On 12 February, it was announced that The Body Shop UK was entering administration. With 199 shops across the country, if this leads to the collapse of the business, some 2000 jobs will be lost. The business has been struggling since 2020 and poor sales this last Christmas led the new owners, the pan-European alternative investment firm, Aurelius, to appoint administrators.
This could potentially begin an insolvency process that could result in the closure of some or all of the shops. This would spell the end of an iconic brand that, since its founding in 1976, has been associated with natural, ethically sourced and environmentally friendly products. Aurelius has already sold The Body Shop business in most of mainland Europe and in parts of Asia to an unnamed buyer. It is unclear what will happen to the approximately 2800 stores and 8000 employees in 70 countries outside the UK.
Origins of The Body Shop1
The Body Shop was founded in 1976 and shot to fame in the 1980s. It stood for environmental awareness and an ethical approach to business. But its success had as much to do with what it sold as what it stood for. It sold natural cosmetics – Raspberry Ripple Bathing Bubbles and Camomile Shampoo – products that proved immensely popular with consumers.
Its profits increased from a little over £1m in 1985 (€1.7m) to approximately £65m (€77.5m) in 2012. Although profits then slipped, falling to €65.3m in 2014 and €54.8m in 2015, its profit growth in new markets over that same period was 12.4%.
Sales revenue, meanwhile, grew even more dramatically, from £4.9m in 1985 to approximately €967.2m in 2015. By 2015, Body Shop International had over 3100 stores, operating in 61 countries.
What made this success so remarkable is that The Body Shop did virtually no advertising. Its promotion stemmed largely from the activities and environmental campaigning of its founder, Anita Roddick, and the company’s uncompromising claim that it sold only ‘green’ products and conducted its business operations with high ethical standards. It actively supported green causes such as saving whales and protecting rainforests, and it refused to allow its products to be tested on animals. Perhaps most surprising in the world of big business at the time was its high-profile initiative ‘trade not aid’, whereby it claimed to pay ‘fair’ prices for its ingredients, especially those supplied by people in developing countries who were open to exploitation by large companies.
The growth strategy of The Body Shop focused upon developing a distinctive and highly innovative product range, and at the same time identifying these products with major social issues of the day, such as the environment and animal rights.
Its initial expansion was based on a process of franchising, where individuals opened Body Shops which were then supplied by the company with its range of just 19 products. Then, in 1984 the company went public. Following its flotation, the share price rose from just 5p to a high of 370p in 1992.
In the 1990s, however, sales growth was less rapid. By 1998, earnings had collapsed by 90% and the share price fell to 117p. Shareholders forced Anita Roddick to step down as Chief Executive, but for a while she and her husband remained as co-chairs. In 2002, they stepped down as co-chairs, by which time profits had fallen to £20.4m. In 2003 she was awarded in knighthood and became Dame Anita Roddick. Sales then grew rapidly from 2004 to 2006 from €553m to €709m.
Acquisition of The Body Shop by L’Oréal
A dramatic event, however, occurred in 2006 when The Body Shop was sold to the French cosmetics giant, L’Oréal, which was 26% owned by Nestlé, The event resulted in the magazine Ethical Consumer downgrading The Body Shop’s ethical rating from 11 out of 20 to a mere 2.5 and calling for a boycott of the company. Three weeks after the sale, the daily BrandIndex recorded an 11 point drop in The Body Shop’s consumer satisfaction rating from 25 to 14.
There were several reasons for this. L’Oréal’s animal-testing policies conflicted with those of The Body Shop and L’Oréal was accused of being involved in price-fixing with other French perfume houses. L’Oréal’s part-owner, Nestlé, was also subject to various criticisms for ethical misconduct, including promoting formula milk rather than breast milk to mothers with babies in developing countries and using slave labour in cocoa farms in West Africa.
Anita Roddick, however, believed that, by taking over The Body Shop, L’Oréal would develop a more ethical approach to business. Indeed, it did publicly recognise that it needed to develop its ethical and environmental policies.
L’Oréal adopted a new Code of Business Ethics in 2007 and gained some external accreditation for its approach to sustainability and ethics. It was ranked as one of the world’s 100 most ethical companies by Ethisphere in 2007 and, in 2016, it was again part of this list for the seventh time.
