Guest post by Simon Mainwaring
I have been invited to tell you about my book, We First. Naturally, I don’t want to give it all way, as that would spoil all the surprises, but let me give you some insight into why and how I was prompted to write it—as I am inviting you, personally, to join me in the We First movement.
Several years ago, I read a speech that Bill Gates gave to the world’s top business people, economists, and social thinkers at Davos. In his talk, Gates challengned corporations to be more creative about how they might fulfill the needs of the world’s poor. He suggested that corporations could find new ways to account for their profits, such as amortizing their costs across a wider spectrum of products, lowering their license fees and profit margins in poorer countries, and adding the value of the reputational boost they get from socially responsible activities into their profit accounting.
After reading this speech, I decided to apply my experience as an advertising creative director and social media consultant to Gates’s challenge. I reflected long and hard on the myriad crises of the world and considered numerous ideas to see if I could help capitalism become more “creative.”
My thinking grew and expanded in multiple directions. Meanwhile, the financial crash of 2008 was taking its toll on the world, causing tens of millions of people to lose their jobs, their homes, and their life savings.
I suddenly realized that the answer to Bill Gates’ challenge was that the world needed a serious reengineering of capitalism. We need to inject new thinking into how we conceive of this economic system. We needed to learn how to get away from a destructive mentality that has come to dominate business and finance, evident in the Wall Street and corporate greed that only seeks profits, and evident as well as in the unbridled consumerism that leads millions of people into debilitating debt.
Slowly, the solution unfolded for me. What I recognized is that, if humanity is to survive and thrive on this planet, we need to shift our economic system from Me First to We First capitalism. This transition involves altering our mindsets and our behaviors; it requires eliminating our selfish ways of acting and replacing them with socially responsible ones in alignment with the global dynamics of the 21st century. This transformation is as necessary for corporations as it is for consumers because we now live in an interconnected, complex world, where prosperity must be defined as the well-being of the many, not the wealth of the few. Capitalism can no longer be an elite system to fund a small class of people, leaving billions of others living without opportunity or hope.
Thinking about the We First approach, I saw that we must accomplish four major shifts in how corporations think:
1. The first is how we define and act out our self-interest. Me First capitalism has become all too prone to allowing selfishness and excess replace any reasonable meaning of self-interest. Wall Street bankers, CEOs, and corporate executives pay themselves sky-high salaries compared to what most workers are paid. Corporations and investors perceive self-interest only as maximizing profits, regardless of any negative consequences they impart on the environment or on society. The middle class is disappearing, our cities are under-serviced, and the march of poverty is picking up pace. In place of this myopic view of self-interest, we need to recognize that self-interest can no longer be defined in such narrow-minded, personally selfish ways. We need to look deeper and see that mutual self-interest more often provides greater benefits than immediate rewards. In an interconnected, complex world, capitalism cannot survive if it ultimately pits the self-interest of 7 billion people and 120+ nations against each other.
2. The second mindshift we need to make concerns profit versus purpose. In free market capitalism, profit for profit’s sake is everything. Corporations seldom think about the purposes they could fulfill in society, while professional economists argue that companies have a responsibility only to their shareholders and owe nothing to society. This is the Me First attitude that we can no longer accept. Consumers are increasingly demanding companies to pay equal attention to social purposes as to profits.
3. The next mindshift regards sustainability, which we most often apply only to the environment. But the We First approach suggests that we must extend the idea of sustainability far beyond this. We First capitalism must be sustainable economically, morally, socially, ethically and environmentally, in the sense that this economic system must create in each of these domains the conditions for long-term success, not just short-term rewards. For example, economic sustainability means that we need to acknowledge that prosperity is the well-being of many, not the wealth of a few. Without shared prosperity, capitalism is not sustainable.
4. The fourth mindshift involves recognizing that our philosophy of capitalism has lost its human values. Too many companies manipulate, cheat, defraud, and create the conditions for a race to the bottom among competitors. In a We First approach, we must re-instill values into how corporations and people practice business. All companies need to embed these values deep into their core, values like accountability, fairness of rewards, responsibility, global citizenship, and sustainability.
These four shifts are the core of We First. They are the basis for how we, as a society, can transition ourselves out of the practices and customs we have allowed to compromise free market capitalism, which, through the changes We First recommends, could be perhaps the only serious economic system that has the ability to bring prosperity and freedom to the majority of people on the planet.
But how can we implement these shifts? What can concerned consumers and social activists do to help transform capitalism? How do we answer Bill Gates’ challenge? We First explains this in great detail and I invite your to join me in making the changes we need in business thinking and behavior a reality.
Simon Mainwaring is the founder of We First, a social branding consultancy that helps companies, non-profits and consumer groups build a better world through changes to the practice of capitalism, branding, and consumerism using social technology. More information is available in We First: How Brands and Consumers Use Social Media to Build a Better World (Palgrave/Macmillan, June 2011). Or visit www.wefirstbook.com. Note that 10% of book proceeds go to the United Nation’s Girl Up Foundation that supports education for young women in the developing world.