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Thursday, 24 February 2011

Foreword by Jeffrey Hollender – Part 3

Though much has changed in the last 25 years, one thing hasn’t: business is still the only force with the reach and resources to do what needs to be done as quickly and efficiently as possible.

After watching America’s political process devolve in recent years into what is essentially an oversized argument punctuated by self-serving bursts of alarming obstructionism, it’s clear that government is not the answer. Real leadership in Washington and other political capitals has long since been replaced by fearful strategic triangulation that replaces big ideas and bold action with anemic incremental change.

Nor are NGOs an effective alternative. There are too many of them too narrowly focused and too often at odds with each other. Even when added up, the non-profit world simply hasn’t the authority, influence, or financial base to engineer change on a mass scale.

That leaves business as the only force in today’s world that’s got it all: a universal presence, an ability to get things done quickly and on as little as a CEO’s say-so, and the economic clout required to engineer widespread systemic change with remarkable speed. Business is our best and indeed last hope, and it’s time to put that hope to the test.

As this book wisely notes, change is no longer a matter of choice. Our present trajectory tells us it’s coming whether we want it to or not. The only question is what form this change is going to take. If the corporate community fails to adopt and embrace meaningful CR, those changes will be grim indeed, and the world that will emerge may very possibly be too environmentally degraded and socially unstable for business to survive at all.

Business needs CR as much as the world itself does. This book is how we get to that better future. The journey starts with Visser’s critical dissection of the role that business has played in the development of the many challenges we face and the first-generation failures of the CR movement to prevent them. It’s as key an instructive moment as the movement has ever had, and we will do well to heed the important lessons this analysis brings to the table.

Yet it’s when Visser looks at where we go from here that the book you are holding offers its biggest payoff. Upon seeing that the first iteration of CR was not enough, we could easily be left wondering what to do next. Having once given it our all, what’s left to give? In Visser’s view, the answer is plenty, and I agree. Rather than be frustrated by our previous lack of meaningful success, this roadmap to a more sane and just future offers ideas to get excited about. Visser’s vision of what a new brand of CR could and should look like and his exploration of the kind of businesses it would breed is the medicine the movement has been seeking. It’s at once a way out and way forward. We would be foolish in the extreme not to take it to heart and put it to work.

Over twenty years ago, a handful of individuals at a ragged assortment of companies tried to start a revolution. You’re holding the book that can finish it. Take what it knows and use this wisdom to set your own business on the path to a better and more profitable place. Whether you’re a CEO in a corner office or a worker on the line, read it, learn it, and spread its gospel as far and wide as you can. The hour may be late and the clock loudly ticking, but the story of responsible business is not over yet. There’s still room for a happy ending. And the time has come for us to write it for ourselves.


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Jeffrey Hollender is former CEO and co-founder of Seventh Generation, and co-author of The Responsibility Revolution

How to Order

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Foreword by Jeffrey Hollender - Part 2

So what happened?

The short answer is not enough. As the CR movement spread to the corporate mainstream, it lost its focus. What started as a relatively simple set of goals to protect the environment and human rights degenerated into a philanthropic free-for-all in which causes proliferated and an ever-expanding array of do-good choices and options presented itself to business management teams who were already on confusing ground. Corporate executives who saw the need for CR failed to adequately help their staffs translate their vision into action, and public expectations about what was truly important were misunderstood or not understood at all. The resulting disconnect between what was needed and what actually got done neutered too many promising efforts.

At the same time, countless companies did what companies do: They created an office or a department to deal with CR and told it to grow CR initiatives. But this compartmentalized approach had the effect of decoupling innumerable CR agendas from their company’s actually daily workings and left programs trapped “inside the box” where nothing meaningful could happen.

In other cases, companies simply co-opted CR for their own purposes. This “greenwashing” was all about hype and appearance rather than honesty and action, and too many firms simply sought CR window dressing to help them look better in an increasingly informed world. They released fancy reports with pretty pictures. They had their CEOs photographed at CR conferences and summits. They purchased smaller more legitimately responsible companies for their halo effect and little more. But very rarely did they walk their talk.