L’Oréal set itself three targets as part of its environmental strategy (2005–15), including a 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, water consumption and waste per finished product unit. It made a donation of $1.2m to the US Environment Protection Agency to help bring an end to animal testing and, in March 2013, it announced a ‘total ban on the sale in Europe of any cosmetic product that was tested on animals or containing an ingredient that was tested on animals after this date.’ It also promised that ‘By 2020, we will innovate so that 100% of products have an environmental or social benefit.’
Sadly, Anita Roddick died in 2007 and so was not able to witness these changes.
L’Oréal also looked to inject greater finance into the company aimed at improving the marketing of products. In autumn 2006 a transactional website was launched and there have been larger press marketing campaigns. Profits continued to rise in 2006 and 2007, but fell back quite dramatically from €64m in 2007 to €36m in 2008 as recession hit the high streets. They fell by a further 8% in 2009, but significant growth was seen in the following three years: 2010, up 20.3% to €65.3m; 2011, up 4.3% to €68.1m; 2012, up 13.8% to €77.5m.
From L’Oréal to Natura to Aurelius to ?
From 2013, the financial performance of The Body Shop deteriorated. Profits fell by 38% in 2016 to just €34m, with sales falling by 5%. In June 2017, L’Oréal announced that it had agreed to sell The Body Shop for €1bn (£877m) to Natura Cosmeticos, the largest Brazilian cosmetics business. Natura was awarded ‘B Corp’ status in 2014 as it met certain standards for environmental performance, accountability and transparency. In 2019, The Body Shop was separately certified as a B Corp.
Initial indications for The Body Shop under its new owners seemed good, with net revenue rising by 36% in 2018 and 6.3% in 2019. 2020 saw strong growth in sales, with a rise in online sales more than offsetting the effect of store closures during the pandemic. Its market share peaked in 2020 at 1.4%. However, with the cost-of-living crisis following the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, many consumers switched to cheaper brands and cheaper outlets, such as Boots and Superdrug, sacrificing environmental and ethical concerns in favour of value for money. As a result, The Body Shop’s market share fell, dropping to 0.8% in 2022 and not picking up in 2023.
This prompted Natura to sell the business to Aurelius. Aurelius hoped to revitalise The Body Shop by promoting its core values and through partnerships or concessions with major retailers, such as John Lewis or Next. However, as we saw above, after a poor Christmas and a weaker capital base and higher cost commitments than initially thought by Aurelius, the new owner filed to put The Body Shop into administration.
What will come of the administration process remains to be seen. Perhaps some of the more profitable stores will be saved; perhaps there will be an expansion of the online business; perhaps partnerships will be sought with major retailers. We shall see.
1 Some of this section is based on Case Study 9.3 from Economics (11th edition).
- Aurelius Acquires Iconic Global Beauty Brand and Retailer, The Body Shop
Aurelius news (14/11/23)
- Back to the future? What’s next for the Body Shop brand
Marketing Week, Niamh Carroll (14/11/23)
- The Body Shop appoints administrators for UK business
Financial Times, Laura Onita and Will Louch (13/2/24)
- The Body Shop set to appoint administrators for UK arm
Financial Times, Laura Onita (10/2/24)
- The Body Shop collapses into administration in UK
The Guardian, Sarah Butler and Rob Davies (13/2/24)
- The Body Shop UK in administration – what went wrong?
Sky News, James Sillars (13/2/24)
- Body Shop UK jobs and stores at risk in race to save firm
BBC News (13/2/24)
- From cult status to closure fears — what happened to The Body Shop?
CBC News, Natalie Stechyson (12/2/24)
- Headed for administration, why did The Body Shop fail?
Startups, Richard Parris (12/2/24)
- Comment: The Body Shop’s woes hit just as it should be at its most relevant
TheIndustry.beauty, Lauretta Roberts (13/2/24)
- The collapse of The Body Shop shows that ‘ethical’ branding is not a free pass to commercial success
The Conversation, Kokho Jason Sit (15/2/24)
- What assumptions did The Body Shop made about the ‘rational consumer’?
- How would you describe the aims of The Body Shop (a) in the early days under Anita Roddick; (b) under L’Oréal; (c) under Aurelius?
- How has The Body Shop’s economic performance been affected by its attitudes towards ethical issues?
