Once upon a time there were three little piggies, and their names were Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter. And they lived with their crotchety old grandmother underneath the mushroom at the bottom of your neighbour’s garden.
Well, as the start to a fairy tale it has some merit, even if it lacks a certain originality. Still, it’s more believable than “once upon a time, all companies traded fairly and equally with one another in a society based upon values rather than status.”
And then, so this fairy tale goes, the Big Bad Wolf came along and-he-huffed-and-he-puffed and he destroyed this value based society by pointing out that if you were mean, mendacious and plain greedy you could make more money than your competitors.
This is the fairy tale that those who advocate compulsory sustainability and CSR measures would have us believe. But are they right?
The Breton Point of View
This summer my family and I went camping in Brittany. Two quirky highlights were spotting (probably) a crested tit and also visiting A&E for stitches to my left middle finger. I also picked up Jean-Pierre Le Mat’s “History of Brittany: The Breton Point of View”.
This book goes to great lengths to point out that as one of the old Celtic nations, Brittany did not have a hierarchical society based upon military strength and serfdom. Rather social bonds were created through obligation and vassalage. This was swept away (as it was in the UK) by feudalism as championed by the conquering Nor(se)mans.
So it would appear that the fairy tale is in fact true although, like any good fairy tale, it’s application to modern circumstances seems rather strained at first glance. In fact, it’s a very good analogy.
Consider the structure of your typical large corporate business. It will be based around the running of several interlinking business units offering different products often under different brands. Often some if not all of these business units will have been bought, but irrespective of their origin they are considered to be “owned” by the corporate whole.
This is the classic hierarchical model of feudalism. The Top Dog (or Big Bad Wolf, if you prefer) owns the company/country, appoints lieutenants to carry out orders and those lower down the food chain are simply given a role to perform through servitude.
Compare this to the old idea of obligation and vassalage.
Vassalage is a two way street where both parties have an obligation to one another. Typically the “lower” one is to provide resources of some form and the “higher” one will provide protection. Each can break the relationship at any time, and like any contract if the one does not honour their side then the other has no obligation any more.
It also informs relationships between equals, whereby a mutually supporting agreement is put in place to the benefit of all, rather than a competitively organised hierarchy where by one “has to” triumph over another.
So in short vassalage, while maintaining a hierarchical structure prefers the greatest benefit for all similar to (though not exactly the same as) the co-operative model. Feudalism, on the other hand, is about strength and competition and if some lose out along the way, well that’s just life.
India recently became one of the first countries in the world to bring in mandatory sustainability, with laws requiring that companies donate 2 per cent of their net profits to philanthropic works.
Naturally, this reignited the whole should-CSR-be-mandatory-or-not debate. Certainly, if you’re talking about responsibility and ethics, it can appear difficult to square this with anything mandatory and still maintain any semblance of freedom of expression and association.
Nevertheless, you have to look at how some companies have already promoted the philanthropic agenda voluntarily: establishing their own charitable trusts, for instance, or bringing a wholly supported-by-them infrastructure to destitute areas of the world.
Is this truly philanthropic, or is it just capitalism in sheep’s clothing?
What’s more, can you ever really have sustainability within a feudal corporate structure which is geared primarily around monetary strength and nothing else?
A lot of traction for sustainability and CSR has come out of the idea that you can make money from being green. Sure you can, and a business will always need profits just like an army will always need weapons.
But to maximise profits at the expense of sustainability, to own for the sake of owning, to conquer to increase your strength … these are no more concepts of sustainability than burning down your neighbour’s house is a sign of good community relations.
Business behaviour and structure need to change. It’s really nice to think this will happen voluntarily, a fairy tale if you like. But realistically it won’t. How many large corporates are about to convert to co-operative models? Which was the last one to announce profits would be down long term because sustainability had to come first?
This is the world we need to live in. Anything else is just greenwashing .. the real fairy tale of sustainability.
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