At first glance, capitalism circa 2014 looks like a pretty soulless endeavor: massive piles of fast money, no wider context of conscience involved.
Just look at how Hollywood’s depictions of finance guys have evolved. In 1946, in It’s a Wonderful Life, the softhearted banker wins out. In 1987, we got Wall Street, in which the heartless Gordon "Greed Is Good" Gekko ends up losing a stack of money and getting prosecuted for insider trading. And within the past few months, one of the most-discussed movies was The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese’s fizzy glamorization of the ruthless Jordan Belfort, who dishonestly made millions in boiler-room swindles in the 1990s and essentially got off scot-free.
During the past number of years, one clear alternative to that dog-eat-dog moneymaking mentality arose. Under pressure from the media and certain sectors of public opinion, the new hot catchphrases were "corporate social responsibility" and "triple bottom line."
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) was a good start down the right road. It opened the eyes of companies to factors beyond their P&Ls and did an unquestionable amount of good in the world. (Just ask any African youth who received a pair of Toms shoes.)
But CSR all too quickly became just another set of items on a checklist, a series of hoops for brands to jump through on the way to making a buck, which, world-saving pronouncements aside, is really what we are all here to do. And it became a contrived marketing gimmick, often not backed up with anything substantive – corporate Botox, spray tanning, and teeth whitening, superficial and soulless.
Marketing materials and company websites may have gone on and on about their commitment to profit, people, and planet, but it wasn’t long before savvy consumers saw through it. They suspected that the company leaders who so loudly pledged their commitment to that triple bottom line in public were making cynical comments about it all in private. CSR became just more mechanical accounting.
What’s arising in its place is more nuanced and authentic. Conscientious capitalism isn’t just a different mindset, but a different heart-set and soul-set. It’s about doing what is right, simply because it is the right thing to do – setting up a community kitchen not just for the photo op, press release, and branding opportunity, but to actually give people food and care.
It is mindful of other realities of the corporate world today, which is driven by ruthless efficiencies. And with offshoring, outsourcing, and new technologies, companies can goose their profits by having as many free employees as possible.
If you project that forward, it’s easy to imagine a hollowed-out country where we’re lamenting the loss of not only the middle class, but also the creative class, with the majority of people unemployed or earning minimum wage manning cash registers. And, as the middle class gets hollowed out, blue-state consumers – latte drinkers, Volvo drivers, Warby Parker wearers – become more important. They have money. And only money talks. Business might do the right things, but few will do it for the right reasons.
Conscientious capitalism recognizes and acknowledges this world, in which the less people earn, the less they have to spend. And unlike many past CSR efforts, in which well-meaning people (many of them time-rich, but cash-poor) attempted to bring about a change, the new conscientious capitalism takes a more pragmatic approach.
It’s still capitalism. There’s an imperative to make a profit, but taking this path isn’t as easy as going for profit above all else. There’s an awareness of ways to do that that also benefit a few other people along the way.
Icons of conscientious capitalism include Bill Gates, Bono, Bob Geldof, and Richard Branson. They command respect and attention. We know who they are and we know their business track records, so when they talk about matters of conscience, we listen.
For anyone under age 35, though, they’re historical figures – so 20th century and on the far side of the digital divide. Millennials need their own conscience leaders, too. Maybe they see Mark Zuckerberg as their poster boy, and who knows what’s in his soul? Or maybe they just haven’t yet seen a company that does capitalism in a way that expresses their conscience.
With the scale of the problems the United States is facing, we need more conscientious capitalists, no matter their age. They don’t have to be perfect. To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, this is about being touched by the better angels of our nature. They just need to be able to combine profit and conscience powerfully.