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What should companies do when the riots break out?

Date: 10 Aug 2011
Author: Mallen Baker

Photo from catalogue of Simons models

An urgent item for the boardroom agenda

The age of consequences will be with us for some time. If you push so much carbon into the atmosphere it changes the climate, there will be consequences. The price of energy will go up as we try to shift a voraciously energy-consuming world onto sustainable forms of energy. Consequently, the cost of travelling will go up. The cost of food will go up. Many of those things we thought were basics are about to be re-priced as luxuries.

More consequences. The greedy selfish generation fed itself on debt. Consumer debt became unsustainable. And then national debt likewise. The US can continue to raise its self-imposed debt ceiling all it likes, but if anyone really believes that spending vastly more than you have on an ongoing basis is a sustainable proposition - well, they're not paying attention.

Up until now, we've believed in the myth of linear progress. For instance, the Millennium Development Goals - a set of targets we would work our way towards and then finally achieve, and then we could look forward to the next target.

But whilst we're doing that, the human population is growing exponentially, and the factors listed above mean that actually in some of those areas we are going to lurch backwards, not forwards.

And the trouble is that a generation that now believes it is entitled to low prices, and all the gadgets, and even the rioters have Blackberries, is not going to just knuckle down and work harder.

Social unrest is going to be a factor constraining the choices we make. It will make it harder for politicians to hold fast to environmental policies. It will offer a real challenge to CSR as people default to wanting stuff they can afford and asking fewer questions about how it was made.

We like to think that times of adversity mean that we pull together. But it is just as likely it makes people fight, and lose sight of the real causes of the problems in a wave of self-indulgent blaming and finger-pointing. The US is the hotbed for this at the moment, with the break-down their of civil political discourse. That is one step on the path of the decline of the American empire.

So this may be an early echo from the future - a little vision of how things could be if we get this wrong. But we should take this seriously. The new company mantras should be:

1. At our best, we can help people to achieve potential they never knew they had. As well as hiring the brightest and the best, we should seek out some of those people that believe they have been abandoned and find ways for them to see the benefit of improving their situation and to support them in putting this into action.

2. The future of our business has to be achieved in a more sustainable society. But sustainability is not achievable in a world of poverty, poor education and underdevelopment. This isn't just about changing a few light bulbs at head office. Get serious about supporting communities.

3. We have an interest in good governance, civil political discourse, and the rule of law. We should demonstrate by our actions that these are things that we aim to strengthen, not weaken, in the way we do business. That means not exploiting (and seeking to preserve) poor governance because we can make it work to our benefit.

Oh, and there's a fourth one that some may not like.

4. If we, as top executives, behave like greedy parasites it will undo a lot of the good work described in points 1-3.

All the major consumer-facing corporations have played their part over the last couple of decades in feeding the sensibilities of the selfish and greedy generation. The next step - of moving us beyond the sense of entitlement towards being a society bound again by common values - that has to be on the boardroom agenda as well.

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Social unrest is going to be a factor constraining the choices we make. It will make it harder for politicians to hold fast to environmental policies.

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