I’m a permaculture farmer. My goal is to develop natural ecosystems that produce food. My dream is a world with ready access to a diet that nourishes the body of the consumer, provides a living for the producer, and leaves the Earth joyfully habitable.
I share that dream with a lot of people who call themselves permaculturalists, natural farmers, plantsmen, or foodies. I fear, however, that this doughty lot of green thumbs and stock-folk and food advocates is succumbing to tribalism; forgetting that saving the world means saving all of the people in it; even the ones that love cheap burgers and Coke. We’re digging foxholes and making monsters out of people who don’t agree with us, or who don’t understand, or who do understand but are powerless to act.
Business can be — must be — at the heart of an inclusive society. Ethical, sustainable, responsible business makes sense not just for the planet, nations and communities but for businesses themselves. This is the theme of my new book, The Company Citizen.
Progressive thinkers largely agree what is meant by terms like ‘responsible company,’ ‘triple bottom line sustainability’ and ‘ethical behavior.’ Debates rage on ‘purpose’ and ‘mission,’ largely with positive outcomes. Thankfully, too, the circular and inclusive economies are becoming established in mainstream thinking — witness the non-exploitative fashion industry built on zero waste, low energy usage and maximum re-use of fabrics envisaged recently by Ellen MacArthur and Stella McCartney.
Mom always wanted a Lexus truck. She would talk about it incessantly, cooing about her “baby shoe” whenever one of the Japanese luxury upstarts shot by us on I-395 as she drove me to school. My eyes would roll, teenaged broodiness blinding me to another of Mom’s uncountable sacrifices; she couldn’t have her baby shoe because she was spending all her money sending me to this school. Money likely unimaginable to her as a Black farmer’s daughter growing up in the Virginia Tidewater. A successful farmer, even.
Her father, a stout and handsome man with skin the color of rich soil, quit his well-paying job as a cooper in North Carolina at the ripe old age of 20, relocating to Virginia to build a house on the farm his mother bought in 1914. A new house in Depression-era Virginia was peculiar. For that house to belong to a Black man sounded like a fish story. Strangers travelled for miles to watch Coston Beamon pound nails into his roof.
Babies and children are most vulnerable to our current consumption model. They’re also the key to building a better one.
In my previous post, I explained why our consumption model is broken, and how we can build a new one. If you haven’t read it, here’s a quick summary (or watch the short video below):
Our consumption model is hurting our environment, our physical and mental health. We’re over-using natural resources, exposing children to toxic products, and creating too much waste. This is unsustainable.
A big part of the problem is ingrained in the fabric of our lifestyle. The changes needed go beyond what products we choose. We need to redesign our behaviors: Why and how we consume.
We can evolve to a new, higher form of consumption. When we do that, we create endless opportunities to re-imagine and improve our lives.
We have to come up with new ways to provide everyday products and services. These new ways should solve the challenges we face:
To reduce overconsumption → help us understand what we really need.
To avoid toxic products → ensure the highest sustainability standard.
To limit waste → offer after-use options such as take-back or re-sell.
Imagining a better consumption model is key to a good future.
On August 2, 2017, we started using more from nature than our planet can renew in the whole year. Every natural resource we used from that day onward resulted in “ecological overspending.” Think of it as your bank account. For the first 7 months of the year, you lived on your regular salary. After that, you started using your savings and increasing your credit card debt. Currently, humanity lives at credit and consumes resources equal to that of 1.7 planets a year. That’s compared to 1.4 a decade ago and 0.8 in 1963. If population and consumption trends continue, this figure will rise to 2 planets by 2030. This puts us — and our children — on an unsustainable path.
The Climate Crisis Is Embedded in Our Consumerist Culture
This ecological overspending contributes to the warming of our planet. It accelerated in the past 35 years — 2016 was the hottest year since record-keeping began. Most scientists agree that the leading cause of the warming is human pollution. The burning of fossil fuels and the clearing of forests are the main contributors. Clean energy and protecting our forests are critical parts of the solution. But we must look at the challenge in a more holistic manner. The climate crisis is rooted in our modern lifestyle, and in the economic model that supports it.
