

The system that allowed this concentration of wealth and erosion of the middle class to occur would be changed in a Capitalism 2.0 world.  How it would change would certainly be tied to a discussion around the topic of ownership.

Ownership Models

How is it possible that an employee can work for a company for 20 or 30 years and then retire with so little equity (in that company’s wealth) that they are forced to ask the government (taxpayers) to help them with their daily food needs and health care.  This doesn’t sound like a system that is working very well.  But that’s not the worst of it.  A recent study released by the Committee on Education and the Workforce, Democrats,  showed that Walmart employees are legally allowed to be paid so little that the government of Wisconsin actually needs to subsidize each employee to the tune of $6000/year while the vast profits of this giant company are concentrated in the hands of shareholders.  A system that transfers the obligation of paying workers a fair wage to the taxpayers as opposed to the company for which they work, so as to increase shareholder profits, is a system that needs to change.

The Banking System

This is a big one.  How do we envision the role of the banking sector in our society? Does our current banking system support job creation and stronger societies?  Does it support entrepreneurs who are looking to hire people and grow their companies?  What would a sustainable bank look like?  Would it have a trading floor that would bet for or against currencies strictly for the purpose of short-term gains or would it use its collective intellectual and financial resources to find ways to make our world a better place and help companies that want to create jobs and improve our societies?  There are many organizations that are showing the way in this regard (e.g. Triodos) and we can use them as a model for a banking system that works for people rather than one that will stop at nothing to grow profits at the expense of well….everyone.

The Race to the Bottom

Our current model puts companies against each other as they race to squeeze out costs from the supply chain.  What’s wrong with that you might ask – don’t we want to get rid of waste?  Of course we do but is that in fact what these companies are doing?  Or are they engaged in a risky ‘race to the bottom’ where decisions are made based on short term costs alone, without regard for societal impacts or long term sustainability?

Take a company that manufactures a standard t-shirt; often the differentiating factor is price.  The challenge is to get the product to market for a lesser price that the competition – that’s the differentiating factor.  So within our current system we search the globe and award the contract to the lowest cost manufacturer.  That model leads directly to low wages and poor working conditions.  But that’s only one part of the story.

Another place to reduce costs is by taking shortcuts on environmental protection.  Once again companies compete in a race to the bottom in their quest to reduce costs.  The legacy of this system is a soiled environment, degraded or destroyed ecosystems and exploited people by the hundreds of millions.  The fact that children, who generally don’t have a voice, and future generations, who certainly don’t have a voice, will inherit a world that is severely degraded barely enters into the conversation.

CAP2: A new system for a better world

In a CAP2 world we would look at a new system that brings companies together to ensure a universally healthy and safe supply chain.  Companies would differentiate themselves in how they position their brand, innovate new products, invest in communities and connect with their customers.  The race to the bottom would be replaced with an inspired upward spiral of building shared values with customers and suppliers alike and ultimately driving value to the most important part of the supply chain – its people.

Brad Zarnett is the Founder and Director of Toronto Sustainability Speaker Series (TSSS). Join us in our quest to design a better Capitalist system. “The Capitalism 2.0 Project” is a global movement that will work towards maintaining the best aspects of the current Capitalist system – incentive, personal reward, variety and innovation – but correct the flaws. Our plan is to work with a global audience to design a better Capitalist operating system – a system that creates wealth, opportunity and satisfaction for the greatest number of people.

Our white paper, Capitalism 2.0: A New System for a Better World, is due next month.  Join the movement and share your ideas for the coming change to our Capitalist system. Sign up today to be notified when the paper is released.  We need your help to make the system better!

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3 thoughts on “Making Strides toward Greater Sustainability, but Is the System Flawed?

  1. I have been in the ‘movement’ for yearsn and agree with this post. While there are certainly positive signs, there are many more negative trends and destabilzing signs and progress is not happening fast enough or on large enough scale. The system is inherently flawed in many ways, but certain approaches are gaining momentum – like B Corps an answer to the capitalism 2.0 hope.

  2. Until we remove the primitive part of our brain stem that persists with preferring hierarchy and getting a kick out of taking the best of the spoils to lord it over the rest and dole it out as we see fit (still visible in primate groups) the way the corporate elite do, I am not hopeful of a dramatic turn-around. A large group of people is still too satisfied to be led while a very small minority is still happy to syphon off the spoils for themselves because they think they can buy happiness and take it with them when they die. Its the classic delusion of grandeur. “people want me to lead them so I deserve to get the most before the rest”.
    Its not a problem with the model. Its a problem with the psyche that creates and manipulates the model for nefarious ends.

  3. Notwithstanding the flurry of Sustainability Awards, the ‘movement’ is barely a fig leaf for corporations to be seen as doing the right thing, when in fact the notion of Sustainability is only convenient if it results in reduced cost and improved profit. Corporations are answerable to their Shareholders only, and as long as that is allowed to persist, the exploitation of environment and society for the benefit of that group will not seize.

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