Are Sustainable Businesses Roadblocks To Change?

Slovenian philosopher and theorist Slavoj Žižek 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.

Žižek 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.

Žižek 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 Žižek 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.

HT @JohnCTownsend.

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  1. Kate Olsen April 25, 2011 at 2:41 pm #

    This is Kate Olsen (@Kate4Good), Sr. Manager of Partnerships at Network for Good, a nonprofit social enterprise that powers charitable acts anytime, anywhere through technology. Thank you so much for this post. There has been much criticism of slactivism and other examples of cultural capitalism in social and traditional media recently. I think any proponent of social change knows that these types of activities are not going to create a tidal wave of impact, but they are an important addition on the spectrum of cause engagement. Not everyone can dedicate their life to social service, so providing a multitude of ways for people to get involved with a cause – anything from adding a dollar at checkout to voting in a social media campaign to participating in a walk/run event – has the potential to evolve into something much more profound. It’s up to the causes and cause marketing partners to make sure that slactivists get invited into full supporter-hood so that their passion can be harnessed for lasting impact.

  2. Olivia Khalili April 25, 2011 at 5:19 pm #

    Hi Kate,

    I agree. I don’t believe these smaller-scale actions prevent people from doing more. Conversely, I think they can serve as a ‘gateway’ action to further change. We’re all accountable to do more but that doesn’t mean that we should do away with “less-more.”

    Thanks for speaking up.

  3. Frank April 26, 2011 at 10:35 am #

    The new economic revolution we are undergoing is based on the recognition that many of the earth’s natural resources that modern industrial economies have relied on for the past couple hundred years are limited, not infinite. Human behaviors, both small and large, have evolved around the assumption that these resources were infinite. Likewise, new behaviors, both small and large, are now evolving to correct for the prior misunderstanding and each individual who CHANGES his or her behavior accordingly is part of that evolutionary process. Four or five hundred years from now, humanity will judge if the choices, both small and large, that we made in this century contributed to the establishment of a planet populated with a human society that is truly sustainable. Current critics of any “small” steps are irresponsible when they don’t also explain how that “small” step could be improved. The goal of each newly convicted generation should be “continuous improvement”, plain and simple. And, I applaud all actions, both large and small, that embrace that sustainability ethic.

  4. Olivia Khalili April 26, 2011 at 11:49 am #

    Frank, absolutely agree: “Current critics of any “small” steps are irresponsible when they don’t also explain how “small” step could be improved.”

    Thanks for joining the discussion.

  5. Stacy April 26, 2011 at 11:54 am #

    I completely agree with your critique of Zizek’s video. When it comes to cultural capitalism – we are a capitalistic society regardless. People are going to buy stuff, and lots of it. Why not at least make some sort of positive impact on the world out of that? There is no doubt that non-profits, government, and individuals still have a role to play. But we all have a role to play and that includes the for-profit sector.

    [I’m the Co-Founder of Give to Get Jobs: For-profit jobs that give back. Give to Get Jobs is a job board for CSR + Social Enterprise jobs launching on May 2nd. Twitter: @Give2GetJobs]

  6. Olivia Khalili April 26, 2011 at 11:57 am #

    Thanks, Stacy. You nailed it with: We’re a capitalistic society, and we all still have additional roles to play.

    I look forward to checking out Give2GetJobs. Good luck with the launch!

  7. Andy January 31, 2012 at 4:54 pm #

    He’s saying that charity and ‘do-gooder’ businesses are an avenue for cosmetic changes (‘small steps’), but fail to address the systemic problems of a society. Basically, a way for the profiteer to wash their hands clean and pat themselves on the back; for the coffee drinker to feel righteous and engaged for doing what they do anyways (i.e. buying a cup of ‘free trade’ coffee). Do you guys really believe there can be a capitalism that is not based on exploitation?