John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, is a controversial figure in the corporate social responsibility world. He is a proud proponent of the social benefits of free market capitalism, he is an anti-union, low tax, small-Government libertarian, he has made doubtful noises on the predicted impacts of climate change and noisily opposed President Obama's health care proposals. Yet he runs one of the most successful green businesses in the world, caps the ratio of the best paid in his company to 19 times that of the average (compared to 350-500 times you get in similar corporations) and is an active supporter of small, local suppliers to his stores. Not easy to pigeonhole, to say the least.
So it was with much anticipation and a little trepidation that I picked up his latest tome, Conscious Capitalism which, although it is co-written with the co-founder of the Conscious Capitalism Inc, is written in Mackey's voice. The book's first words, inside the fly cover, quote the Conscious Capitalism Credo:
"We believe that business is good because it creates value, it is ethical because it is based on voluntary exchange, it is noble because it can elevate our existence and it is heroic because it lifts people out of poverty and creates prosperity. Free enterprise capitalism is the most powerful system for social cooperation and human progress ever conceived. It is one of the most compelling ideas we humans have ever had. But we can aspire to even more."
Mackey and Sisodia make a pretty convincing case for the benefits that the free market has brought to society, blaming its ills on crony-capitalism, state capitalism or unintended side effects. But, they acknowledge, far too many corporations are like caterpillars, munching their way through everything within reach, when they should be like butterflies - beautiful and pollenating the eco-system upon which they depend.
And that is the essence of Conscious Capitalism - every business is part of a complex eco-system of suppliers, customers, employees, investors, communities and the environment itself. And by nurturing, rather than exploiting, these other stakeholders, everybody wins. This is similar to Porter & Kramer's concept of Creating Shared Value - investment in customers, suppliers and communities increases the pie for all. However, whereas Porter & Kramer make their case in business terms, Mackey claims Conscious Capitalism aims to fulfil a higher social purpose and is driven by love and caring, not profits. Profit is a means to delivering a company's higher purpose, not the driving force.
The book is very elegantly written and structured, going through the four tenets - higher purpose, stakeholder integration, conscious leadership and conscious culture. However, it is much more about an attitude than practical take-away ideas or lists of top tips. And it has to be said that the frequency of the use of the word 'love' is quite startling, even to an old bleeding heart liberal like myself.
My problem with Conscious Capitalism is not the butterflies like Whole Foods Market, but the caterpillars. The Tragedy of the Commons illustrates the need for the regulation of global commons, and the most global of all, the atmosphere, is difficult to protect by relying on the good intentions of many individual business leaders. Maybe this is why Mackey downplays climate change (subtly in the book) as it doesn't fit the model.
On the other hand, as a manifesto for progressive business, Conscious Capitalism hits the nail on the head and provides plenty of (whole grain) food for thought. Certainly between chapters I found myself mulling on the higher purpose of Terra Infirma - "Bringing Sustainability to Life" - and reassessed a recent decision I made which I thought was in the best interest of the business but now realise I got wrong.
In summary, a breath of fresh air that will challenge some of your more entrenched thinking.