Transforming business: A play in four acts

Transforming business: A play in four acts


Imagine a play in four acts: the first one describes a revolution underway in the business world; in the second act religion leaves the public square, paving the way for the ascent of money; the third showcases social movements, long ignored or forgotten; the fourth sounds like a dream, awaiting full germination and yet to take deeper root.

Act One: Beyond Corporate Social Responsibility

"Business as usual has taken incremental steps towards sustainability, and the steps have proven to be insufficient. After 25 years, today I’m quitting my job as a CSR consultant."

With these provocative words, leading sustainability consultant Coro Strandberg steps onto the stage at Vancouver’s Board of Change, opening her presentation on transformational companies. In collaboration with Canadian Business for Social Responsibility (CBSR), Strandberg boldly identifies 19 qualities that define a new business leadership standard.

CBSR is not alone. Searching for examples in over 70 countries, sustainability consultant Wayne Visser also makes an appearance. He calls for an "economic revolution" led by companies that are moving away from charitable and promotional Corporate Social Responsibility, towards "systemic" sustainability.

Nurtured by compelling case studies, Visser's "World Guide to Sustainable Enterprise" promotes a new breed of business — not only one that thoroughly embeds sustainability and responsibility, but also companies that use their influence and core competencies to advance social and ecological wellbeing in the broader contexts where they operate.

To all of this, the audience shrinks back either in bewilderment or skepticism.

But an eclectic parade of new actors continues to enter the scene. Mexico's Biopappel turns city paper dumpsters into an urban forest; Brazil's Natura becomes a founder of the Union for Ethical Biotrade; Patagonia takes a leading role in the Sustainable Apparel Coalition. Canada's Vancity also receives customary spotlight.

Besides being carbon neutral and a living-wage employer, the nation’s largest credit union is hailed for strategically donating 30 percent of its net income to support greener businesses and social-impact initiatives.

These outlanders prove that responsibility, value creation, societal contribution and ecological integrity can be factored into the entire life-systems that affect and are affected by their products.

Still, the audience remains dubious in hearing that the purpose of companies like these is to transform the wider business ecosystem — for good. Further disbelief amounts when CBSR highlights companies such as Marks and Spencer who lobby for higher, stricter public policy in the United Kingdom.

"Industry-wide transformation," Strandberg adds, "that’s where sustainability should ultimately be going."

But a cynic in the pews pipes up: "Can you actually transform an entire system built on competition and short-term objectives?” 

Act Two: The Progress Trap

Western culture throws religion out of the window, leaving the public sphere at the unintended mercy of Aphrodite, Mammon and a host other ancient gods. Disruptions follow: The intricate atmospheric skin that embraces the planet is at stake; the rate of disappearance of species raises exponentially; the wealth distribution pie is split unequally on a table where a few are stuffed and most are starved.

Some suggest this is a byproduct of a secularly disguised religion that keeps asking us to sacrifice ourselves and our planet at the altar of "growthism" — likely the closest thing we have to a global deity. Others point out how the current paradigm has served us well in countless ways.

Very much agreeing, British historian Ronald Wright enters the stage; yet he is quick to highlight the irony of consumerist culture, whereby the very means of success is threatening that culture’s own existence. Society is trapped in its own progress.

"Is the progress trap fueled by a progress myth?" The question lingers, albeit unspoken.

Regardless, the West campaigns for its Wall-Streetified economic paradigms, which continue to call the shots for 99 percent of the global village.

Creative Commons/Google Images

Act Three: Recent Reasons for Hope

Needing no introduction, a silent, black and white film showcases the movements spearheaded by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Images of segregation and economic exploitation are overlaid by inspirational (even if challenging) phrases from their speeches and writings. The tension builds up, climaxing with Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, who makes a surprising appearance amongst the audience.

"There are three types of persons," he declares as he puts down his book containing some of the writings that left a mark on the peace-maker from India. "Those who don’t look beyond the satisfaction of their own needs; those who sacrifice at least part of their own needs in favor of their kin; and those who sacrifice themselves to express compassion to every being and thus fulfill the ultimate purpose of the universe."

The audience is faced with the query of whether business can be transformed, or if it can be transformative. By that point it’s clear that the stakes are higher. Without words, Tolstoy lays down an open-ended summons searching for people willing and brave enough to stand up for what is right, notwithstanding the cost.

A flurry of cognitive dissonance fills the room. Mobile screens light up; people stare downwards; many are emotionally checked out.

Act Four: Back to Our Future

A spotlight breaks the opening stillness, falling on some characters from Act One now disguised as unknown passerby.

"At this point it’s not lone-rangers or Odyssean superstars that we’re in need of," one of them remarks as they all cross the stage. "This challenge is not only for me, and you; it’s for all of us."

Silence accrues. The wanderers are weary of greenwashing, of the co-optation of sustainability, of glossy reports in a day and age of spectacle and pomposity. Someone’s propaGandhian t-shirt adds to the effect, whose imprinted aphorism sidelines the possibility of there being religion without sacrifice or of business without morality. 

"Agreed… Perhaps that’s why the whole thing is supposed to be transformational, folks, ‘cause the challenges ahead require to go beyond the business case, ya know?" said a voice behind the stage.

"After centuries of competitive sprint races to the bottom, what we now need is a collaborative marathon to the top.”

Modified after a CSRWire publication.