The dawn of the Citizen business

This article was first published in 2019 part of the pamphlet Finding connection in a disconnected age: stories of community in a time of change, published by the very brilliant charity The Cares Family in partnership with Nesta. I’m republishing now as I’m part of a number of conversations, mainly through B Lab UK, about the future direction of the concept of corporate citizenship. In particular, this looks set to be a big part of the conversation at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos, where I’ll be from tomorrow; and this is a key element of the Oxford University MBA Global Opportunities and Threats (GOTO) initiative, for which I’m a mentor.

Here’s a challenge for you. Every time you use the word ‘consumer’ — whether you write it, say it or even think it — you are holding back the shift towards the richly connected, deeply human future we could create. You are reinforcing an idea of humanity that is outdated and inadequate, in your own head and in the heads of those you work with. You are part of the problem; or, more accurately, you are holding back the tide of solutions.

To be able to see this, you have first to know what the consumer really is. You may think it’s just a word. But language is never inert: it’s the scaffolding on which we build our thoughts, behaviours, values and — most importantly — identities.

This is why the consumer matters — because it’s an identity construct. It contains coded within it an idea of who we are, and what the right thing is for us to do. Every time we use it, we are telling ourselves that what is right is to seek the best possible deal for ourselves from the options offered, based primarily on material self-interest, as narrowly defined individuals, and for the short term. Social psychology experiments show that when we expose people to consumer norms, or even to the word itself, we prime reactions that are more selfish, less open to social participation, and less motivated by environmental concerns. We are telling people not to care. We might not mean to do so, but we are creating disconnection.

This is the challenge that the surge in disconnection levels at the business world. It is simply not enough any more to generate profits, then allocate some of those to easing the challenges of society. The very idea of humanity, on which the modern corporate world has been constructed, must be shifted.

Understood in this way, consumerism started in the mid-twentieth century, initially as a liberating shift. It brought us a revolution in individual agency in the form of freedom of choice, raising standards through competition. The year 1984, with all its weight of literary resonance, beautifully fills out this picture of the consumer as a positive shift — and represents the idea at its zenith. Apple and Virgin, two iconic consumer brands, burst onto the scene. The idea that we could buy stuff to save the planet and solve global poverty was brought to the mainstream by the Body Shop as it floated on the London Stock Exchange, and by Band Aid as it stormed to Number 1. The Los Angeles Olympics, the first ever to be funded by commercial sponsorship, showed that we consumers could fund global sport and culture too. Madonna even had the poetic decency to cap it off by releasing ‘Material Girl’.

The unintended price, though, has been disconnection — from the world, from each other, and from ourselves. As a result, we’re now living in insanity: all the problems we thought consumerism could solve are in fact multiplying, breeding with one another and deepening around us, at least in the mainstream structures of society; and we respond by continuing to do the same things, expecting a different result.

But here’s the good news: consumerism is on its way out and the next great identity construct is on its way up: the citizen. It’s happening everywhere, across every aspect of society, and across the world. Instead of just choosing what we want from the options offered and hoping against reason and experience that if we all do that, the best for society as a whole will somehow emerge, we are, as citizens, exploring our moral and creative agency — shaping what the choices are, and finding new ways forward.

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Understanding the contrasting imperatives of Subject, Consumer and Citizen

It’s happening in politics, where it manifests as the usurping of representative democracy by participatory democracy. It’s happening in local communities, where the long simmering of self-organising movements unmistakably approaches boiling point — and power.

Perhaps most importantly, though, it’s happening in business, where it manifests as a drastic shift in focus from profit to higher purpose as the ultimate goal and measure of success. Milton Friedman’s famous dictum that “the social responsibility of business is to maximise its profits”, is very obviously falling from its perch.

This can be seen in the rise of social enterprise, of shareholder activism and divestment, and in the renaissance of mutualism. It’s clear, too, inside individual businesses — as our understanding of human motivation leads us to see that employee engagement must entail genuine participation in shaping organisational culture and purpose. And it’s clear in the rise of the B-Corporation movement, where companies commit to using business as a force for good and where profit drives their social purpose.

Patagonia, the apparel company founded by Yvon Chouinard in the early 1970s, has become the poster child of this movement. For Patagonia, people are not consumers, they are peers who share the same passion for nature and the outdoors. This view results in radical business decisions, like the Footprint Chronicles, through which the company crowdsources its supply chain audits, holding itself to high standards of transparency and drawing on the insight and energy of their customers to help them do so.

But it’s not just hip companies and snazzy marketing that are showing how success can be built on a bigger idea of humanity. Rooted industrial firms are responding too. Take French gearbox fork manufacturer FAVI, for instance, whose CEO has written a book subtitled “the enterprise which believes that humanity is good”. When most of its competitors were outsourcing and moving to China, FAVI instead introduced a widespread programme of power sharing across the organisation, including removing not only the clocks that factory floor employees used to check in and out, but also all productivity targets — finding that productivity and quality increased to the extent that they now have a 50 per cent share of their market.

That’s the power of the citizen business.

It’s important to note just how different this agenda is from Corporate Social Responsibility. Thinking of people as citizens and participants is about harnessing collective power: building agency and connection to communities and the issues that affect them, not selling superficial answers. Far too many brands — even when the aspiration is for positive environmental or social outcomes — still remain complicit in disconnection through communications that say, in effect, “Shh, little people, just go shopping, we’ll sort it.”

But the tide is turning. We have a moment in time right now. Our challenge is to respond constructively, and usher in the new era with positivity and courage. If we can seize this moment, this citizen shift, we can create a new, more meaningful, and fundamentally connected society. The world of business needs to be part of that, and it needs to start by stepping away from the idea, and the language, of people as consumers — and toward that of the citizen business.

Originally published at https://thecaresfamily.org.uk.

Written by

activist / strategist / citizen / co-founder @NewCitProj / fellow @the_young_fdn @theRSAorg / member @CompassOffice @soclibforum

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