Ironically, forces like these resulted in the one thing that CR supporters and naysayers can agree on: Corporate responsibility in its present incarnation has been an enormous disappointment at best. It has not lifted people out of poverty. It has not protected the environment. It has not boosted community wellbeing. It has been too little, too late and at most has succeeded in getting some companies to aspire to simply do less damage than they did before. Instead of changing the world, CR merely evolved into a baseline requirement in every company’s license to operate. Where it succeeded, it only managed to slow the rate of decay, which is hardly enough to do much more than maintain the status quo.

This, say CR’s detractors, is proof that the movement’s fundamental ideal - that a business can remake itself so as to create an overwhelming net benefit for society and the environment in addition to its own bottom line - is not a valid model for moving forward and tackling the extremely big issues we now need to address.

But that’s wrong, and in this book, Wayne Visser shows us not only why but where we go from here. CR remains  a  valid approach ripe with promise and possibility. Yet as Visser quite importantly notes, this reaffirmation is dependent on the emergence of a new form of CR that takes a far more holistic view of its work and seeks not to affect piecemeal change but to engineer a series of systemic corrections that wisely recognize that since all our problems are connected our solutions must be, too. The job of CR advocates is to pull these new values into every last corner of the world’s companies in order to impact each process and decision, and deliver a return on purpose as well as a return on investment.

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Jeffrey Hollender is former CEO and co-founder of Seventh Generation, and co-author of The Responsibility Revolution

How to Order


Saturday, 19 February 2011

Foreword by Jeffrey Hollender - Part 1

Seeing Farther, Going Further

In the beginning, responsible businesses were going to save the world. I remember because I was there. It was the late 1980s, and a new brand of socially and environmentally benevolent companies were emerging on the corporate landscape. The Body Shop, Ben & Jerry’s, Patagonia, and my own company, Seventh Generation, to name just a few, were out not only to make money but to fundamentally change the way things worked doing it.

Driven by equal parts societal need and personal desire, and an ethos carried on patchouli smoke from the late 1960s, these companies were founded by entrepreneurs who confronted the regressive bent of the Reagan era with a determination to create a different operating model for the business community. This new paradigm would reconcile the historic conflict between corporate profits and cultural progress by selling products and services whose creation took every possible precaution to safeguard the environment and respect the rights and dignity of the people responsible for bringing them to market.

Those were heady days. We thought we could save the world and earn a living doing it. The idea seemed obvious and its execution relatively straightforward. And though the things
were
we were doing had largely never been tried, every time one of them worked, the possibilities appeared even more endless than before. By the time of the big 20th anniversary of Earth Day in 1990, it was clear that corporate responsibility was a concept whose time had come. People the world over were eager for an evolutionary change from business-as-usual and the harm it was causing, and we were sure that it was only matter of time before the rest of the corporate world beat a path to our doorstep

Indeed, the business community did come knocking. Flash forward two decades, and it’s rare to find a company of any appreciable size that doesn’t offer a corporate responsibility (CR) report or tout some kind of progressive initiative. There are CR officers sitting in executive suites around the world and conferences on the subject well attended by Fortune 500 companies. Touchy-feely ad campaigns and self congratulatory press conferences abound. And some days it seems like nearly every product label has something to say about the change the goods within are helping to create.

Yet by virtually every measure, the world is in worse shape than it’s ever been. Our atmosphere is overburdened with dangerous levels of greenhouse gases. Our planet’s biodiversity and its ecosystems are under siege. Growing numbers of people are living in increasing poverty. Deadly toxins pollute our land and our bodies, yet health care remains a distant dream for far too many.  We’re running out of water. We’re running out of natural resources. And we’re running out of time. 


