Short-termism is a problem which has dogged British firms and is part of the explanation of low investment in the UK. Shareholders, many of which are large pension funds and other financial institutions, are more concerned with short-term returns than long-term growth and productivity. Likewise, senior managers’ rewards are often linked to short-term performance rather than the long-term health of the company.
But the stakeholders in companies extend well beyond owners and senior managers. Workers, consumers, suppliers, local residents and the country as a whole are all stakeholders in companies.
So is the current model of capitalism fit for purpose? According to the new May government, workers and consumers should be represented on the boards of major British companies. The Personnel Today article quotes Theresa May as saying:
‘The people who run big businesses are supposed to be accountable to outsiders, to non-executive directors, who are supposed to ask the difficult questions. In practice, they are drawn from the same, narrow social and professional circles as the executive team and – as we have seen time and time again – the scrutiny they provide is just not good enough.
We’re going to change that system – and we’re going to have not just consumers represented on company boards, but workers as well.’
This model is not new. Many countries, such as France and Germany, have had worker representatives on boards for many years. There the focus is often less on short-term profit maximisation and more on the long-term performance of the company in terms of a range of indicators.
Extending this model to stakeholder groups more generally could see companies taking broader social objectives into account. And the number of companies which put corporate social responsibility high on their agenda could increase significantly.
And this approach can ultimately bring better returns to shareholders. As the first The Conversation article below states:
This is something that research into a ‘Relational Company’ model has found – by putting the interests of all stakeholders at the heart of their decision making, companies can become more competitive, stable and successful. Ultimately, this will generate greater returns for shareholders.
While CSR has become mainstream in terms of the public face of some large corporations, it has tended to be one of the first things to be cut when economic growth weakens. The findings from Business in the Community’s 2016 Corporate Responsibility Index suggest that many firms are considering how corporate responsibility can positively affect profits. However, it remains the case that there are still many firms and consumers that care relatively little about the social or natural environment. Indeed, each year, fewer companies take part in the CR Index. In 2016 there were 43 firms; in 2015, 68 firms; in 2014, 97 firms; in 2013, 126 firms.
In addition to promising to give greater voice to stakeholder groups, Mrs May has also said that she intends to curb executive pay. Shareholders will be given binding powers to block executive remuneration packages. But whether shareholders are best placed to do this questionable. If shareholders’ interests are the short-term returns on their investment, then they may well approve of linking executive remuneration to short-term returns rather than on the long-term health of the company or its role in society more generally.
When leaders come to power, they often make promises that are never fulfilled. Time will tell whether the new government will make radical changes to capitalism in the UK or whether a move to greater stakeholder power will remain merely an aspiration.
Will Theresa May break from Thatcherism and transform business? The Conversation, Arad Reisberg (19/7/16)
Democratise companies to rein in excessive banker bonuses The Conversation, Prem Sikka (14/3/16)
Theresa May promises worker representatives on boards Personnel Today, Rob Moss (11/7/16)
If Theresa May is serious about inequality she’ll ditch Osbornomics The Guardian, Mariana Mazzucato and Michael Jacobs (19/7/16)
Theresa May should beware of imitating the German model Financial Times, Ursula Weidenfeld (12/7/16)
- To what extent is the pursuit of maximum short-term profits in the interests of (a) shareholders; (b) consumers; (c) workers; (d) suppliers; (e) society generally; (f) the environment?
- How could British industry be restructured so as to encourage a greater proportion of GDP being devoted to investment?
- How would greater flexibility in labour markets affect the perspectives on company performance of worker representatives on boards?
- How does worker representation in capitalism work in Germany? What are the advantages and disadvantages of this model? (See the panel in the Personnel Today article and the Financial Times article.)
- What do you understand by ‘industrial policy’? How can it be used to increase investment, productivity, growth and the pursuit of broader stakeholder interests?
At the G7 conference in Bavaria on 7 and 8 June 2015, it was agreed to phase out the use of fossil fuels by the end of the century. But despite this significant objective, there were no short-term measures put in place to start on the process of achieving this goal. Nevertheless, the agreement contained commitments to further developments in carbon markets, elimination of fossil fuel subsidies, incentives for the development of green energy and support for developing countries in reducing hydrofluorocarbons.
The agreement also sent a strong message to the 21st United Nations International Climate Change conference scheduled to meet in Paris from 30 November to 11 December 2015. The G7 communiqué states that binding rules would be required if the target was to be met.
The agreement should enhance transparency and accountability including through binding rules at its core to track progress towards achieving targets, which should promote increased ambition over time. This should enable all countries to follow a low-carbon and resilient development pathway in line with the global goal to hold the increase in global average temperature below 2°C.
But many environmentalists argue that a more fundamental approach is needed. This requires a change in the way the environment is perceived – by both individuals and politicians. The simple selfish model of consumption to maximise consumer surplus and production to maximise profit should be rejected. Instead, the environment should be internalised into decision making.
What is more, there should be an integral ecology which brings together a wide range of disciplines, including economics, in analysing the functioning of societies and economies. Rather than being seen merely as a resource to be exploited, respect and care for the environment should be incorporated into our whole decision-making process, along with protecting societies and cultures, and rejecting economic systems that result in a growing divide between rich and poor.
