"Profits should not come from creating the world’s problems, but from solving them.”– Paul Polman, Unilever CEO 2009-19.
What happens when the stories we tell ourselves, as societies and businesses, are holding us back from meaningful change?
Blink, and you miss how we got here: 75% of youth under 25 globally say they are “very afraid” of the future and feel their governments have “betrayed them and future generations.” Two out of three American parents have stopped believing their kids will be better off than the previous generation. For companies rushing to be part of the solution, the first step is to overcome widespread skepticism, both internal and external. Globally, only 40% of people under 40 believe companies can have any positive impact. Sadly, the C-suite agrees: 39% of US business leaders don’t believe the sustainability efforts of their own company have any impact and call them “mostly a PR stunt.”
Sociologist Arlie Hochschild talks about the ‘deep story’ societies tell themselves, the story that helps us make sense of our place in the world. The story we’ve been spoon-fed for far too long is the story of the consumer, where competition and consumer choices define us, and where companies are reduced to providers of products and services. A hyper-focus on their consumers is such an integral part of business culture that it’s hard to even consider an alternative reality.
Yet we must. Unilever’s ex-CEO Paul Polman puts it bluntly: companies can only safeguard their future by a radical shift in how they do business. In his book Net Positive: How Courageous Companies Thrive by Giving More Than They Take, Polman challenges the global economy to think far beyond current ESG-goals and shift their business model to be “restorative, regenerative, and reparative.”
Consumerism is no longer a viable operating system for global business. Companies who want to thrive in the near future would do well to recognize and reverse their own role as consumers of finite natural and human resources. To put it gently, this is not a viable long-term strategy. We propose an alternative: let’s enable both people and companies to become net positive contributors, instead of consumers. Let’s leave the old consumer story on the shelf. It’s lived way past its best by -date. Who even wants to be a consumer, or be treated as one? How much more empowering, how much more exciting, to see ourselves as contributors to a world that works better for all!
We don’t claim this shift will be easy. There will be doubters, naysayers and lovers of business-as-usual in your way. There will be fake friends who pretend to agree yet kill all progress with the most short-sighted line in all of business: “But we can’t afford it.”
Let us be clear, we’re not talking about restructuring your business around a “Buy Nothing” - button. We’re talking about a key role companies can play, a role that builds on what companies do uniquely well: shifting consumer behaviour. Global business can take the lead in rewriting our societies’ deep story – first selling it internally, then to our customers. Couldn’t we use this superpower to start solving the world’s biggest problems, while at the same time creating whole new ways of doing business?
Business-as-unusual requires unusual courage. Today, most companies look to data to make projections and forecasts about the future. But data is, at best, an indicator of what has worked so far; it paints a picture of the past. What if we started from what we don’t know, instead? Backcasting is a method where you start from desired future outcomes, then work towards the present, designing the steps that will take us there. In the words of legendary architect and futurologist Buckminster Fuller: “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.”
The success stories of the future understand this. Those companies redefine ROI as something that builds all our future. They understand that it’s not a question of what we can afford, but what we can’t afford: telling ourselves the same old story. They don’t look at themselves as producers of goods and services, but as contributors to the common good. That mindset shift will see them succeed beyond their wildest dreams – while building a world where we all want to live. We can’t wait to play our part in helping us get there.
This post by We Are Open and more for Creativity 2030 initiative here; https://www.mrktng.fi/luovuus/