CSR Debates "Capitalism: A Love Story"

CSR Debates "Capitalism: A Love Story"
Jeff Klein, CEO of Cause Alliance Marketing, recently posted a story indicating why he thinks Michael Moore’s new film “Capitalism: A Love Story” leaves out an important chapter. He writes: “While some capitalists work on Wall Street, and some of those Wall Street capitalists focus on money and their personal wealth at the exclusion of nearly all other things, many other capitalists build and run companies that focus on creating value for more than just themselves. Many of the capitalists on Wall Street invest in companies for reasons beyond their own self-interest and are actively participating in the emergence of Conscious Capitalism.”
Klein is a proponent of a “contrasting, more hopeful perspective” on capitalism. He optimistically points to purpose-driven companies that create value for stakeholders as well as shareholders, and books like Firms of Endearment: How World-Class Companies Profit from Passion and Purpose (Wharton School Publishing: 2007).
Being the author of several books on purpose-driven companies myself, I am familiar with the territory and can certainly appreciate where Klein is coming from. Still, even the most enlightened corporate responsibility professional has to acknowledge that, alongside the Whole Foods and Honest Teas of the world, there are the Citigroups and Halliburtons. Which companies control the most wealth? We cannot ignore the truths that Moore dramatizes, because they will not dissipate on their own.
Some of you reading this may vehemently disagree with Moore’s premise and approach. I encourage you to see the film and join the debate. To inspire further conversation I have included the following comment of mine, written in response to Klein’s original post. Please have at it:
Jeff, as someone who has been researching the matter of conscious capitalism for the past five years, I can tell you that we are on the same page with respect to our admiration of companies that stand for a meaningful purpose, and that integrate that purpose into everything they do – from the products they sell to the way they treat people and the planet. My second book, The High-Purpose Company (Collins: 2007), beat Firms of Endearment to the market by just a few months. I thought it was interesting how, although we had no way of sharing data or knowing how each other’s methodologies were structured, our two research-based books came to strikingly similar conclusions. I took this as an optimistic sign, and I am glad to see so many purpose-driven companies thriving in our economy.

Where you and I seem to differ is in our takeaway of Michael Moore’s main thesis. I believe Moore is telling a more prolific story, and that more of us involved in the CSR community might benefit by listening carefully.

Moore’s core message is not that all capitalism is evil. In fact, in Moore’s movie he features several purpose-driven companies, including Alvarado Street Bakery, as examples of what can be done when business leaders decide to embrace socially just business models.

Moore’s main message is that we live in a fundamentally imbalanced society – a plutonomy – where the top one percent of the population controls the vast majority of the Nation’s wealth. Upholding the top one percent are the nation’s premier financial institutions, which is why Moore points the finger at Wall Street.

Let’s be honest about the current circumstances our Nation faces, and Moore’s depiction thereof. Our premier financial institutions accepted $700 billion in no-strings bailout money. The banks have not disclosed where the bailout money went, though we know a portion of it was used to pay executive bonuses. The banks also continue to oppose proposed consumer protection reforms and other measures that would shield citizens against unfair industry practices. In all, I’d say Wall Street has shown itself to be less than honorable during a period of peaked economic stress for America’s middle class.

Given the widening gap between America’s “haves” and “have nots” (in addition to the reasons for that gap), some might characterize the current financial crisis as a social justice issue. That is one of the key points in Moore’s film. It is also a key point made by many in our industry who we consider leaders: Dr. Muhammud Yunus, Robert Glassman and Hazel Henderson to name a few. It’s just that these leaders deliver the message in a very different way from Moore.

We in the CSR industry need to ask ourselves what our role should be in all of this. I agree it is wonderful to continue to promote and protect the interests of legitimately responsible and purpose-driven companies. At a certain point, however, more force is necessary. This industry needs rebels, too.

There is a part of me that believes that if we continue to allow Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and others to continue be traded in our SRI funds and flouted on our “Best Citizens” lists, as they are today, then we will not be promoting justice, and we will not be doing our jobs.