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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Nov/Dec 2002 : Frankel-y Speaking

Frankel-y Speaking

Calling Big Daddy
Corporations need to do more than address our social and ecological problems. There's also the "mental environment."


By Senior Columnist Carl Frankel

Frankel-y Speaking

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 asked.

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? It’s 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?

Here’s 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 sustainability—we can think of them as “passes of the razor.” The first pass is technical—things like reducing resource consumption. The second pass is social—trying 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 isn’t enough. We need a third pass of the razor, one that addresses what Adbuster’s 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 don’t talk about, such as (and here we come full circle) their negative impact on the mental environment.

Silence isn’t golden in this context. It’s 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 I’m 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 quo—corporations 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 don’t imagine their taking this step because it’s the right thing to do, although it is, but for business reasons. Because they rightly see it as a source of competitive advantage.

Here’s 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 Story—buy 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 impacts—peddling 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 isn’t 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 aren’t there. Practice the Way of the Ostrich.
> They can try to manipulate people’s emotions, for instance by delivering pseudo-authenticity to meet people’s longing for (and I hope Coca-Cola doesn’t sue me) the “real thing.”
> They can engage. They can look their confronters squarely in the eye and say: “We understand why you’re 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 we’re not going to stop making or marketing our products. So let’s talk about what we can do.”

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 that’s the business rationale for why corporations should take the lead in acknowledging and addressing their harmful impact on the mental environment. And there’s another reason, too. Necessity. There’s only one way to transform a dysfunctional system. The entities that wield the power must acknowledge and address what’s really going on—“take 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 (cfrankel@aol.com) is a writer, journalist and consultant specializing in business and sustainable development.

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