- What has Lush done right that The Body Shop has not?
- What will the administrators seek to do?
- Find out what has happened to The Body Shop outlets in mainland Europe?
Policy makers have become increasingly concerned about what the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) describe as ‘negative option marketing’. These are marketing deals that contain the following feature:
a term or condition that allows a seller to interpret a customer’s silence, or failure to take affirmative action, as an acceptance of an offer.
For example, companies such as Amazon, Apple, Spotify and Netflix may offer students a 3-month free trial or 3-month introductory offer (at a special lower price) for movie and music streaming services. However, many of these subscription contracts contain an example of negative option marketing – auto renewal clauses.
Problems with auto-renewal contracts
The inclusion of an auto-renewal clause means that if a customer fails to cancel the subscription at the end of the three-month period, the subscription automatically reverts to its full price. The full-price contract then continues to roll-over indefinitely unless the customer takes a pre-specified action to terminate the deal. Inattentive consumers could end up paying subscription prices that far exceed their willingness to pay.
Auto-renewal contracts are not just an issue with free trials/introductory offers. Some people may purchase subscription contracts at the full price and then forget about them. These consumers could end up paying fees for months after they have effectively stopped using the service.
Another potential problem with the use of auto-renewal contracts, is businesses deliberately making the cancellation process more complex than it needs to be. In many cases it takes just one click to sign up for the subscription, but multiple clicks through a series of menus to cancel. Some businesses do not provide consumers with the option to cancel online and, instead, they are forced to phone a number that is often very busy.
Effects on consumer welfare
To what extent do these problems caused by auto-renewal reduce consumer welfare? What evidence do we have?
Research by Citizens Advice found that just over one in four people (26 per cent) had signed up to a subscription by accident. 58 per cent of this group forgot to cancel a free trial, while 21 per cent did not realise that the free trial would automatically roll-over to a full-price subscription. This seems to be a particular issue for those on low incomes with 46 per cent of people on Universal Credit signing up to a subscription by accident.
Analysis by the Department for Business and Trade (DBT) has tried to estimate the value of these unwanted subscriptions. The study found that consumers spent £602 million on unwanted subscriptions where a free or reduced-price trial had been rolled over to the full price. The same study also found that £573 million was spent on subscriptions that people had forgotten about.
One in five people in the Citizens Advice study who tried to cancel a subscription found the process difficult. The DBT estimates that cancellation difficulties led to £382 million being spent on unwanted subscriptions.
UK Government response
In response to these findings, the government introduced the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill into Parliament in April 2023.
Provisions in the Bill seek to standardise the information that businesses must provide consumers before they sign up for subscription contracts. For example, in the future, firms will have to display prominently (a) any auto-renewal provisions, (b) whether the price increases after a specified period, (c) details about how consumers can terminate the contract and (d) cooling-off periods.
The Bill also stipulates that businesses will have to provide consumers with reminders when a free/reduced-price trial period is about to end and/or a subscription is about to renew automatically. They must also make it easy to exit contracts and remove any unnecessary steps.
The government initially considered an additional measure that would force businesses to provide consumers with the option to take out any subscription without auto-renewal.
Citizens Advice strongly supported this policy. They argued that not only should consumers be given the choice, but that auto-renewal should not be the default i.e. people would have to opt-in to auto-renewal subscriptions.
However, after the consultation process for the Bill, the government decided against introducing this additional measure. Businesses have also argued that the other elements of the policy are too prescriptive.
- Outline some theories from behavioural economics that might help to explain why people sometimes end up with unwanted subscriptions.
- Discuss some of the potential benefits of auto-renewal subscriptions for both consumers and firms.
- Using behavioural economic theory, explain some of the potential disadvantages for businesses of using auto-renewal subscriptions.
- When businesses deliberately make the cancellation process more complex than it needs to be, it is referred to as an example of ‘sludge’. Explain the meaning of ‘sludge’ in more detail, referring to some different examples in your answer.
- What difference do you think it would make to the number of people signing up for auto-renewal subscriptions if you had to opt-in as opposed to opting out? Explain your answer.
- Another policy would be to force firms to cancel subscription contracts if there is evidence that consumers have not used the service for a long period of time. Discuss some of the advantages and disadvantages of this measure.
