Opinion: If business as usual is the problem, what's the solution?

In his new series, responsible business pioneer Michael Solomon fires the starting gun to what he describes as a “race to the top” where businesses can convert positive impact into “cold, hard competitive advantage over the greenwashers, laggards and other stalwarts of business as usual”.

“Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.”

Whether these words were first uttered by Albert Einstein or not, they are oft repeated. Perhaps because such insanity, such pigheadedness, is so frequently observed. Perhaps it is one of those human frailties we all suffer from to some extent.

Cartoon with wavesThis cartoon visualises that frailty superbly. I proposed the words in the speech bubble and, with extraordinary generosity, Graeme Mackay, editorial cartoonist for Canada’s Hamilton Spectator, adapted his original version of the cartoon, yet again, to incorporate them. Mr Mackay has described this as his “most shared, cropped, and altered cartoon ever”, in a detailed and fascinating page on his website, which details the cartoon’s origins, additions, uses, unofficial versions and more.

The original version had just two waves, COVID-19 and RECESSION. The speech bubble stated “be sure to wash your hands and all will be well” and there was a Canadian flag over the city. His original aim was to highlight the apparent shortcomings of his government’s response to the pandemic at the time, back in mid March 2020.

The different versions of the cartoon have illustrated inadequacy, futility and pointlessness in slightly different combinations. You probably consider this version to be grimly humorous, ironic, uncomfortable and depressing. This suggested caption enabled me to express the dissonance present throughout my professional life: sadly, quite demonstrably, neither our ethics badges nor our corporate social responsibility reports have impacted the relentless advance of climate change nor biodiversity collapse. If you call it ESG, sustainability, responsibility, impact or purpose, the same applies: so what? If your business does things which it describes using any of these monikers, are you able to explain how you are part of a credible solution to these existential crises? If not, can you explain why you persist with them? Is “at least we’re doing something” really a logical or justifiable response given our circumstances?

Photo of Michael SolomonLook, I don’t want to trigger you but... are you able to explain how you are part of a credible solution to these existential crises?


Emperor's new clothes

Look, I don’t want to trigger you. And I know how easy that is to do. And how it will then be more or less impossible for us to help one another or usefully collaborate in any way. And that is the last thing I want. Further, to be perfectly upfront, ethics badges and CSR, are, sort of, what I have been spending all my time and energy on for about 22 years now.

But before you accuse me of being part of the problem, part of the rearranging of the deckchairs on the stricken ocean liner, please note my starting point was identifying this baffling case of the emperor’s new clothes. It was perplexing that so many of the big banks and oil majors were producing glossy brochures explaining how they were fixing the way the world works, despite the mounting evidence they were making it ever worse. In 2001, it seemed to me that there must be huge opportunities to help businesses actually be more responsible, and effectively communicate those worthwhile undertakings, and that this was distinct from how everyone seemed to be doing CSR at the time.

In what started out as SEE Companies and became SEE What You Are Buying Into for a short while, then Responsible 100 almost exactly ten years ago now, our motivation was always to help businesses to be more responsible in ways that were infinitely more useful, rational and logical than producing a glossy CSR report that no one would ever read. More useful for the company, and more valuable and worthwhile for wider society too.

We did some cool stuff. We also reached an uncomfortable conclusion – that it was ‘business as usual’ that was the real problem

We pioneered approaches based on openness, honesty and accountability, deliberately exploring a wide range of responsibility issues. We convened roundtables including ‘critical friends’ from NGOs and campaign groups. We did some cool stuff. We also reached an uncomfortable yet powerful conclusion. Namely that, while helping hundreds of business large and small to at least do something, it was ‘business as usual’ that was the real problem.

By ‘business as usual’ I mean the normalisation of our global economic and political systems. Systems in which externalising costs, not paying fair amounts for raw ingredients, exploiting vulnerable groups up and down the value chain, buying political influence, concentrating wealth and power and using it relentlessly and mercilessly to gain further narrow advantage are legal, normal, expected, accepted ways of doing business and generating profit. We normalise systems which reward and incentivise private profit maximisation over everything else. Costs externalised from business and borne by society and by the environment have been compounding over several decades. Global heating, biodiversity collapse, rampant inequality and a range of other such ills are the result.

