As the Pope addresses Congress about climate change and social justice, the question is not if Congressional Republicans will support legislation to mitigate climate change (they won’t) but rather how the business community should internalize and act upon the Pope’s criticisms of profit-driven capitalism, which he sees at the root of serious issues in the social-environmental nexus. This is an important conversation especially for Environmental Leader readers, as we are part of the socially responsible backbone of the corporate world. Is the Pope underrecognizing the impacts of CSR efforts? Or are sustainability professionals only making symbolic, ephemeral gains attacking the symptoms of a deeper problem?
The two sides of the “good/bad capitalism” debate depend on whether capitalism can be trusted to pursue a triple bottom line, with a vast majority of companies having fruitful relationships with employees, communities and the environment. In other words, your views on capitalism depend on whether you think the capitalism-driven economy of the future is powered by a Volkswagen or a Tesla engine.
The Volkswagen future is pessimistic, noting VW’s emerging emissions scandal as the rule, not the exception. In this future, it’s not all blatant malfeasance: many companies make aspirational social and environmental targets, but when leaders change or bad financial results emerge, “non-essential” targets are ignored to focus on the bottom line. Companies that are actually moving the needle on climate change are outnumbered by those that continue to greenwash. Most either set non-aspirational targets that fail to move the needle on real issues or brand themselves as sustainable without taking meaningful action (with some actively opposing meaningful action through their industry associations or in political donations). The exploitative nature of capitalism and the ability to conceal bad practices converge to stymie meaningful action to benefit society and biodiversity. When allegations of wrongdoing arise, settlements are reached and the world moves on, similar to the apparel industry’s repeated subcontractor labor law infractions. If the Volkswagen model is what’s to come, it’s understandable why many call for drastic change.
But this antagonistic relationship between capitalism and society/environment is not the future of capitalism, posits the Tesla future. Triple-bottom-line-driven organizations become more common and will supplant the Volkswagens. Companies that flourish in this future are ones that find ways to strategically decouple value provision from environmental degradation and social stratification. CSR claims can be trusted, and end-users are able to discern between companies based on their actual progress toward being triple-bottom-line observing businesses, rather than having to wade through complicated targets and baselines. Clarity, transparency and comparability enable revenue and capital flows toward the highest CSR performers, causing other companies to tie CSR efforts more closely to value and make needed changes.