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Jeffrey Hollender is former CEO and co-founder of Seventh Generation, and co-author of The Responsibility Revolution

Friday, 18 February 2011

The Age of Responsibility Launches in the UK


Book details

Title: The Age of Responsibility: CSR 2.0 and the New DNA of Business
Author: Wayne Visser
Publisher: John Wiley & Sons
ISBN:  978-0-470-68857-1
Hardcover, 408 pages
February 2011


Back cover text

Business is doing more than ever before to tackle issues like climate change, poverty, human rights and corruption. So why are things are getting worse, not better? Why are environmental and social trends still headed in the wrong direction?

Wayne Visser argues that traditional approaches have failed, leaving business stuck in the Ages of Greed, Philanthropy, Marketing and Management. Using Web 2.0 as a metaphor, he shows how business needs to radically transform if we are to ever reach a true Age of Responsibility. The required systemic approach is dubbed CSR 2.0 and characterised by five key principles: creativity, scalability, responsiveness, glocality and circularity.

Citing more than 300 cases to illustrate ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ of corporate sustainability and responsibility, the book describes how the new DNA of business is fast being decoded in the areas of value creation, good governance, societal contribution and environmental integrity.

Having set out a compelling vision of the future, The Age of Responsibility describes how to get there by exploring change at the societal, organisational and individual level. Readers are left not only informed, but also inspired to make a difference. 

This book is the most challenging and exciting account of the future of business that you’re likely to read all year.

About the Author

Wayne Visser is Founder and Director of the think-tank CSR International and the author/editor of twelve books, including nine on the role of business in society. In addition, he is a Senior Associate at the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership, Professor of Sustainability at Magna Carta College, Oxford, and Adjunct Professor in CSR at the La Trobe Graduate School of Management in Australia.


How to Order

Direct from the publisher's website - available 18 February 2011
From Amazon (UK) - available 18 February 2011
From Amazon (USA) - available 19 April 2011

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

The Age of Philanthropy: The Wheels of Wealth

The Rockefeller story is a good one to introduce the Age of Philanthropy, not only because of John D.’s iconic status as a tycoon and philanthropist, but also because his life and views on charity embody much of the philanthropic attitudes that still prevail today in business. At the heart of the Age – and its chief agent, Charitable CSR – is the notion of giving back to society. Rather interestingly, this presupposes that you have taken something away in the first place. Charitable CSR embodies the principle of sharing the fruits of success, irrespective of the path taken to achieve that success. It is the idea of post-wealth generosity, of making lots of money first and then dedicating oneself to the task of how best to distribute those riches, by way of leaving a legacy.

Of course, the ideals of charity and philanthropy pre-date Rockefeller. Like greed, charity is probably as old as humanity itself. And right from the beginning, there is an element of enlightened self-interest. For example, in the Hindu religious text, the Rig Veda (1,500–900 BC), we are told: ‘If it is expected of every rich man to satisfy the poor implorer, let the rich person have a distant vision (for a rich man of today may not remain rich tomorrow). Remember that riches revolve from one man to another, as revolve the wheels of a chariot.’ Similarly, in the Upanishads, another of the Hindu scriptures, it states: ‘Like in a well, the more you fetch, the more water oozes. The more you give the more you get. This generosity is mandatory to every individual. Hurry to promise or pledge to help.’

Turning to the Far East, Confucius (551–479 BC) said: ‘When wealth is centralized, the people are dispersed. When wealth is distributed, the people are brought together.’ Hence, ‘a man of humanity is one who, in seeking to establish himself, finds a foothold for others and who, desiring attainment for himself, helps others to attain’. When asked, ‘Is there one word which may serve as a rule of practice for all one’s life?’ he replied, ‘Is not reciprocity such a word? What you do not want done to yourself, do not do to others.’

