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Thursday, 10 March 2011

The Age of Responsibility - Radical Confessions

What makes Ray Anderson and Interface different from, say, BP or Cadbury’s, is the depth of their admission and the scale of their ambition. Anderson’s latest book is called ‘Confessions of a Radical Industrialist’, in which he is able to admit not only that today’s economic system is broken, but that he and his company are part of the problem. He is able to see himself as a plunderer – not through malicious intent, or even greed, but by failing to question the true impacts of business on society and the environment. And as Alcoholics Anonymous will tell you, admission is the first step to recovery. Unfortunately, companies stuck in the Ages of Greed, Philanthropy, Management and Misdirection are all still in denial, respectively thinking that either there is no problem, or it’s not their problem, or it’s only a minor problem, or that it’s a problem to benefit from.

But the Age of Responsibility is not just about admission; it’s also about ambition. As far as I can tell, Interface is the first major company to set the BHAG (“big hairy audacious goal”) of zero negative impact. And beyond ‘no harm’, to also become a restorative business – to genuinely make things better; to leave this world with a net-positive balance. It is only such audacious goals that can lift the triple curses of incremental, peripheral and uneconomic CSR. As Robert Francis Kennedy reminds us: ‘There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?’ We need more pragamatic dreamers, business leaders who practice what brain-mind researcher and author Marilyn Ferguson calls Pragmagic.

Anderson was not the first radical business leader, nor perhaps even the most radical. The late Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop International, had a missionary zeal that few will ever rival. Famous for her business-led activism, which began as an alliance with WWF in 1986 to save the whale, she went on to tackle issues as far ranging as animal rights, women’s self-esteem, human rights, fair trade and indigenous people’s rights. In her autobiography, Business As Unusual, she distilled her philosophy this way: ‘Business is a renaissance concept, where the human spirit comes into play. It does not have to be drudgery; it does not have to be the science of making money. It can be something that people genuinely feel good about, but only if it remains a human enterprise.’

Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield who ‘hated running but loved food’ and therefore founded Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, became flag bearers for a more radical kind of responsibility as well. Their mission ‘to make the best possible ice cream in the nicest possible way’ was not just sweet talk. They put it into action in various ways, from going free range and supporting fairtrade to setting up a Climate Change College and sponsoring research into eco-friendly refrigeration. Their biography, The Inside Scoop: How Two Real Guys Built a Business with a Social Conscience and a Sense of Humor, tells the story. ‘If you open up the mind,’ they concluded, ‘the opportunity to address both profits and social conditions are limitless. It’s a process of innovation.’

Ricardo Semler is another a self-confessed Maverick and CEO of the Brazilian manufacturing company Semco, who turned many assumptions about ‘good management’ on their head. At Semco, he allowed workers to set their own salaries and working hours; he taught everyone in the company, including shop floor workers, how to read a balance sheet; and he made everyone’s salary public (‘if you’re embarrassed about the size of your salary’, he said, ‘you’re probably not earning it’). His radical philosophy was this: Most companies hire adults and then treat them like children. All that Semco does is give people the responsibility and trust that they deserve.


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This is an extract from Chapter 6 of The Age of Responsibility: CSR 2.0 and the New DNA of BusinessFor more information and ongoing updates, follow the The Age of Responsibility Blog

Copyright 2011 Wayne Visser

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