Slaying the ghosts of Christmas past

Tuesday, December 9th, 2014

 by David Powell

Big business setting out a vision for a green and fair economy? What the Dickens?

Whoop! It’s nearly Christmas, and that means I get to watch Scrooged.

Apart from being ace, Scrooged is also just about the only big Hollywood film I could think of* in which a big rich businessman is a central character and isn’t the bad guy**.

Big business, and the people that wage it, are generally portrayed in popular storytelling as powerful and wicked. Think Scrooge McDuck. The evil protagonist of the recent Lego Movie is even called ‘Mr Business’.

Just a caricature? For sure, business doesn’t always do itself the biggest favours. Last month for example, the Business Europe lobby group found itself on the end of outrage for opposing (on grounds of cost to their business) proposals like more maternity leave for new mothers. Humbug!

But hang on. Yesterday the Aldersgate Group launched its new campaign: ‘An Economy That Works’ (AETW). It’s based on a report that sets out a pretty progressive vision for business flourishing within an economy with better priorities, which neither scupper the planet nor tries to pay people 4p an hour for making porridge.

Full disclosure: Friends of the Earth is a founder member of the Aldersgate Group and has helped chip ideas into the report. But the main body of its membership is business – big blue chip companies, some of ‘em. With the likes of Business Europe off knuckling around Brussels trying to punch regulators in the face, it’s good to see something more positive.

It’s great to see not just (relatively mainstreamed) carbon reduction at the core of AETW, but also equality, protecting and enhancing nature, and increasing wellbeing (away with you if you think there’s something fluffy about ‘wellbeing’; at yesterday’s launch Sir Richard Lambert, former head of the CBI, said that improving wellbeing must be critical to economic policy).

It’s common sense really: we only have one planet and there’s lots of people and species living on it, and it isn’t much use trying to sell electronics or consumer goods to an angry mob or whatever populations survive a massive climate collapse. If you want to do business in the 21st century, you better be ahead of the curve: the world’s decarbonising, industrialising, urbanising and – yes – revolutionising. People will demand better than short-termism and greed. The planet demands it too.

It’s not straightforward stuff. I got into a twitter debate with one of the panellists who had appeared to say that a major American supermarket should be praised for working to increase women’s empowerment in the developing world (itself a good thing) so it could, er, start selling its products to them. I dunno about that. There’s nothing sustainable at all about the fundamentals of a business model that relies on ever greater consumption and expansion to avoid eating itself. Only completely new business models will do that – what I’ve heard Mike Barry from M&S describe before as ‘Sustainability 3.0’.

And for sure, lots of businesses are sincere and serious about making greener products and being better employers. But there’s a cognitive dissonance at work, just as with climate change itself: are you really a sustainable business if you always need to sell more and more stuff, even if it is made better? It’s the sustainaphant in the room and I’ve found that mentioning it has the same kind of effect on a room full of enthusiastic corporate sustainability officers, as talking about the Treasury does in a chat with a junior civil servant. It shuts them up and they go sad and meek. Sometimes I feel bad for mentioning it. But, well, someone has to.

Anyway. So, not all businesses are bad guys. Yes, some bits of the corporate world just want to have all regulations cut so they can make as much cash as possible today, but I’m on the side of the brighter bits of it that say that’s a surefire way to bring the swirling storms of the 21st century crashing over your head. We need to hear much more from these guys.

So well done, Aldersgate Group: and to the leaders of would-be sustainability pioneers, let’s hear you call out the ethos of the likes of Business Europe with as much fervour as you’ll be employing in marketing your products to us all this festive season. That’s what Unilever did when it quit Business Europe earlier this year, apparently in disgust at its backward behaviour. Good on them.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to watch Big***. Happy Christmas!

* After a quick poll around some friends it seems there are actually plenty of other candidates. You’ve Got Mail; Pretty Woman, etc. Tweet me if you can think of others.

** And obvs (spoiler alert), he’s only a good guy for half the film so this only kind of half-counts.

*** In which a guy goes to work for a toy company where the boss is just lovely. Hooray! There’s another one.

David Powell is Senior Economics & Resources Campaigner. He tweets at @powellds.


One thought on “Slaying the ghosts of Christmas past” 1 thoughts on “Slaying the ghosts of Christmas past”1

  1. Jeff Mowatt says:

    David, We must have been thinking on similar lines last month. I was reflecting on our own efforts remembering that it was a conversation about the Ignorance and Want allegory, which introduced me to one who would later becone a colleague.
    I reflected on his warnings about the strategic risks of leaving people in poverty and his own reflections 12 years ago from Crimea.

    https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/20141206112919-3207079-a-social-enterprise-christmas-present

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.