This so-called Golden Rule, which we find in all the world’s major religions, has come to represent the very essence of charity. In fact, the word charity derives from the Latin caritas, which means preciousness, dearness, or high price. In Christian theology, caritas became the standard Latin translation for the Greek word agape, meaning an unlimited loving kindness to all others. Hence, in St Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians, we read, in the King James Version of the Bible, of ‘faith, hope and charity’. Of course, it is not only giving that is important, but also the nature of giving. There is a Jewish proverb that says: ‘What you give for the cause of charity in health is gold; what you give in sickness is silver; what you give after death is lead.’

Islam also has a strong tradition of charity. Zakat, or alms-giving for the purposes of alleviating poverty and helping those less fortunate, is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. The practice is generally in the form of an annual tithe or tax of 2.5% of an individual’s wealth (although the percentage can vary by country and tradition), including money made through business, savings and income. The zak_at must also be above an agreed minimum (called nisab), which is said to be around $2,640 or the equivalent in any other currency. As important as the collection of zakat is in a community, its fair distribution among the needy is even more important. Another form of charitable action by Muslims is sadaqah, which literally means ‘righteousness’ and refers to the voluntary giving of alms or charity. These ancient traditions are considered to be a personal responsibility for all Muslims, practised out of love for humanity, to ease the economic hardship of others and eliminate inequality.

There are numerous other religious and cultural variations on the theme. Philanthropy in Latin America typically revolves around asistencialismo, which is charitable giving for poverty alleviation. In Eastern Europe, Bulgarian communities have, over the years, raised donations to build churches, schools and cultural centres called chitalishta. In India, Gandhi’s trusteeship concept has been adapted and applied to welfare acts. In Mexico, the Raramori, who still live in the mountains of the state of Chihuahua, use the expression korima, which means ‘to share’ resources in times of stress. In Southern Africa, ubuntu is the practice of humanism based on the collectivist notion that ‘I am a person through other people’. And so on, all around the world.

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This is an extract from Chapter 3 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 2010 Wayne Visser

Monday, 14 February 2011

Deborah Leipziger on "The Age of Responsibility"

The Age of Responsibility will change the way you think about CSR, allowing you to discard myths and to work towards a systemic view of CSR. Wayne Visser holds up a mirror to the CSR community and to business and society itself, providing a brilliant lens with which to see our past and envision a new future. Visser projects a new type of CSR he terms "CSR 2.0". The Age of Responsibility is a call to arms: inspiring, engaging and visionary.

- Deborah Leipziger, author of The Corporate Responsibility Code Book and SA8000: The Definitive Guide to the New Social Standard

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The Age of Responsibility: CSR 2.0 and the New DNA of Business, by Wayne Visser is available from Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com and other leading book retailers (ISBN-10: 0470688572, ISBN-13: 978-0470688571).

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Author Interview by Beckoning for Change (B4C)



Beckoning for Change (B4C): What inspired “The Age of Responsibility” book?

Wayne Visser (WV): It was a combination of concern and inspiration – concern that, despite the tremendous growth of corporate sustainability and responsibility (CSR) activities over the past 20 years, most of the world’s social, environmental and ethical problems are still getting worse, not better; and inspiration, because through my work and travels in 50 countries, I have seen many promising glimpses of what a new, creative, more effective business approach might be, which I call CSR 2.0. So I wrote the book to warn against complacency and to share exciting new best practices. Our challenges are too big and urgent to waste more time using outdated thinking, broken models and ineffective strategies. Creativity means letting go of the past and creating the future.

B4C: What have you learned in the process of setting up CSR International and delving into the CSR realm?

WV: The biggest lesson from setting up the thinktank CSR International has been a realisation of how much momentum this movement on corporate sustainability and responsibility has gathered and how truly global it has become. In less than 2 years, we have grown to include more than 2,000 members from 95 countries, and the website gets 150,000 page hits a month. As a result, we are looking at setting up a CSR International Institute of Professionals, to recognise those who are working so tirelessly to make a positive difference through business. What excites me is both the scale and diversity of participation. It means that there are thousands, if not millions of people focusing their creative energies on solving some of the world’s most difficult problems, and sharing what they are learning along the way.

