Many years ago, a guy made an offhand
remark that has stayed with me ever since. A hospitalized obsessive-compulsive,
he was being interviewed for a course I was taking on psychiatry
and the law.
Are you still shaving as much as you used to? the interviewer
The patient, who was clearly a highly intelligent man, nodded thoughtfully.
You mean, he said, how close is close enough?
Right. How close is close enough? Its a great question, one
I ask daily about one thing or another. About my writing, to be
sure: When do I stop editing? And about sustainability, where it
takes the form: How green is green enough? How much do we need to
change the status quo? In what ways?
Heres my answer to this question: We need a much closer shave
than the conventional approach to sustainability would have us believe.
To explain: there are levels to sustainabilitywe can think
of them as passes of the razor. The first pass is technicalthings
like reducing resource consumption. The second pass is socialtrying
to figure out how to import social justice into the equation.
This pretty much defines the outer limit, the maximum effort, of
current corporate sustainability programs. And it isnt enough.
We need a third pass of the razor, one that addresses what Adbusters
magazine calls the mental environment. The sustainability
crisis is a result of choices people make, and so any true solution
must address the garden, the worldview or consciousness
garden, in which these choices grow.
Virtually without exception, even the greenest corporations pollute
this soil. They do so through the messages they put out, specifically
through their aggressive huckstering of stuff and more stuff, more
subtly in the technocratic, reality-thinning portrait they paint
of success, and most subtly of all in the things they
dont talk about, such as (and here we come full circle) their
negative impact on the mental environment.
Silence isnt golden in this context. Its suffocating,
manipulative. A tool the powerful use to maintain control.
The model here is the dysfunctional family. If Big Daddy (or Big
Momma) lives inside a Big Lie, the entire system distorts to sustain
that fabrication. So it is with our global family. And our corporations
are Big Daddy.
For corporations to address this systemic dysfunctionality, they
must commit to transforming the social and psychological structures
that their power and capital currently keep in place. Things like
our culture of consumption, whose epidemic growth is fueled by the
corporate money machine, and the gross power imbalances that the
haves, especially corporations, exploit to impose their
will on the have-nots.
Without this third pass, without this closer shave,
even the greenest corporate sustainability programs will continue
to be fraught with contradictions, and we will not see the rapid
progress that is required in the world.
I can understand if this seems quixotic, considering that Im
asking corporations to bite the system that feeds them. But the
times require nothing less, I think. The alternative is a steady
worsening of the status quocorporations not speaking the plain
truth about their impact on the mental environment, millions upon
millions of people knowing it, and between the lies and the resentment,
a gap wide enough to drive a deteriorating planet through.
Now, not even in my wildest hallucinations do I expect corporations
to make a U-turn en masse and start heading down the Beyond-Dysfunctionality
highway. But I do hold out the hope, perhaps irrationally, that
one or two visionary companies, maybe even a small consortium, can
be persuaded to give it a try.
I dont imagine their taking this step because its the
right thing to do, although it is, but for business reasons. Because
they rightly see it as a source of competitive advantage.
Heres the business case, as I see it.
Dear Executive: Brand and corporate reputation are a lot more fragile
than you think. Why? Because we are living inside a vast cultural
divide. On the one hand, there is massive buy-in to the Official
Corporate Storybuy your way to happiness, I am my brand,
and so on. But there is also growing discontent.
If you doubt this, just look around you: at our movies, where the
conniving executive has become a standard villain; at our growing
voter apathy; at the widespread longing for authenticity (authentic
candidates, authentic experience); at the anti-globalization
movement; and not least of all, at our polls. Only one in four Americans
believes corporate executives are honest, according to a recent
CBS News survey. And other polls show similar results.
This distrust is something corporations must attend to.
In one sense, a reaction against Big Business is already underway,
with companies and industries increasingly being held legally accountable
for their misdeeds. The tobacco companies are the poster child for
this, having been saddled with billions of dollars in damages for
the public-health costs of smoking.
