Positive Impact Blog

Thought provoking insights for change makers


Reimagining capitalism – Three concrete options for business

Rebeccca Henderson is a University Professor at Harvard Business School in the area of sustainable business. In her passionate new book “Reimagining capitalism” she looks at a world on fire and develops a model of what sustainable business in a fundamentally transformed capitalism would require and look like.  She distinguishes three strategy levels for business, which I find very helpful and which I link to my experiences in Switzerland.

Massive environmental degradation, skyrocketing economic inequality, and institutional collapse (by looking at the USA and other nations turning increasingly autocratic, but also at multilateral organizations like the WHO or the WTO) grow more important by the day. She argues convincingly that this is something that cannot be left to governments and civil society alone, as classical economic thinking declares, while companies continue with business-as-usual. If we fail in transforming capitalism and putting its significant power and resources to better use, we will not be able to effectively address these problems. And business will put its own – but also our future at risk.

What can be done in such a situation? What are the available options for business?

Three different progressively more far reaching but also more demanding strategy levels can be found in the book, although in a somewhat different logic and argumentation as presented here.

Creating Shared Value

A first strategy level is based on the idea of creating shared value, a concept championed by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer. They define shared value creation as creating economic value in a way that also creates value for society by addressing its needs and challenges. “In today’s world, reimagining capitalism requires embracing the idea that while firms must be profitable if they are to thrive, their purpose must be not only to make money but also to build prosperity and freedom in the context of a livable planet and a healthy society.” (R. Henderson) However, as long as shared values are defined by business looking from the inside out, their perspective will focus on reducing the bads of their existing activities. They will reduce waste, resources, or risks and happily report on newly created shared values. This cannot be sufficient. Only when they start to look from the outside in, starting from the problems society is facing and finding economic solutions for them, will their contributions address problems of real social relevance. Only then, they may be approaching what Katrin Muff and I call “true business sustainability”. For this, they clearly will have to follow a larger purpose than simply maximizing their profits.

Cooperative Self-Regulation

A second strategy level is based on cooperative self-regulation. It engages firms with each other, with the third sector, and with government partners in the pursuit of solutions to common problems, which cannot be solved by any of the partners alone, often prototyping solutions that prove to be a model for subsequent practice. Famous examples are Nike trying to get child labor out of its supply chain by creating the Sustainable Apparel Coalition or WWF and Unilever which spearheaded the creation of the Round Table on Sustainable Palm Oil, both as a response to the massive critique by NGOs. A current example on a national level, where the author is personally engaged, is PRISMA, an inter-industry cooperation of major companies in the food production, retailing, and packaging sector engaged in bringing about a circular economy solution in Switzerland for consumer goods packaging. While the existing system of materially separated collection systems has been working well in the past, it has reached its limits of including new packaging materials and of demanding an increasingly difficult contribution from the consumers to separate and collect the different materials. The new model developed and promoted by the PRISMA-coalition is an innovative One-For-All collection and recycling system. It consists of a blueprint for a future collection system, prototypes of different elements of a practical solution, and a roadmap for developing and promoting an industry agreement.

Supporting Inclusive Political Action

Cooperative self-regulation is a powerful new way to mobilize the business community in support of promoting collective goods. The increased reach, however, comes at a price. It is hard to achieve and even harder to sustain over time. It needs to be carefully managed. To create more stability and to counter market deficiencies, we need to turn to the third strategy level which is supporting inclusive  political action. Environmental degradation, climate collapse, inequality, and public health are systemic problems that cannot be solved without government action. Free markets need democratic, transparent and effective governments, if they are to survive, as well as the other institutions of an open, inclusive society including the rule of law, shared respect for the truth, and a commitment to vigorous free media. Free markets need free and effective politics to continuously balance and rebalance the evolving rules of the market in light of changing conditions and challenges.

The challenges are huge

Energy demand is projected to double over the next 50 years. Stopping global warming will mean ensuring that every new plant that’s built is carbon-free. It also means shutting down or decarbonizing the world’s existing fossil fuel infrastructure. Inequality, poverty, and migration present a similarly tough set of intertwined systemic problems that can only be fully addressed through government action. Most of these challenges are beyond the reach of individual countries and need international political cooperation. A good example is the Montreal Protocol, an international agreement to phase out ozone-destroying chemicals which became effective 1989. It has been remarkably successful. It proved to be possible to find CFC substitutes relatively quickly, despite strong opposition from major business players, and the Antarctic ozone hole is expected to return to its 1980 status by 2030. It has also reduced global Green House Gas emissions by about 5,5%.

The systemic problems we are facing today confront us with the fact that we must build effective global institutions. Business must become an active partner in shoring up the institutions that we have and in building the new ones that we need. And to be clear, this is not about improving the framework conditions for one’s own business or industry. It is about supporting the foundations of our society and of its healthy development. It is about protecting and developing the institutions that have made business and all of us rich and free.

A current example from Switzerland is the public vote on a popular initiative holding Swiss corporations legally accountable for environmental and human rights violations outside Switzerland. While 50,7% of the people voted in favor of the initiative, the second condition for an acceptance – the majority of cantons – was not achieved. The strong lobby of multinational corporations, their business associations and political allies prevented a move that could have paved the way for a more responsible and accountable form of supply chain management in a developing world context. In this case, it was a missed chance to go beyond simply reporting good news and demonstrate real engagement in one of the current hot spots of global development, although public and political pressure in Switzerland and on an international level will not go away It demonstrates how challenging it is for business to find a new role in this profound process of social change and business transformation.

Different strategy levels – different reach – different competences

Creating shared value, cooperative self-regulation, and supporting inclusive political action – on a national or an international level, depending on the issue at case – must be seen as three crucial sustainability strategies for business. While the first strategy is located on an organizational level and allows companies to act by themselves, this is easier to do, but its reach is also limited. Cooperative self-regulations offer a wider reach, often including whole industries or multi-industry and stakeholder coalitions. But this is clearly more challenging and demands very different competences and resources in the collaborative field to practically succeed. And a strategy of supporting inclusive political action aims at the political level and needs again very different competences and resources to act effectively. Here it will need political coalitions with business being only one player among many. But this level may prove to be the most important in the years to come.