- Explain what are meant by ‘dark patterns’. How may the choice architecture on some sites actually hinder consumer choice?
Imagine a situation where you are thinking of buying a good and so you go to an e-commerce marketplace such as Amazon, eBay, Etsy or Onbuy. How confident are you about the quality of the different brands/makes that are listed for sale on these digital platforms? How do you choose which product to buy? Is the decision strongly influenced by customer reviews and rating?
When a customer is choosing what to buy it raises an interesting question: to what extent can the true quality of the different goods/services be observed at the time of purchase? Although perfect observability is highly unlikely, the level of consumer information about a product’s true quality will vary between different types of transaction.
For example, when consumers can physically inspect and test/try a product in a shop, it can help them to make more accurate judgements about its quality and condition. This poses a problem for online sellers of high-quality versions of a good. Without the ability to inspect the item physically, consumers may be unsure about its characteristics. They may worry that the online description provided by the seller deliberately misrepresents the true quality of the item.
Consumers may have other concerns about the general reliability of online sellers. For example, in comparison to buying the product from a physical store, consumers may worry that:
- They will have to wait longer to receive the good. In many cases, when consumers purchase a product from a high-street store, they can walk away with the item and start using it straight away. When purchasing on line, they may end up waiting weeks or even longer before the product is finally delivered.
- It will be more difficult to return the product and get a refund.
- They are more likely to come across fraudulent sellers who have set-up a fake website.
This greater level of uncertainty about the true characteristics of the product and the general reliability of the seller will have a negative impact on consumers’ willingness to pay for all goods. This impact is likely to be particularly strong for high-quality versions of a product. If consumers’ willingness to pay falls below the reservation price of many sellers of high-quality goods, then the market could suffer from adverse selection and market failure.
Are there any within-market arrangements that could help deal with this issue? One possibility is for sellers to signal the quality of their products by posting consumer ratings and reviews. If consumers see that a product has many positive ratings, then this will increase their confidence in the quality of the product and so increase their willingness to pay. This could then reduce both levels of asymmetric information and the chances of adverse selection occurring in the market,
There is survey evidence that many people do read consumer reviews when choosing products on line and are heavily influenced by the ratings.
The problem of fake reviews
However, when consumers look at these reviews can they be sure that they reflect consumers’ honest opinions and/or actual experience of using the good or service? Firms may have an incentive to manipulate and post fake reviews. For example, they could:
- Deliberately fail to display negative reviews on their website while claiming that all reviews are published.
- Use internet bots to post thousands of automated reviews.
- Take positive reviews from competitors’ websites and post them on their own website.
- Pay some customers and/or employees to write and post 5-star reviews on their own website.
- Pay some customers and/or employees to write and post 1-star reviews on their competitors’ websites.
- Set up a website that they claim is independent and use it to provide positive endorsements of their own products.
If the benefits of this type of behaviour outweigh the costs, then we would expect to see fake reviews posted on websites. If their use becomes widespread, then the value of posting genuine reviews will fall. The market may then settle into what economists call a ‘pooling equilibrium’.
What evidence do we have on the posting of fake reviews? Given their nature, it is difficult to collect reliable data and there are large variations in the reported figures. One recent study found evidence of fake reviews being purchased and posted for approximately 1500 products on Amazon.
Can consumers screen reviews and identify those that are more likely to be fake? The following are some tell-tale signs.
- Products that receive a large number of very positive reviews over a short period (i.e. a few days). There are then long periods before the product receives another large number of positive reviews.
- A high percentage of 5-star reviews. Two, three and four start reviews are more likely to be genuine.
- Reviews that specifically mention a rival firm’s products.
- Reviewers who have given very high ratings to large number of different products over a short period of time.
- Reviews that include photos/videos.
Competition authorities around the world have been investigating the issue and the Competition and Markets Authority has announced plans to introduce new laws that make the purchasing and posting of fake reviews illegal.
- Outline different types of asymmetric information and explain the difference between adverse selection and moral hazard.
- Using a diagram, explain the impact of uncertainty over the quality of a good on consumers’ willingness to pay.
- Will consumers always face greater uncertainty over quality when purchasing goods on line rather than visiting the high street? Discuss your answer making reference to some specific examples.
- Using diagrams, explain how a market for high-quality versions of a good might collapse if there is asymmetric information. Using price elasticity of supply, explain the circumstances when the market is more likely to collapse.
