Conscious Capitalism Rises to the Challenge

I never really rated Conscious Capitalism as a movement. How could you ever hope to convince skeptical buyers that your intentions were honourable? Why would you even bother? Being good for the planet or good for society seemed so at odds with the profit-driven behaviour of corporations.

Environmental activists were ready to call anything a corporation did to promote its eco-credentials as ‘green-washing’, often with good reason. Witness how the supposedly ‘green’ BP brand catastrophically failed to protect the Gulf of Mexico in the 2010 oil spill 

I was similarly unimpressed by early attempts to set up the B Team movement. To me it looked like a lot of men in suits talking in generalities while patting themselves on the back and sucking up to Richard Branson.

The B movement imagery nowadays is much more diverse and according to the website of the B Corporation,  over 2,600 companies in 60 countries have been certified as reaching their standards. Their mission:
“Certified B Corporations are a new kind of business that balances purpose and profit. They are legally required to consider the impact of their decisions on their workers, customers, suppliers, community, and the environment. This is a community of leaders, driving a global movement of people using business as a force for good.”

Patagonia Sets The Standards

Outdoor clothing maker Patagonia has long been the poster-child for conscious capitalism. Its founder Yvon Chouinard was ahead of his time in his views that climbers like him should leave no trace on the natural world. The more general message today is that consumer goods like theirs should leave no trace on the planet. It’s a certified B Corporation.

Patagonia breaks a key rule of consumer industrialism – it encourages less consumption. Yet it is highly profitable. Its clothes are expensive but built to last. They look good. The company uses some of the revenue to fund environmental action groups. They tend to make films about the environment rather than to advertise. They prosper because more and more people want to wear their label and own their well-made clothing and equipment.

Patagonia caught a cultural wave with its all-in commitment to sustainability.  The company now has a new CEO, Rose Marcario, who famously, sued Donald Trump in 2017 for reducing the size of some national parks [they call them monuments in the US – but it’s land – so . . .].

Nike Just Did It

In 2018 Nike has captured another kind of cultural wave by championing the actions of Colin Kaepernick – a black NFL [American football]  star whose protests against police shootings of unarmed black people have polarised the US. It was a wow moment – especially because Nike has NFL contracts to provide jerseys and sideline gear with its logo to all 32 teams through to 2028. Its online sales rose 31% the day it announced Kaepernick would front its 30th anniversary campaign.

In the US it provoked an emotional moment. Kaepernick’s protests – taking a knee during the national anthem –  had been hyped by Donald Trump as disrespect for the American flag – nothing to do with black lives mattering. So while at least some of the President’s supporters were protesting by cutting the Nike logos out of clothing they already owned or torching their running shoes, an equal or even higher number were buying themselves some new Nike gear  to show allegiance to the cause.

For Nike the move was big and brave, but it was congruent with the company’s values. The Kaepernick slogan “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything” is a natural extension of Nike’s glorification of the extreme dedication shown by elite athletes in a range of sports. Both establishment and social justice commentators are critical of the move, but the marketing logic is quite impeccable.

Operating in the World of Conscious Capitalism

In this world it’s vital to be bold, brave and genuine, which is much easier in founder-driven companies. Successful firms are built on unique cultural capital – such as eco-friendliness or human rights – and evolve their message over time to remain relevant. The key is to evoke a visceral emotional response.

In the world of conscious capitalism your job as a marketer is not to cater to everyone but to provide a strong sense of identity for the high value customers you want to serve. If that means that other people retaliate by discarding or destroying their own merchandise, so much the better. We define ourselves by who we aren’t as much as who we are.

So I’ve reversed my opinion. I can see a way that smart businesses can build potent and responsible brands based on principles that are good for people and good for the planet. It doesn’t necessarily protect you from competition and it can be messy, if you lose touch with key customers. The Whole Foods experience shows that. But it does have an infrastructure and it has a future.

You can read more about the place of Conscious Capitalism in our emerging business future by buying my latest report: Tribes of the 3 Worlds : How We Shape the Future. There’s also a special offer there for people who want to dig deeper into one of the two new worlds.

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