B4C: How do you define freedom?

WV: Freedom is the ability to make choices about my life in a way that does not harm or disrespect others. Am I able to choose my work, my friends, my quality of life? Do I have a choice in expressing opinions, selecting a lifestyle and creatively expressing myself? The great the choice I have in these matters, the greater my freedom and dignity. However, it is important that my freedom does not make others less free. As I have written in the book, if we enjoy the right to freedom, it is because we accept our responsibility not to harm or harass others. On the other hand, responsibility becomes onerous when choice is removed from the equation, when we do not realise our freedom to act differently, when we forget that we are allowed to say no.

B4C: What other concepts are required in a sustainable equation of freedom?

WV: At the heart of a sustainable concept of freedom is reciprocity and respect. Should I be free to accumulate excessive wealth, when large portions of our society remain trapped in poverty? Should I be free to exploit nature or people in order to fuel my own acquisitive greed or consumptive lifestyle? Clearly, these are corrupt acts of freedom; freedom that acts like a cancer cell in the body. I should be free to pursue my highest and truest potential, but only if that enriches, rather than impoverishes, nature and society. My freedom should contribute to the common wealth of experiences, resources and aspirations.

B4C: How do you think your work aspires to contribute to this concept and the notion of collective freedom?

WV: My work is about showing that a more sustainable and responsible future is something we can actively choose and work towards. We are not condemned to a world of pollution and poverty, of conflict and destruction. These are problems that we have created and that we can solve collectively. But this requires a shift in societal norms to embrace values that limit the abuse of power, that cherish life and diversity, and that realise that the long term gains of collective responsibility far outweigh any short term sacrifices required to get there. We know that the market – and its primary institution, business – do not operate in a vacuum. They will shift when we all choose to prioritise fairness and happiness over profits and material consumption.

B4C: Do you think that corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives can have an impact on collective freedom and human rights issues?

WV: Without a doubt. Already, we have seen norms changing, as evidenced in frameworks like the UN Global Compact and the emerging work on business and human rights by Professor John Ruggie. We have seen Bottom of the Pyramid (BOP) strategies and the Grameen microfinance approaches being adopted by business, and spurring a wave on innovation in the provision of finance, goods and services for the poor. We have seen the improvement in labour conditions in the supply chains of many of the world’s largest companies, like Gap and Nike. And through these and many other CSR-related initiatives, the world’s collective freedom – especially the ability of the world’s poor to choose a better life – is being enhanced. On the other hand, the freedom of many of nature’s diverse and exquisite species to survive and thrive has been tragically diminished.

B4C: How can CSR be authentically implemented? What are the obstacles? How do corporations overcome them?

WV: For CSR to be authentically implemented, companies must revisit the purpose of business. Is it to make profits, to enrich executives, and to pander to fickle shareholders or market analysts? Or is it to improve society by providing useful, safe, healthy, delightful and environmentally sustainable products and services? So long as the purpose of business is narrowly defined in terms of economics, companies will always be caught in a web of short-term, self-enrichment and CSR will always be something peripheral, incremental and at odds with the company’s main drivers. The biggest obstacle to CSR, therefore, is the narrow expectations we place on business. Corporations can overcome this through bold and innovative leadership. But more importantly, we must collectively broaden and deepen our expectations of business and then apply the necessary carrots and sticks to help companies to ‘shapeshift’ their corporate purpose.

B4C: Do you have an example of a company that meaningfully contributed to freedom and social change?

WV: There are many examples. Unilever has been very progressive on sustainability issues – helping to launch initiatives like the Marine Stewardship Council and Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil – and is now planning to double in size, bringing life-improving products to a billion people, while halving their environmental footprint. Nestle is working hard at creating “shared value” through improvements in water, nutrition and rural development among the communities they serve. Wal-Mart is planning to make sustainability mainstream by creating responsible products that are affordable (rather than premium priced, as they currently are), while creating zero waste and using 100% renewable energy.  All of these companies and many more are creating social change while enhancing people’s ability to make choices that will improve their lives, communities and nature.