- Discuss some of the benefits and costs for a firm of purchasing and posting fake reviews.
The Climate Change Pact agreed by leaders at the end of COP26 in Glasgow went further than many pessimists had forecast, but not far enough to meet the goal of keeping global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels. The Pact states that:
limiting global warming to 1.5°C requires rapid, deep and sustained reductions in global greenhouse gas emissions, including reducing global carbon dioxide emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 relative to the 2010 level and to net zero around mid-century, as well as deep reductions in other greenhouse gases.
So how far would the commitments made in Glasgow restrict global warming and what actions need to be put in place to meet these commitments?
Short-term commitments and long-term goals
According to Climate Action Tracker, the short-term commitments to action that countries set out would cause global warming of 2.4°C by the end of the century, the effects of which would be calamitous in terms of rising sea levels and extreme weather.
However, long-term commitments to goals, as opposed to specific actions, if turned into specific actions to meet the goals would restrict warming to around 1.8°C by the end of the century. These long-term goals include reaching net zero emissions by certain dates. For the majority of the 136 countries agreeing to reach net zero, the date they set was 2050, but for some developing countries, it was later. China, Brazil, Indonesia, Russia, Nigeria, Sri Lanka and Saudi Arabia, for example, set a date of 2060 and India of 2070. Some countries set an earlier target and others, such as Benin, Bhutan, Cambodia, Guyana, Liberia and Madagascar, claimed they had already reached zero net emissions.
Despite these target dates, Climate Action Tracker argues that only 6 per cent of countries pledging net zero have robust policies in place to meet the targets. The problem is that actions are required by firms and individuals. They must cut their direct emissions and reduce the consumption of products whose production involved emissions.
Governments can incentivise individuals and firms through emissions and product taxes, through carbon pricing, through cap-and-trade schemes, through subsidies on green investment, production and consumption, through legal limits on emissions, through trying to change behaviour by education campaigns, and so on. In each case, the extent to which individuals and firms will respond is hard to predict. People may want to reduce global warming and yet be reluctant to change their own behaviour, seeing themselves as too insignificant to make any difference and blaming big business, governments or rich individuals. It is important, therefore, for governments to get incentive mechanisms right to achieve the stated targets.
Let us turn to some specific targets specified in the Climate Change Pact.
Phasing out fossil fuel subsidies
Paragraph 20 of the Climate Change Pact
Calls upon Parties to accelerate … efforts towards the … phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies, while providing targeted support to the poorest and most vulnerable in line with national circumstances and recognizing the need for support towards a just transition.
Production subsidies include tax breaks or direct payments that reduce the cost of producing coal, oil or gas. Consumption subsidies cut fuel prices for the end user, such as by fixing the price at the petrol pump below the market rate. They are often justified as a way of making energy cheaper for poorer people. In fact, they provide a bigger benefit to wealthier people, who are larger users of energy. A more efficient way of helping the poor would be through benefits or general tax relief. Removing consumption subsidies in 32 countries alone would, according to International Institute for Sustainable Development, cut greenhouse gas emission by an average of 6 per cent by 2025.
The chart shows the 15 countries providing the largest amount of support to fossil fuel industries in 2020 (in 2021 prices). The bars are in billions of dollars and the percentage of GDP is also given for each country. Subsidies include both production and consumption subsidies. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.) In addition to the direct subsidies shown in the chart, there are the indirect costs of subsidies, including pollution, environmental destruction and the impact on the climate. According to the IMF, these amounted to $5.4 trillion in 2020.
But getting countries to agree on a path to cutting subsidies, when conditions vary enormously from one country to another, proved very difficult.
The first draft of the conference agreement called for countries to ‘to accelerate the phasing-out of coal and subsidies for fossil fuels’. But, after objections from major coal producing countries, such as China, India and Australia, this was weakened to calling on countries to accelerate the shift to clean energy systems ‘by scaling up the deployment of clean power generation and energy efficiency measures, including accelerating efforts towards the phasedown of unabated coal power and phase-out of inefficient fossil fuel subsidies’. (‘Unabated’ coal power refers to power generation with no carbon capture.) Changing ‘phasing-out’ to ‘the phasedown’ caused consternation among many delegates who saw this as a substantial weakening of the drive to end the use of coal.
