American News

For Capitalism, System Change Is Absolutely Necessary — But Is It Possible?

Some call the corporate embrace of the protests a sea-change in the structure of the economy, but the culture of capitalism doesn’t easily change.
Capitalism, news on capitalism, capitalism news, John Elkington, 3Ps theory, Spencer Bokat-Lindell, triple bottom line, profit people planet, US news, Peter Isackson

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June 25, 2020 13:10 EDT

Spencer Bokat-Lindell, a staff editor at The New York Times, explores the meaning behind the messaging put forward by major enterprises in the wake of the anti-racism protest movement that arose after George Floyd was killed in police custody. That political leaders and figures in the world of sports and entertainment should step up to announce their sympathy or support seems natural. But when major corporations like Apple, Amazon and Microsoft ostentatiously jump on the bandwagon of Black Lives Matter, Bokat-Lindell’s suspicion about the sincerity of their motives may be justified.

The CNET website lists about 30 major brands that have come on board, with some having made donations to Black Lives Matter, others funding projects consistent with the protest movement’s goals and all of them publicizing it with varying degrees of discretion. Wondering what lies behind their sudden conversion, Bokat-Lindell goes looking for evidence to confirm one of two possible hypotheses. The first is that they are sincere and that it reflects a serious and consequential change in their corporate culture. He formulates the second as a question: “[A]re they just protest-proofing their bottom lines?” He follows this up with a further interrogation: Does any of this even matter?

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Many people sense that with COVID-19’s impact on the economy and the sea-change in public opinion about racism, the economic system and capitalism itself are now calling into question their own governing principles. To illustrate the phenomenon, Bokat-Lindell cites one potentially monumental trend that in the past two decades has already taken place among conscientious leaders. It’s called the triple bottom line (TBL). He reminds readers that “it has become increasingly common to hear executives talk of not one but two or three bottom lines: profit, people and the planet.”

In a Forbes article published at the end of 2019, Jeroen Kraaijenbrink explains that when the idea was launched 25 years ago, the TBL “was supposed to provoke deeper thinking about capitalism and its future, but many early adopters understood the concept as a balancing act, adopting a trade-off mentality.” Its goal was “system change—pushing toward the transformation of capitalism. It was never supposed to be just an accounting system.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

System change:

A desired amelioration in the fundamental principles governing a dysfunctional system that, according to an unwritten law of nature, no self-respecting system will ever allow to happen short of previously undergoing total collapse followed by the necessary redesign by minds that were not attached to the preservation of the initial system

Contextual Note

The creator of the 3Ps theory, John Elkington, defines it as “a sustainability framework that examines a company’s social, environment, and economic impact.” When he launched it a quarter century ago, he hoped that it would be a force for systemic change that transformed corporate culture, making capitalism itself sustainable.

By culture, Elkington meant the way people perceive in all its complexity and think about their interaction with the surrounding human and physical environment. A cultural change implies the internalization of a new set of values by everyone who shares the culture. It means that while profit is still essential for the survival of an enterprise, reorienting the basis of decision-making toward a stronger connection with the two other Ps — people and the planet — may be even more so.

Although his theory has been endorsed by numerous corporations, Elkington has now reached the conclusion that the cultural change he was expecting never took place. Instead, the 3P concept has been used and even implemented as just another “alibi for inaction.” Adopting it makes executives seem more responsible than they’re willing to be.

On the surface, 3P theory has been a success story, changing the way people talk about social responsibility. “Thousands of TBL reports are now produced annually,” he writes. But, he adds, “it is far from clear that the resulting data are being aggregated and analyzed in ways that genuinely help decision-takers and policy-makers to track, understand, and manage the systemic effects of human activity.” Instead, it has been used largely to comfort decision-makers in their belief that, while still focusing on profit above everything else, they are in some obscure way doing good for people and the planet.  

Historical Note

John Elkington explains what happened over the past quarter century in these terms: “[T]he TBL concept has been captured and diluted by accountants and reporting consultants.” What this means is that the executives have delegated the task to those whose actions have no impact on the direction of the business. The “thinking about capitalism and its future” he hoped for turned away from imagining a system that meets human needs and settled on fabricating the alibi that allows it to persist with its old habits.

Elkington explains that “many early adopters understood the concept as a balancing act, adopting a trade-off mentality.” That’s how the capitalist mindset has been programmed to work. It seeks to determine the monetary value of everything it handles and find ways to trade them off for gain. That includes principles and visions of a better world.

Spencer Bokat-Lindell never answers the final question he asked in The NY Times article: Does it matter whether the corporations are sincere or not? The witnesses he cites seem to agree that much of it is sheer opportunism. Others may be tempted to call it shameless hypocrisy. But, as Times journalists tend to do, Bokat-Lindell ends on a note of possible hope when he cites a CEO who, with apparent sincerity, proposes earmarking $14 trillion for the black community in the guise of reparations for slavery (he didn’t bother to provide a complementary price tag for Jim Crow). Of course, the CEO in question wasn’t proposing to pay the bill out of his company’s pocket.

Elkington sounds far more realistic when he too hopes for “a new wave of TBL innovation and deployment” while ruefully acknowledging that most likely “none of these sustainability frameworks will be enough.” That doesn’t stop him from reminding his public of the stakes, that humanity’s survival may not be possible without “a genetic code for tomorrow’s capitalism, spurring the regeneration of our economies, societies, and biosphere.”

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Click here to read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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