Conscious Business: An Implementation of the Imagination

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by Danny Long

On its website, Whole Foods celebrates its unwavering devotion to, among other things, sustainability and community development. Patagonia dedicates an entire dropdown menu on its homepage to environmentalism, going so far as to provide essays on the subject. Southwest Airlines proudly publicizes its involvement in charity, community outreach and environmental initiatives. Add to this list of names Google, Starbucks, Stoneyfield Farms, The Container Store, and Nucor. These are just a few examples of companies broadcasting their dedication to matters beyond profit, a dedication reflecting what some call a paradigm shift in the business world: the shift toward conscious business practices.

While the concept of conscious business is not exactly new — it has been around at least since the sixties, and arguably long before then — recent events such as the Occupy movement have given it greater currency. Yet with so many businesses claiming consciousness in so many different ways, we are compelled to ask a surprisingly difficult question: what exactly is conscious business?

Also called sustainable business, conscious capitalism or corporate social responsibility (CSR), conscious business has been given a number of definitions. David Vogel, professor of business at the University of California at Berkeley and author of The Market for Virtue, defines conscious business practices as those that “improve the workplace and benefit society in ways that go above and beyond what companies are legally required to do.” Donna Sockell, professor of business and Director of the Center for Education on Social Responsibility at the University of Colorado Leeds School of Business, defines such practices as “those actions that are taken to advance societies directly (in terms of employees, environment, consumers or other stakeholders) rather than those that are taken simply to benefit the bottom line, which only indirectly benefit societal groups.”

While these definitions have some ambiguities — how do we know when something improves the workplace or benefits society, and what does “above and beyond” actually involve? — they do have a common denominator: the interface between business and society.

Businesses try to boost their consciousness in a number of ways — environmental initiatives, improved working conditions, responsible production methods, to name a few. But these attempts are not always self-motivated. Indeed, consumers, employees and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), among other groups, have played and continue to play a large role in transforming business practices. In spring 2005, for example, a coalition of over fifty labor unions, environmentalists and community organizations launched a public-relations campaign against Walmart for its record of paying low wages, creating poor working conditions and providing poor (if any) health benefits. As a result, Walmart, though still not the most popular kid in school, has made a number of changes to better the lives of its employees and to help the environment.

But the drive for CSR has also gone over some pretty tortuous roads. As if playing an elaborate game of chess, some companies have been known to use conscious business practices to draw critics away from their more ominous behaviors. Before its collapse in 2001, for instance, Enron was a shining example of CSR, participating in a number of commendable environmental and social initiatives, all while defrauding its investors. Clearly, conscious business practices don’t automatically denote a conscious business.

In addition, some companies choose not to expose their policies, conscious or not, since doing so might enlarge the targets on their backs. “Gap and Nike,” Vogel explains, “have been subject to more intensive scrutiny from the CSR community than Target and Sears, Shell and BP more than ExxonMobil and ChevronTexaco, Ford more than General Motors or Chrysler, Sainsbury more than Safeway, and Starbucks more than Procter & Gamble — precisely because the former have claimed to act more responsibly.” Claiming consciousness, in other words, can sometimes lead to an experience that’s a lot like being on the receiving end of a game of Whac-A-Mole. Follow not the light, lest ye be walloped. And adding to these problems, a number of studies suggest that there is no evidence to prove definitively that CSR brings in more money, leaving a lot of business owners to wonder whether they should engage in more conscious practices at all.

Each of these problems emerges from a traditional business tenet — that a business’s primary objective is to increase shareholder value. Acting on this tenet, businesses do what they think is necessary to turn a profit, which sometimes involves less socially responsible pursuits. Indeed, in the past, companies with lower scores on CSR measures have often generated higher returns on investment than their more socially responsible counterparts. This means that when companies change their policies to be more socially responsible, they often do so first and foremost as a response either to trends in the marketplace or to some other external group such as consumers or NGOs. They do so, that is, not because they want to but because they believe they have to.

The distinction here is critical. A number of motivation experts have studied the effectiveness of outside-in, or extrinsic, motivation, and many of them have come to roughly the same conclusion: extrinsic motivators don’t work, at least not for tasks that require anything more than a rudimentary skill level. This is why businesses responding to external pressures to become more socially responsible don’t always fulfill their promises, as Daniel Pink argues in Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us. Think of it this way: achieving greater consciousness from the outside in is like trying to remodel a run-down house with a coat of paint. It might look good, but the foundation is as bad as ever. The motivation to become a more conscious business must therefore come from within.

