FROM CRONY TO CONSCIOUS

Space Doctors came together to knock heads about the impact of politics in the world of brands, meaning and culture. With Capitalism’s approval rating dipping; what does it mean for brands to exist in a world where business has to be about something more than profits?

A few weeks ago the Washington Post reported on a Harvard University Survey, which polled young adults (between ages 18 and 29) in the USA, revealing that: “51 percent of respondents do not support capitalism. 42 percent said they support it. 33 percent said they supported socialism.” These statistics have since been shared widely under scandalised, generalised headlines that can arguably be summarised as “Millennials reject Capitalism!!”

Though the results may sound surprising coming from the land that gave us Starbucks, Disney and Apple, upon a closer inspection of US society we might ask whether millennials are referring to a grievance with Iced Lattes, Zootopia and hi-spec Laptops or really to something more diffuse? We discussed this question in our most recent Culture Club session on the forbidden dinner-party topic of Politics. The responses recounted in the following write-up are intended as informal hypotheses and thought-starters in a cultural conversation that carries far beyond our lunchtime salon.

Amongst the broader discussion, the C-word captured our attention. Capitalism is bandied about a lot these days but its definition has been fractured. Though the aforementioned survey data suggests the apparent rejection of the economic system that shapes our lives, we might first consider the context of unprecedented precarity that is nurturing dissent. From this perspective, the difference between the actual execution of finance and private enterprise, and the current public perception of it (fuelled in part by bad-man narratives played out in recent films such as Wolf of Wall Street, The Big Short and Margin Call) is of great importance.

Amalgamation Capitalism in Hollywood

It doesn’t take an Economics grad to read these stalemate statistics as a reaction against amoral capitalism. After all, why would this young adult audience approve of an establishment who championed the deregulation that led to soaring student debt, impossibly expensive housing and welfare cuts? The majority of those who have come of age amidst a tempest of 9/11, Occupy and Katrina are acutely aware of inequality.

There is a want to recover a sense of justice through collective progression and a realisation that the individual, competitive and unscrupulous nature of Crony capitalism can’t provide for this; hence we see some youthful toes dipping into the sea of socialism (in inverted commas). The sampled generation appears to have dropped the ‘right-on’ late 60’s/ early 70’s fantasy of complete Revolution in favour of the more incremental attitude of ‘making the world a better place’.

Silicon Valley – Making the world a better place (supercut) from cthulberg on Vimeo.

To evolve the current system to accommodate this, as Nicole Aschoff identifies in “The New Prophets of Capital”, the idea of Conscious Capitalism is swiftly gaining ground. And as we see the influence of government in society shifting substantially in the West, brands have become central players in this reconfiguration.

Alongside the big-name B-Corp players like Method, Toms and Etsy, mainstream high-street stalwarts like H&M are also positioning themselves as eco (-nomic) warriors. In April, the clothing store selected renegade pop-star MIA as the face/voice of their self-initiated ‘World Recycle Week’.

The focal communication is a music video wherein natural resources are suggestively and presciently reframed as a new form of capital as MIA sings and dances in dystopian urban landscapes. At first look, this activation (a component of the fashion brand’s broader ‘Close the Loop’ initiative) helps to justify their 2014 title of the ‘World’s Most Ethical Company’ (awarded by the Ethisphere Institute) but we need to ask whether this type of credentialing is visible to the average consumer. In our analysis we can see that the message of conscious capitalism is being transmitted but its reception is harder to discern e.g. how might this affect behaviour change? This endeavour highlights that although the sentiment behind the ‘rallying’ cry approach to cause-related branding is constructed with good intention, in the swirl of the current activist climate, it may swiftly become an exhausted trope.

Slavoj Žižek in Liverpool

In his book ‘In Defense of Lost Causes’ Slavoj Žižek writes that: “The threat today is not passivity, but pseudo-activity, the urge to ‘be active’, to ‘participate’ to mask the nothingness of what goes on”. Though he would likely hate/ disregard the following, this perspective aligns with a position we reached in our lunchtime discussion; that there is an immediate necessity for brands to evolve their discourse away from flat insistence on ‘transparency’ to embodied ‘integrity’ and from promised ‘authenticity’ to substantiated ‘accountability’. Doing so would orient them as antidotes to current political confusion and consumer skepticism. Unilever is one example of an MNC that has reconfigured its corporate function to address and deliver on these concepts. CEO Paul Polman’s ambitious vision “to double its size while reducing its overall environmental footprint and increasing its positive social impact” rejects occasional CSR PR and viral attachments to causes in favour of a purpose-driven business model. For example, the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan simultaneously drives commercial success and social progress.

Instead of asking the consumer to shoulder the entire burden of responsible citizenship, this style of ‘money where your mouth is’ commitment serves to prove that “doing well by doing good” is both possible and globally scalable. By reflecting on the above statistics as a demonstration of frustration regarding inequality, unsustainable business practices, and broken promises (as opposed to an outright rejection of the U.S economic system), brands and organisations can reflect and shape the aspirations of their young adult audience with greater cultural relevance and meaning.

An output of Culture Club, an internal monthly gathering to pool ideas, share views, and knock heads over subjects that underpin and inform how today’s culture will look tomorrow.