Another problem is in defining ‘inefficient’ subsidies. Countries are likely to define them in a way that suits them.
The key question was the extent to which countries would actually adopt such measures and what the details would be. Would they be strong enough? This remained to be seen.
As an article in the journal, Nature, points out:
There are three main barriers to removing production subsidies … First, fossil-fuel companies are powerful political groups. Second, there are legitimate concerns about job losses in communities that have few alternative employment options. And third, people often worry that rising energy prices might depress economic growth or trigger inflation.
The other question with the phasing out of subsidies is how and how much would there be ‘targeted support to the poorest and most vulnerable in line with national circumstances’.
Financial support for developing countries
Transitioning to a low-carbon economy and investing in measures to protect people from rising sea levels, floods, droughts, fires, etc. costs money. With many developing countries facing serious financial problems, especially in the light of measures to support their economies and healthcare systems to mitigate the effects of COVID-19, support is needed from the developed world.
In the COP21 Paris Agreement in 2015, developed countries pledged $100 billion by 2020 to support mitigation of and adaptation to the effects of climate change by developing countries. But the target was not reached. The COP26 Pact urged ‘developed country Parties to fully deliver on the $100 billion goal urgently and through to 2025’. It also emphasised the importance of transparency in the implementation of their pledges. The proposal was also discussed to set up a trillion dollar per year fund from 2025, but no agreement was reached.
It remains to be seen just how much support will be given.
Then there was the question of compensating developing countries for the loss and damage which has already resulted from climate change. Large historical polluters, such as the USA, the UK and various EU countries, were unwilling to agree to a compensation mechanism, fearing that any recognition of culpability could make them open to lawsuits and demands for financial compensation.
- More than 100 countries at the meeting agreed to cut global methane emissions by at least 30 per cent from 2020 levels by 2030. Methane is a more powerful but shorter-living greenhouse gas than carbon. It is responsible for about a third of all human-generated global warming. China, India and Russia, however, did not sign up.
- Again, more than 100 countries agreed to stop deforestation by 2030. These countries include Indonesia and Brazil, which has been heavily criticised for allowing large parts of the Amazon rainforest to be cleared for farming, such that the Amazon region in recent years has been a net emitter of carbon from the felling and burning of trees. The pledge has been met with considerable cynicism, however, as it unclear how it will be policed. Much of the deforestation around the world is already illegal but goes ahead anyway.
- A mechanism for trading carbon credits was agreed. This allows countries which plant forests or build wind farms to earn credits. However, it may simply provide a mechanism for rich countries and businesses to keep emitting as usual by buying credits.
- Forty-five countries pledged to invest in green agricultural practices to make farming more sustainable.
- Twenty-two countries signed a declaration to create zero-emission maritime shipping routes.
- The USA and China signed a joint declaration promising to boost co-operation over the next decade on various climate actions, including reducing methane emissions, tackling deforestation and regulating decarbonisation.
Blah, blah, blah or real action?
Many of the decisions merely represent targets. What is essential is for countries clearly to spell out the mechanisms they will use for achieving them. So far there is too little detail. It was agreed, therefore, to reconvene in a year’s time at COP27 in Egypt. Countries will be expected to spell out in detail what actions they are taking to meet their emissions targets and other targets such as ending deforestation and reducing coal-fired generation.
- COP26 ended with the Glasgow Climate Pact. Here’s where it succeeded and failed
CNN, Angela Dewan and Amy Cassidy (14/11/21)
- Good COP, Bad COP: Separating heat from light at the climate summit
Ing, Samuel Abettan, Gerben Hieminga and Coco Zhang (15/11/21)
- COP26: What was agreed at the Glasgow climate conference?
BBC News (15/11/21)
- Five Things You Need to Know About The New Glasgow Climate Pact
The Conversation, Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin (13/11/21)
- Infographic: What has your country pledged at COP26?
Aljazeera, Hanna Duggal (14/11/21)
- Cop26: world on track for disastrous heating of more than 2.4C, says key report
The Guardian, Fiona Harvey (9/11/21)
- Cop26 took us one step closer to combating the climate crisis
The Guardian, Christiana Figueres (15/11/21)
- After the failure of Cop26, there’s only one last hope for our survival
The Guardian, George Monbiot (14/11/21)
- Why fossil fuel subsidies are so hard to kill
Nature, Jocelyn Timperley (20/10/21)
- The COP26 blah blah blah detector
Rappler, Elpidio Peria (16/11/21)
- What were the main achievements of COP26?
