“Conscious Capitalism”: Lipstick on a Pig?

Not Business Usual

Directed by Lawrence Le Lam, Rik Klingle-Watt (2014)

Film Review

Not Business as Usual challenges the maxim promoted by neoliberal economist Milton Friedman that corporations have no social obligation beyond providing a short term financial return to their shareholders. It traces the rise of “conscious capitalism” and the “B corporation,” which started from a 1989 Colorado meeting of the founders of various socially responsible corporations, including Patagonia, the Body Shop and Ben and Jerry’s.

The goal of the B corporation is to introduce social responsibility to capitalism. Thus far 20 states have introduced regulations for chartering B corporations, and 18 are working on pending legislation. Criteria for becoming a B corporation include responsible environmental practices, demonstrated commitment to the community and fair treatment of employees. According to the film, a B corporation commits to high environmental and employment standards along the entire supply chain. Thus a B corporation selling eco- apparel commits that the contractor producing the garments isn’t ruthlessly exploiting workers or discharging harmful chemicals into Bangladeshi waterways.

The documentary highlights a number of B corporations whose activism has resulted in groundbreaking changes in their communities and, in some cases, the third world. I was particularly intrigued by a B corporation called Lunapads. Lunapads has introduced low cost, washable menstrual pads to 120,000 women in the third world. In Uganda and other African countries, teenage girls typical skip school during their period when they lack access to affordable menstrual pads. In addition to keeping teenage girls in school (and unmarried), local manufacture of Afropads has created hundreds of local jobs.

Can the “Conscious Capitalism” Movement Save Capitalism?

The filmmakers contend the “conscious capitalism” movement will save the capitalist economic system. They argue that consumer pressure will eventually force all corporations to become more socially responsible – insisting consumers are demanding more socially responsible products and are happy to pay more for them.

I find a number of fallacies in this argument. In the first place, it’s only middle class consumers who are “demanding” ethical products, a middle class that is rapidly vanishing in most of the industrialized world. Minimum wage workers who are a paycheck away from the street have no choice but to opt for the cheapest clothes, foods and household goods they can find.

Secondly the present economic and environmental crisis is driven by powerful monopolies, particularly in the banking and defense industry. The thought of banking monopolies like Goldman Sachs or JP Morgan suddenly transforming themselves into B corporations is ludicrous. At present the main obstacle preventing entrepreneurs from forming B corporations is the unwillingness of Wall Street banks to provide start-up funding.

Thirdly while the social activism of individual B corporations is extremely laudable, I question the criteria used for measuring community responsibility. Surely a B corporation that’s truly committed to their community wouldn’t be seeking out “ethical” apparel contractors in Bangladesh. Surely they would be bringing these jobs back home to their local region.

The irony here is that many of the entrepreneurs who started the “conscious capitalism” movement made their fortunes by selling up to multinationals who clearly don’t share their vision. Ben and Jerry’s sold up to Anglo-Dutch food giant Unilever in 2000, and in 2006 the Body Shop agreed to a takeover by l’Oreal.

We have approached our local Body Shop outlet numerous times about supporting local environmental issues (ie fracking, fecal runoff from dairy farms). Claiming “corporate-wide policy,” they won’t even permit us put a poster in their front window.

15 thoughts on ““Conscious Capitalism”: Lipstick on a Pig?

  1. I am at the point where I don’t care about intellectualism, it merely gives these pricks some credence. Enough with the videos, the dissertations, the academic papers, no one is listening or caring. Date: Wed, 29 Jul 2015 21:54:55 +0000 To: astroloupicus@live.ca

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  2. It’s OK, we understand each other. It just comes out wrong from three continents. We really are just beginning to get it. And sorry Mr. academician, I meant no harm. I was raised on ‘Asterix’.
    Don’t judge, there is more to life than words.

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  3. Gee Dr. … According to the comments, you have opened some channels that cause people to THINK more deeply… Not a comfortable place, for some….. yep, you did something right!…..

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  4. Yes, it’s lipstick on a pig.

    What I would have given to grow up on ‘Asterix et Obelix!’

    It was, instead, wallops and derision — yes, in school.

    So I think there is something to be said for ‘intellectuals.’ Without them, I probably would never have learned to love myself at least enough to refrain from what my sister ended up doing. Sometimes, thinking is a matter of surviving.

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    • I, too, missed out on Asterix and Obelix in my childhood and only learned about them in adulthood. I think it’s hard to know exactly where intellectuals and academics belong in a revolutionary movement which must necessarily be led by the working people who are the majority. The important thing, in my mind, is to make sure we don’t allow them to assume control of our narrative. As a grassroots organizer, I have been repeatedly frustrated by the tendency middle class people have of monopolizing group discussions, crowding out any input from activists with less education. Many also have a really unfortunate tendency to moralize about lifestyle issues (especially smoking, eating habits and energy efficiency).

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      • I agree: “. . .it’s difficult to know exactly where intellectuals and academics belong . . .”

        But where would we be without them? We’d be a whole let less informed, less discriminating of sources of information, and less attuned to the coherence or incoherence of competing worldviews. So love or hate them, you need them as much as anyone.

        And yes, they (I, you, everyone who thinks he or she has something to say) need(s) to exhibit some humility and not dominate the conversation. Otherwise you end up stifling the confidence, creativity, energy and thought that cries out to be enhanced and stimulated. No need for false humility. Just shut up once in a while and let someone else take a stab at thinking for him(her)self and on behalf of the community.

        So yes, you don’t engage and inspire people to action by reinforcing in them the feeling that they are ‘stupid.’

        Most (and I include myself in this group) have not been fortunate in their access to the best that culture has on offer.

        There is, I believe, such as thing as ‘cultural capital.’ From the working class, this, too, has been largely expropriated. Parents work while children are held hostage in overcrowded schools that simply do not possess the resources (or are even mandated not) to ‘educate’ them in terms of what they ought to know about the world and how it works, and certainly not in a political or economic sense. The best of hours of the day have been squandered before parents and children are permitted time together, and then everyone is so spent by the demands of the day that television or its counterparts are all that anyone is really up for.

        Kindness. Patience. A respect that is genuine. These things ought to be a matter of course.

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  5. A TUBULARSOCK WARNING LABEL: With “corporate conscience” in mind the chemicals used in lip stick to keep the cost down for maximum profit would kill the pig.

    Tubularsock would advise intellectuals to refrain from the use of lip stick for their own good.

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