A recent study in the Journal of Industrial Ecology looked at the impact of consumption. It calculated that, in 2007, consumers contributed to more than 60 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. They also contributed between 50 and 80 percent of total land, material, and water use. US households alone contributed to a quarter of global emissions. Only 20 percent were direct emissions from the use of public transport and household fuel. The bigger part was indirect emissions from consumption of products and services. These included housing, transportation, food, manufactured products, and clothing.
Legacy brands should find the global challenge they are best placed to solve, and get to work.
So Trump’s business councils fell apart after a host of CEOs quit in the wake of Charlottesville. For those of us obsessed by the future of business, last week was a telling one.
That the POTUS can’t hold together a collection of some of the country’s most senior business leaders says a lot. And it’s deeply welcome that so many CEOs decided after Charlottesville that they could no longer be associated with Trump (though, guys, who did you think he was when you joined the councils?).
The free market is perfectly suited to harnessing a solution, argues a former climate skeptic
Jerry Taylor, the founder of the Niskanen Institute, spent years of his career as a professional climate denier — his senior role at libertarian think tank Cato Institute demanded it, and he was unconvinced that the risks of taking action outweighed the destruction that action might have on the world’s economy.
But starting about seven or so years ago, Taylor began to question his own assumptions, and after studying the science — and in particular the academic economics — more carefully, he had a complete change of heart. Taylor is now an advocate for addressing climate change, and in this talk at the NewCo Shift Forum earlier this year, he explains why.
Whole Foods current “fix” is a massive strategic misstep. But the company’s impact on business has been a huge win for society.
Last week I came across an interesting article by The Guardian suggesting that Whole Foods’ crisis represents the failure of the larger movement the company represents: Conscious Capitalism. Yes, Whole Foods is not doing well, by Wall St. standards, and is taking measures to curry the Street’s favor. In case you don’t have the details, here’s a quick summary The Guardian’s article put together:
Same-store sales have declined for six straight quarters. Apparently some 14 million customers have walked away during the same period.
A hedge fund just bought 8.3% of the company, demanding a major revamp in its business operation.
The revamp includes, among other measures, hiring big-shot executives from the traditional grocery retail world, and promoting Gabrielle Sulzberger (whose background is in private equity) as Whole Foods’ new chairwoman.
Additionally, the company initiated a $1.25 billion share buyback program and has promised to cut costs by $300m, both measures Wall St. loves (because it drives shareholder gains).
Next, the article tries to make an argument for why Whole Food’s downfall should be seen as the failure of the whole Conscious Capitalism (CC) movement. Before we dive into this argument, let’s take a quick look at the four tenets that make up CC:
Higher Purpose: Businesses should aim at creating larger impact in their communities and the world, and not solely pursue profit and shareholder returns. A key way to assess this is to ask “What is the impact your business wants to make in the world?” or “If your business didn’t exist, would it be missed — and why?”
Stakeholder Integration: No business survives on its own, they depend on stakeholders to exist. That means besides shareholders, businesses should consider customers, employees, suppliers, vendors, and the government as part of their value chain. And that includes, of course, society and the planet, which are also stakeholders.
Conscious Leadership: This is about leadership which prioritizes people over of profit. How? By focusing on building a culture of fairness and egalitarianism, trust and transparency, integrity and loyalty, love, care and personal growth.
Conscious Management: Conscious leaders focus on decentralization, empowering others below them to take on higher accountability, and work collaboratively and with more autonomy.
With Trump making the disastrous decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord, it’s more important than ever that private industry steps up. Entrepreneurs and even Fortune 500s might not be able to match the scale or impact of a global coordinated effort to combat climate change, but there’s quite a lot they can do.
Innovation in the clean energy space is flourishing. Solar is now cheaper than coal (unsubsidized) in many parts of the world. Battery powered cars will soon cost less than gasoline powered ones.
Walmart’s Kathleen McLaughlin on the Mission and Vision of a Retail Giant
Walmart is perhaps the most successful and the most reviled company in the history of American retail — and as this fascinating conversation with Kathleen McLaughlin reveals — it also may be the most misunderstood. McLaughlin traces Walmart’s recent conversion to sustainability to Hurricane Katrina, and addresses some of the companies thorniest problems, from workers’ wages to charges of greenwashing. Below is the full video of our conversation at NewCo’s Shift Forum, and the transcript, edited for clarity.