- What were the main failings of COP26?
- How can people be incentivised to reduce their direct and indirect greenhouse gas emissions?
- How is game theory relevant to understanding the difficulties in achieving global net zero emissions?
- Should developing countries be required to give up coal power?
- If the world is to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions, should all countries achieve net zero or should some countries achieve net negative emissions to allow others to continue with net positive emissions (albeit at a lower level)?
The development of open-source software and blockchain technology has enabled people to ‘hack’ capitalism – to present and provide alternatives to traditional modes of production, consumption and exchange. This has enabled more effective markets in second-hand products, new environmentally-friendly technologies and by-products that otherwise would have been negative externalities. Cryptocurrencies are increasingly providing the medium of exchange in such markets.
In a BBC podcast, Hacking Capitalism, Leo Johnson, head of PwC’s Disruption Practice and younger brother of Boris Johnson, argues that various changes to the way capitalism operates can make it much more effective in improving the lives of everyone, including those left behind in the current world. The changes can help address the failings of capitalism, such as climate change, environmental destruction, poverty and inequality, corruption, a reinforcement of economic and political power and the lack of general access to capital. And these changes are already taking place around the world and could lead to a new ‘golden age’ for capitalism.
The changes are built on new attitudes and new technologies. New attitudes include regarding nature and the land as living resources that need respect. This would involve moving away from monocultures and deforestation and, with appropriate technologies (old and new), could lead to greater output, greater equality within agriculture and increased carbon absorption. The podcast gives examples from the developing and developed world of successful moves towards smaller-scale and more diversified agriculture that are much more sustainable. The rise in farmers’ markets provides an important mechanism to drive both demand and supply.
In the current model of capitalism there are many barriers to prevent the poor from benefiting from the system. As the podcast states, there are some 2 billion people across the world with no access to finance, 2.6 billion without access to sanitation, 1.2 billion without access to power – a set of barriers that stops capitalism from unlocking the skills and productivity of the many.
These problems were made worse by the response to the financial crisis of 2007–8, when governments chose to save the existing model of capitalism by propping up financial markets through quantitative easing, which massively inflated asset prices and aggravated the problem of inequality. They missed the opportunity of creating money to invest in alternative technologies and infrastructure.
New technology is the key to developing this new fairer, more sustainable model of capitalism. Such technologies could be developed (and are being in many cases) by co-operative, open-source methods. Many people, through these methods, could contribute to the development of products and their adaptation to meet different needs. The barriers of intellectual property rights are by-passed.
New technologies that allow easy rental or sharing of equipment (such as tractors) by poor farmers can transform lives and massively increase productivity. So too can the development of cryptocurrencies to allow access to finance for small farmers and businesses. This is particularly important in countries where access to traditional finance is restricted and/or where the currency is not stable with high inflation rates.
Blockchain technology can also help to drive second-hand markets by providing greater transparency and thereby cut waste. Manufacturers could take a stake in such markets through a process of certification or transfer.
A final hack is one that can directly tackle the problem of externalities – one of the greatest weaknesses of conventional capitalism. New technologies can support ways of rewarding people for reducing external costs, such as paying indigenous people for protecting the land or forests. Carbon markets have been developed in recent years. Perhaps the best example is the European Emissions Trading Scheme (EMS). But so far they have been developed in isolation. If the revenues generated could go directly to those involved in environmental protection, this would help further to internalise the externalities. The podcasts gives an example of a technology used in the Amazon to identify the environmental benefits of protecting rain forests that can then be used to allow reliable payments to the indigenous people though blockchain currencies.
- What are the main reasons why capitalism has led to such great inequality?
- What do you understand by ‘hacking’ capitalism?
- How is open-source software relevant to the development of technology that can have broad benefits across society?
- Does the current model of capitalism encourage a self-centred approach to life?
- How might blockchain technology help in the development of a more inclusive and fairer form of capitalism?
- How might farmers’ co-operatives encourage rural development?
- What are the political obstacles to the developments considered in the podcast?