B4C: What is the current status of CSR?

WV: Most companies tend to be stuck in one of what I have defined as four Ages and Stages of CSR: defensive CSR in the Age of Greed, charitable CSR in the Age of Philanthropy, promotional CSR in the Age of Marketing, or strategic CSR in the Age of Management. Collectively, I call these approaches CSR 1.0, because they have failed to turn around our most serious problems, or to make the net impact of business positive. However, a few companies are starting to demonstrate a more systemic CSR in the Age of Responsibility, which addresses the root causes of our problems and which I call CSR 2.0. This includes demonstrating the five principles of CSR 2.0, which I explore in the book, namely creativity, scalability, responsiveness, glocality (balancing global and local needs) and circularity (cradle-to-cradle production). The examples I cite are the innovators, but we need many more if we are to shift to CSR 2.0 and bring about a tipping point into the Age of Responsibility.

B4C: In the next decade, what are the trends and priorities in CSR?

WV: We can expect to see a mainstreaming of responsible and sustainable products, largely due to choice editing by large companies or governments. Pure philanthropy will increasingly shift towards seeding and supporting social enterprises. We will see far more emphasis on measuring and judging companies social, environmental and ethical impacts, rather than just their activities. We can expect more collaborative approaches to solving difficult problems, especially using Web 2.0 tools like wikipreneurship and crowdsourcing. Information about the impacts of products will also become more easily and intuitively available, embedded in barcodes and accessible through smart phone technologies. In addition, we will see a far more complex governance system, with a web of regulation, voluntary codes, social compacts and unwritten norms shaping corporate behaviour.

B4C: As individuals and consumers, what role do we have in this bigger picture?

Ultimately, all change starts with individuals. We are all change agents in our own right. The challenge is to focus our efforts in ways that we can be most effective. My research suggests that there are four types of change agents: experts, facilitators, catalysts and activists. For some, their biggest impact will come through contributing specific knowledge and expertise, others will empower people (colleagues, children, friends, etc.) to make a difference; some will influence organisations, while others will exert social pressure through civil society involvement. Our buying choices will also create change, but we need to be more demanding. We should not accept having to pay more for sustainable and responsible products. We have to work for changes that will make doing the right thing the easiest and most sensible choice in the world.

B4C: How can artists, as global citizens with immense power to create communities, collaborate with corporations to bring about change and freedom?

Artists must tell the stories which reflect and shape our collective consciousness. They must penetrate the superficial veneer of fashion and materialism and peer into society’s heart and soul. Artists have the crucial task of animating – making visible and vital – our deepest concerns and our greatest hopes about business. Only through the honesty of the artist can we accurately perceive the state of our world and the performance of our companies. Are we sick? Are we corrupt? Are we fulfilled? Are we adding to the sum of life, or subtracting from it? Where is the beauty? Where are the acts of caring? The power of art is to engage us emotionally – as workers, as customers, as parents, as children, as humans. We cannot think our way out of our current crises. We have to act. And we will only act if we are motivated by strong feelings, whether they are our horror and anger over injustice and exploitation, or our passion and inspiration over the innovative possibilities for a better world. Artists can remind us that we dream the world into existence – through business and in myriad other ways – and that we have the freedom to shape our collective dreams, and thereby to create a life-affirming destiny for the planet and its people.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Brad Googins on "The Age of Responsibility"

High marks for Wayne Visser who brings us a book that both challenges the conventional state of CSR in very fresh and bold fashion, and offers a provocative new vision of CSR 2.0.

What is most energizing about this book is that it provides a well documented historical and analytical framework on the progression of CSR over the past century. But in analyzing the current state of CSR, it recognizes that despite amazing achievements and progress, CSR has to leap frog into a new world, one that recognizes the new DNA of business, and one that calls for a CSR 2.0 that goes far beyond the models that currently exist.

