Slovenian philosopher and theorist Slavoj Å½iÅ¾ek swings a sledge hammer at the knees of ‘cultural capitalism’ in this 10-minute video. And I admit, my knees buckled for some moments as I listened to his critique of Starbucks for its fair trade coffee, of philanthropist George Soros and of ‘charity businesses’ like TOMS Shoes.
Å½iÅ¾ek argues that cultural capitalism (i.e., cause marketing, point-of-sale donations, fair trade and buy-one-give-one) is innocuous and naive. That this type of charitable giving leads both companies and consumers to undeservedly feel they’ve done something useful. That if we all truly cared, we would focus on system changes to eradicate poverty and leave our African-made recycled shopping bags at home.
It’s easy to take this as an argument against sustainable business–I did for a solid ninety seconds, until I thought about what it means to be a truly socially driven business. It’s not about charity. It’s about creating an environment, mechanisms and behavioral influencers that lead to sustainable change. This takes all forms: employee enfranchisement, ethical labor practices, community investment, waste reduction, environmentally sound supply chains, social investments, etc.
Å½iÅ¾ek calls out Starbucks and TOMS Shoes for selling a diluted version of change and we, the consumer, for buying it. Surely we all agree that pink ribbons and reusable coffee mugs alone won’t turn Earth into utopia, but they can still alter behavior, priorities and resource allocation. To view this class of action as a roadblock or retardant to deeper change is lazy and short-sighted. While change sometimes looks sudden and instant (a flood wiping out a city) it’s brought on by incremental actions (each raindrop compounded with all others).
We need all manner of change–system changing individuals like Muhammad Yunus and carpooling recyclers who raise bake sale-organizing children (who grow into system-changing individuals).
Change doesn’t hinge on all or nothing. And Å½iÅ¾ek knows this. While his critique of cultural capitalism is sincere and pointed, it’s also inspiring and serves to refocus us away from fretting about Earth Day activities to acting on our greater social mission.