Saving the World, One Purchase at a Time

I went to TEDxSF this weekend.  As usual, it was an inspiring collection of speakers, artists and performers.  I was blown away by Eythor Bendor of Berkeley Bionics, who has developed an exoskeleton which allowed Amanda Boxtel, who has been paralyzed from the hips down for 20 years, to WALK.  I wish I could take photos like James Mollison or film like Louie Schwartzberg or play ball like Andres Torres (Yungo).  I love hearing the stories of how people became who they are and why they are interested in what they do.  There were some great stories at this event, particularly from the women: Mel Robbins, Pamela Wilhelms and Nina Wise.

I do find that I get annoyed during some TED talks.  This makes me feel bad.  I’ve done some soul-searching and while I do have to admit that part of it is envy, a large part is my critical eye wanting to see people do the very best they can, particularly about a subject matter that is so important.  I found myself frustrated by Simon Mainwaring’s concept of We First.  I truly believe that he is a passionate individual, doing his best to improve the world, and while I applaud the motivation I believe that the approach isn’t as powerful as it could be and given the import of the causes, deserves to be done much better.

The way I heard Simon’s message is that the world needs to start accepting that we are intimately connected and therefore make sure that we act in ways that are mutually beneficial.  His call to action was to consume consciously and demand that the brands and companies we purchase from and invest in act with the greater good in mind.  While I agree with this, I think he is missing a crucial piece, especially when speaking to a group of TEDsters.  Not only do we need to think this way when we are in a consumer or investor frame of mind, but we should expand this to include when we are at work.  He said he was inspired by Bill Gates speaking about the role of the private sector in philanthropy, but his prescription was focused not on what we do as part of the private sector, but as private citizens.  I believe that for real change to happen, it has to start within organizations and that each individual needs to take this consciousness into the decisions they make on a daily basis at work.

Imagine the impact if every manager thought about the social impact of their on the job decisions.  I mean this for every person who develops products, analyzes finances, designs software, builds buildings, cleans windows, leads organizations, hires employees, transports goods, and so much more.  If in each of those decisions, at both the macro and micro levels, each individual thought the effect on other people in the broadest sense, we could have real change.  If social responsibility weren’t just some office sequestered in the back corner of the marketing department, but part of the ethos of the entire organization and every decision, then that would be a movement worth celebrating.

Unfortunately, this is hard.  And, it is often at odds with the stated purpose of all corporations to optimize financial performance for shareholders.  And, so I understand why there is an argument to affect this performance based on consumer and investor activities.  I just believe that we must take all routes to this goal and the most direct is by changing the way we do work.  So, if you read this Simon, consider adding a chapter or two to your book about how managers should think about this.  And for goodness sake, please compel them to get it out of the branding department!  This can’t be about the t-shirts, no matter how good they look (unless of course you are a t-shirt manufacturer, nod to Liberty & Justice).  If social responsibility is another story we tell about the company or product and not really part of the organization’s mission, we are never going to get to the world you imagine.  And that world, is one I want to be a part of too.

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One thought on “Saving the World, One Purchase at a Time

  1. Amita Chebbi says:

    I actually don’t believe it is hard for organizations to include a social dimension to their business proposition – companies need to move away from thinking about social responsibility to thinking about ‘shared value’, which improves social and economic outcomes for people as well as enhances their competitiveness. Thinking in this manner will actually spur innovation within the organization and help to create a differentiated strategy for their product / service offering. Admittedly, this may be easier for some industries like pharma, diagnostics etc and may be more difficult for conventional industries like steel and cement.

    In the Indian context, i do believe that we still have some way to go with respect to ‘individual social responsibility’ as well!

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