Other industries are being targeted, too. In the United States,
the gun industry has come, so to speak, under the gun, with some
30 lawsuits filed in recent years by various agencies and organizations.
More recently, it has been suggested that Big Oil could be held
liable for the damages resulting from climate change. ExxonMobil
pooh-poohed this report (no surprise there), but other companies
are responding less cavalierly to the prospect of liability. The
food and beverage industry, concerned that its sugar- and fat-soaked
excuses for nutrition may bring regulators down on them, recently
launched advertising campaigns urging people to eat more healthily.
I can imagine consumer marketing generally receiving similar attention
at some point. True, activities that degrade the mental environment
are less likely to attract legal scrutiny than activities with direct
health impactspeddling tobacco, pistols, sugar and so on.
But consumer marketing does harm human health. Consumerism, as practiced
at its current scale, degrades the natural environment, and this
makes the hungry hungrier and ultimately hurts us all. It also contributes
directly to anxiety, depression and other psychological maladies.
As the consequences of over-consumption become increasingly clear,
multiple lawsuits become a real possibility, especially with the
precedents in other industries.
In any event, before there is liability there is indignation, and
it isnt limited to consumer-products companies. As we continue
to flounder socially, politically and environmentally, as anxiety
and frustration mount, multinational corporations run a very real
risk of encountering great outbursts of hostility. When things go
wrong, people get frightened, and when they are frightened they
seek out scapegoats. Sometimes it is the powerless that are on the
receiving end of their rage, and sometimes it is the powerful. Sacrificing
the king is a primal cultural ritual, undertaken for millennia to
preserve the cycle of the seasons and the social order. What likelier
king is there in our de-natured world than corporations?
And what better target for scapegoating?
This scenario becomes all the more plausible if corporate scandals
are in the headlines, as is the case today.
If social and natural capital continue to decline in the years ahead,
as seems likely, hostility toward Big Business will almost certainly
increase. Corporations essentially have three ways to deal with
this clear business risk:
> They can ignore it. Pretend the resentment and
hostility arent there. Practice the Way of the Ostrich.
> They can try to manipulate peoples emotions,
for instance by delivering pseudo-authenticity to meet peoples
longing for (and I hope Coca-Cola doesnt sue me) the real
> They can engage. They can look their confronters
squarely in the eye and say: We understand why youre
so angry. We acknowledge that we are complicit in a dysfunctional
system whose shadow side is doing great harm to the world. We want
to bring an end to this. But were not going to stop making
or marketing our products. So lets talk about what we can
And there are things that can be done. The operative word here is
mitigation. This is what Big Tobacco has been doing, albeit under
penalty of law, with its payments to support anti-smoking initiatives.
Big Food is doing it too, only before the lawsuits kick in.
A similar approach could be adopted by consumer marketing companies,
which have an especially strong interest in shaping the mental environment.
They could fund an advertising campaign cautioning people not to
make products their chief source of meaning. They could sponsor
community conversations about consumerism and logo-ism.
They (or other multinational companies) could convene a World Conference
on Corporate Power with a view toward collaboratively developing
mitigation strategies. And, of course, there are many other possibilities.
Initiatives like these would go a long way toward redeeming corporations
in the public eye. Instead of being viewed as corrupt and self-serving,
as they now are, they would be seen as bold and honest and courageous,
in short, as true leaders during a time that badly needs them. And
this would translate into competitive advantage for the first movers.
So thats the business rationale for why corporations should
take the lead in acknowledging and addressing their harmful impact
on the mental environment. And theres another reason, too.
Necessity. Theres only one way to transform a dysfunctional
system. The entities that wield the power must acknowledge and address
whats really going ontake ownership of the
problem, in psychologist-speak. In the context of our global family,
that means corporations. Big Daddy must take the lead.
Carl Frankel (firstname.lastname@example.org)
is a writer, journalist and consultant specializing in business and