The new Principles of CSR 2.0 that Visser puts at the heart of this book provide the business community and the CSR world a new path for incorporating the complexity of the social and environmental issues that confront today’s corporation, a CSR that can serve as a more transformative force for economic and social sustainability.

What a refreshing and creative read! There are few books that can cut to the chase and provide a thoughtful analysis of the current state of CSR while at the same time opening up a vision for tomorrow. This is a contribution to the CSR world that is long overdue and most welcome.

- Brad Googins, Associate Professor in Organisation Studies at the Carroll School of Management, and former Director of the Boston College Center for Corporate Citizenship


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The Age of Responsibility: CSR 2.0 and the New DNA of Business, by Wayne Visser is available from Amazon.co.ukAmazon.com and other leading book retailers (ISBN-10: 0470688572, ISBN-13: 978-0470688571).

Friday, 4 February 2011

The Age of Greed (book extract)

In my view, the Age of Greed began when the first financial derivatives were traded on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange in 1972 and peaked when Lehman’s collapse in 2008. It was a time when ‘greed is good’ and ‘bigger is better’ were the dual-mottos that seemed to underpin the American Dream. The invisible hand of the market went unquestioned. Incentives – like Wall Street profits and traders’ bonuses – were perverse, leading not only to unbelievable wealth in the hands of a few speculators, but ultimately to global financial catastrophe.

The word ‘greed’ – from the old English gr├Ždig – has etymological roots that relate to ‘hunger’ and ‘eagerness’. This is similar to the older word, avarice, coming from Old French and Latin (avere), meaning ‘to crave or long for’. Those are characteristics that Larry had in spades. The Greek word for greed – philargyros, literally ‘money-loving’ – also has a familiar ring in the Lehman's story. The trouble is that capitalism in general, and the American Dream in particular, has tended to interpret this as a healthy trait. Traders at Lehman Brothers didn’t believe he was being unethical, or doing anything wrong. They were playing the game – extremely well – and being rewarded handsomely.

Perhaps we would do well to revive the German root of the word for greed (habs├╝chtig), which means ‘to have a sickness or disease’, for greed acts like a cancer in society, an essentially healthy cell in the body, which becomes selfish and ultimately destroys its host. The enabling environment is as important as the greedy cell itself. After all, as I argued in my book, Beyond Reasonable Greed, a certain measure of selfishness is natural, but it needs to be moderated by norms, rules and cultural taboos that keep its destructive tendencies in check.

It is worth reminding ourselves what the consequences of those destructive tendencies can mean in the lives of millions of ordinary people. The financial cost of cleaning up after the global financial crisis – which ultimately gets translated into a tax burden on the public – was estimated by the IMF in August 2009 at £7.1 trillion, enough to finance a £1,779 handout for every man, woman and child on the planet. The gargantuan sum includes capital injections pumped into banks in order to prevent them from collapse, the cost of soaking up so-called toxic assets, guarantees over debt and liquidity support from central banks.

And then there is the human cost of unemployment. In January 2010, the International Labour Organisation released figures showing that global unemployment rate for 2009 was 6.6%, which translates into 212 million people, an increase of almost 34 million over the number of unemployed in 2007. In the US alone over 100,000 businesses filed for bankruptcy in 2008 and 2009. At the same time, the World Bank estimates that the financial crisis will left an additional 50 million people in extreme poverty in 2009 and some 64 million in 2010 relative to a no-crisis scenario, principally in sub-Saharan Africa and Eastern and South-Eastern Asia.

The Age of Greed was not something ‘out there’. It was not the preserve of a few rogue traders. We were all caught up in its web. It is in fact a multi-level phenomenon, incorporating executive greed, banking greed, financial market greed, corporate greed and ultimately the greed embedded in the capitalist system. These different facets of greed are each explored in turn in the sections to follow ...


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For more information and ongoing updates, follow the The Age of Responsibility Blog

Copyright 2010 Wayne Visser