This means that businesses need to make consciousness part of what they are, not part of what they do, according to Rinaldo Brutoco. Brutoco is president of the World Business Academy (www.worldbusiness.org), a non-profit think tank founded in 1986 dedicated to helping businesses improve their social responsibility. He defines conscious business in three parts: being conscious of the business itself, being conscious of what one does every day in that business, and understanding that consciousness fully deployed is the most effective business tool one could have. Not only does Brutoco believe that conscious business practices must be intrinsically motivated, he also believes that when they are, businesses themselves become more successful.

Take, for example, The Men’s Wearhouse, where Brutoco has been a board member for twenty years. Unlike most companies, retail or otherwise, who value their shareholders first, The Men’s Wearhouse values employees first, vendors second, and customers third. When Brutoco and Men’s Wearhouse founder George Zimmer created this value set twenty years ago, it was considered radical. In fact, it’s still considered radical. But that hasn’t stopped The Men’s Wearhouse from holding to this value set. “We believe,” Brutoco says, “that if we take care of our employees, our vendors and our customers, our shares are going to do phenomenal.” And “do phenomenal” they have: since going public, The Men’s Wearhouse has never gone into debt, is frequently voted by its employees as one of the best places to work in America, and makes hundreds of millions of dollars every year. The Men’s Wearhouse epitomizes a company that has made consciousness part of its identity and succeeded.

Of course, consciousness doesn’t necessarily mean conscientiousness. Yet Brutoco explains that it subsumes conscientiousness. He divides consciousness into two categories: abundance consciousness and scarcity consciousness. In Western countries, Brutoco says, and in many Eastern countries, the latter appears in far greater degree than the former. Scarcity consciousness operates on zero-sum thinking — in a nutshell, that one’s gain is another’s loss.

Abundance consciousness, on the other hand, believes exactly the opposite. Brutoco compares abundance consciousness to tithing: “If you take ten percent of what you make, and you put it out into the universe, the theory is it will come back to you tenfold. So it really cost you nothing. In fact, it was a great investment.” Whereas scarcity consciousness considers giving to one’s community a loss, abundance consciousness considers it a gain. “It is an abundant universe. Therefore if I help you rise up out of poverty, I will be better off not only spiritually. I will actually be better off materially. My society will be wealthier, and I in turn will be wealthier still.”

Critical to abundance consciousness is the concept of multiplicity, the concept that, as Brutoco says, “everybody is everybody.” Scarcity consciousness pits one person against another in a kind of evolutionary contest — eat or be eaten. Abundance consciousness circumvents such contest, putting us all on the same team, so to speak. Shifting our thinking to abundance consciousness means advocating for everyone’s success. And only by doing so, Brutoco believes, can conscious business truly be achieved. “If you get what consciousness is saying, which is [that] we in fact are one, I don’t even have the option of not caring about you because you are me, and I am you. Do I want to live in a factory for fifteen, twenty cents a day so that some American can get [products] cheaper at Walmart? No. So [consciousness] means we have to care about the stuff we consume and about how it gets made because it’s really about caring about ourselves.” If Brutoco is right about this interconnectivity, and he cites quantum physics to prove that he is, then the complex practice of conscious business comes down to a rather simple feeling, one with which we’re all familiar: sympathy.

Sympathy has had a relationship with business for at least several centuries. Eighteenth-century Scottish economist Adam Smith, for example, most famous for his invisible hand theory, talked about this relationship as early as 1759 in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Yet Smith’s discussion on sympathy is especially interesting not for his definition of the feeling but for his speculation on where it originates. “As we have no immediate experience of what other men feel,” he says, “we can form no idea of the manner in which they are affected.... [But by] the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him.”

If conscious business stems from abundance consciousness, if abundance consciousness tells us that, as Brutoco says, “we in fact are one,” if believing that we are one evokes sympathy, and if sympathy is a product of our imagination, then conscious business is as well a product of our imagination. We have to imagine it before we can realize it. And if we do, Brutoco maintains, we can create a world where “not one human being alive lacks adequate water, adequate nutrition, adequate medical care, adequate clothing, adequate shelter, adequate non-gender-biased education, adequate opportunity for free expression of self and breathable air.”

Some might call this idealistic. But so what? Isn’t idealism what the imagination is for? As the famous adman Leo Burnett once said, “When you reach for the stars you may not quite get one, but you won’t come up with a handful of mud either.”

In addition to freelance writing and copyediting, Danny Long teaches for the Program for Writing and Rhetoric at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He can be reached at <dannylong449@gmail.com>.