We normalise systems which reward and incentivise private profit maximisation over everything else

Yet as any newly minted MBA graduate will tell you, still, somehow, the business of business is business. All companies seeking to do less offloading, less externalising and less exploiting are acutely aware that they put themselves at significant disadvantage to less scrupulous competitors.


New horizons

I am most grateful to Pioneers Post for giving me the opportunity to write in some detail about the problem of business as usual and the solution Responsible 100 has recently been working on. I believe that we can make the necessary, worthwhile changes we need, commensurate with the shocking circumstances we find ourselves in, and I’m excited to try to explain how. Roughly monthly, my current plan is to write along the following lines:

1. What is Anthropy and how can it be genuinely different? This will look at the inaugural Anthropy conference at The Eden Project in early November last year which, happily, wasn’t just another jolly for those well meaning, do-gooder types who could afford the ticket, train (or plane?!) fare, and the time off. It was excellent, and my research post-event led me to conclude that practically everyone who, like me, volunteered large amounts of our time to make it one of the largest ever crowdsourced and co-created events, was happy to have done so. It is now going to run annually. Its potential is enormous. I know you folks attend thousands of events but I’ll explain why I think this is different, and propose things we should seek to do to ensure it is fully realised.

2. The story of a group called A Different Story. This is a small cadre of people (currently 35 of us) working in and around what academic and former Timberland COO Kenneth P. Pucker refers to collectively as “Sustainability Inc”. Even before reading Alex Steffen’s blogs about theories of triangulation, we were worried that the work we’d been doing had proven futile. Deep down we know that helping clients to be a little more responsible than the next company, within an apparently inescapable yet obviously failing economic system, set firmly on an extinction trajectory, serves neither humanity nor the natural world on which we all depend. Worse, we fear that what we’d been busy working on all these years may have prevented the real transformation we need from occurring. So we banded together, over Zoom in the Covid lockdowns, for some group therapy and plotting.

3. A brief explanation of Bill Sharpe’s Three Horizons framework and how and why we explored it, over Zoom, during the lockdowns. This framework and its application is a little technical but I believe an overview will be of value to readers. It helped us in A Different Story to gain new perspectives on how and why ‘business as usual’ vested interests snuff out exciting and hopeful Big Ideas to make the world a better place, and what to do to try to counter that.

4. How and why an unofficial backchannel to B Lab UK was formed, and what happened next. Slightly by accident, some of us on A Different Story, who explored the Three Horizons framework, created this backchannel. (We were referenced in a recent long read article in the Financial Times.) It includes representatives from some of the UK’s founding B Corps who have become increasingly concerned, among other things, about the certification of certain businesses which, by most measures, appear most unlikely to help ‘transform the economic system into a more inclusive, equitable, and regenerative global economy’, as per B Corp’s stated Theory of Change. Is the movement a victim of its own success? Will the movement’s credibility inevitably be eroded as its membership widens? Should we be worried? James Perry wrote here in September that, post-Nespresso, B Corp was at a crossroads. I’ll provide a novel perspective and develop some arguments to invite people to engage on, not be triggered by. 

It includes representatives from some of the UK’s founding B Corps who have become increasingly concerned about the certification of certain businesses 

5. So, what are the enabling conditions for an economy fit for the 21st century? The final installment will detail our proposed solution to business as usual. Responsible 100 is working on a clear, adoptable, inclusive way in which real transformational change can occur and how we can all be part of that. We’re seeking to seed a race to the top where businesses can adopt a strategy of less offloading, less externalising, less exploiting, and maximise their multifarious positive impacts, and convert all that into cold, hard competitive advantage over the greenwashers, laggards and other stalwarts of business as usual. I’ll explain what we have been doing and why, our aims, our KPIs for success, and how we’ll know whether we’re doing something distinct, useful and worthwhile. 

So, now we’ve come out. We’ve set out a stall, set expectations and committed to a course of action. A course that was set as a result of my experiences at the Anthropy event which I will discuss in my next article. I invite you in. Pre-empt me, argue, agree. If business as usual isn’t The Problem, what is? If it is, but a race to the top is not The Solution, what is yours? Suggest, contribute, enter the debate. Share. Join in. And if you work in a business that is seeking to extricate itself from business as usual, please get in touch

  • Michael Solomon is the director of Responsible 100.


Cartoon image by Graeme Mackay, editorial cartoonist for Canada’s Hamilton Spectator, adapted from his original version; portrait photo of Michael Solomon by Sazmedia; main illustration by Fanny Blanquier

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