In his latest encyclical, On care for our common home, Pope Francis considers integral ecology, not just in terms of a multidiciplinary approach to the environment but as an approach that integrates the objectives of social justice and care for the environment into an overarching approach to the functioning of societies and economies. And central to his message is the need to change the way human action is perceived at a personal level. Decision making should be focused on care for others and the environment not on the selfish pursuit of individual gain.
With a change in heart towards other people and the environment, what would be seen as externalities in simple economic models based on rational self-interested behaviour become internal costs or benefits. Care and compassion become the drivers for action, rather than crude self interest.
A key question, of course, is how we get here to there; how society can achieve a mass change of heart. For religious leaders, such as the Pope, the approach centres on spiritual guidance. For the secular, the approach would probably centre on education and the encouragement for people to consider others in their decision making. But, of course, there is still a major role for economic instruments, such as taxes and subsidies, rules and regulations, and public investment.
G7 leaders agree to phase out fossil fuels by end of centuryEU Observer, Peter Teffer (8/6/15)
Integral Ecology Approach Links ‘Welfare of God’s People and God’s Creation’ Catholic Register (11/6/15)
President’s Corner Teilhard Perspective, John Grim (May 2015)
In his encyclical on climate change Pope Francis reveals himself to be a master of scientific detail Washington Post, Anthony Faiola, Michelle Boorstein and Chris Mooney (18/6/15)
Pope Francis Calls for Climate Action in Draft of Encyclical New York Times, Jim Yardley (15/6/15)
Pope Francis letter on climate change leaked: Draft Vatican encyclical released three days early Independent, Kashmira Gander and Michael Day (15/6/15)
The Pope is finally addressing the gaping hole in the Judaeo-Christian moral tradition Independent, Michael McCarthy (15/6/15)
Pope Francis warns of destruction of Earth’s ecosystem in leaked encyclical The Guardian, Stephanie Kirchgaessner and John Hooper (16/6/15)
Explosive intervention by Pope Francis set to transform climate change debate The Observer, John Vidal (13/6/15)
Pope Francis’ Leaked Encyclical Draft Attributes Climate Change To Human Activity Huffington Post, Antonia Blumberg (15/6/15)
Pope Francis’ Integral Ecology Huffington Post, Dave Pruett (28/5/15)
Pope Francis: Climate change mostly man-made BBC News, Caroline Wyatt (18/6/15)
Pope urges action on global warming in leaked document BBC News, Chris Cook (16/6/15)
- What do you understand by ‘integral ecology’?
- Is an integrated approach to the environment and society consistent with ‘rational’ behaviour (a) in the narrow sense of ‘rational’ as used in consumer and producer theory; (b) in a broader sense of making actions consistent with goals?
- Can cost–benefit analysis be used in the context of an integrated and cross-disciplinary approach to the environment and society?
- What types of incentives would be useful in achieving the approach proposed by Pope Francis?
- Why do many companies publicly state that they pursue a policy of corporate responsibiliy?
- To what extent does it make sense to set targets for the end of this century?
- In what crucial ways might GDP need to be adjusted if it is to be used as a measure of the success of the approach to society, the economy and the environment as advocated by Pope Francis?
In market capitalism, the stock of manufactured capital provides a flow of output. The profitability of the use of that capital depends on the cost of investing in that capital and the cost of using it, and on the flow of revenues from that capital. Discounted cash flow techniques can be used to assess the profitability of a given investment in capital; the flows of costs and revenues are discounted at a market discount rate to give a net present value (NPV). If the NPV is positive (discounted revenues exceed discounted costs), the investment is profitable; if it is negative, the investment is unprofitable. (See Economics, 8th edition, section 9.3.)
There may be market imperfections in the allocation of investment, in terms of distorted prices and interest rates. These may be the result of market power, asymmetry of information, etc., but in many cases the market allows capital investment to be allocated relatively efficiently.
This is not the case with ‘natural capital’. Natural capital (see also) is the stock of natural resources and ecosystems that, like manufactured capital, yields a flow of goods and services into the future. Natural capital, whilst it can be improved or degraded by human action, is available without investment. Thus the natural capital of the oceans yields fish, the natural capital of the skies yields rain and the natural capital of forests reduces atmospheric CO2.
Even though some natural capital is owned (e.g. private land), much is a common resource. As such, it is free to use and tends to get overused. This is the Tragedy of the Commons – see, for example, the following news items: A modern tragedy of the commons and Is there something fishy going on?.
Natural capital accounting
But would it be possible to give a value to both the stock of natural capital and the goods and services provided by it? Would this environmental accounting enable governments to tax or subsidise firms and individuals for their use or enhancement of natural capital?
On 21 and 22 November 2013, the first World Forum on Natural Capital took place in Edinburgh. This brought together business leaders, politicians, economists, environmentalists and other scientists to discuss practical ways of taking natural capital into account in decision making. Central to the forum was a discussion of ways of valuing natural capital, or ‘natural capital accounting’. As the forum site states:
Natural capital accounting is a rapidly evolving new way of thinking about how we value the economic benefits we derive from our natural environment. The World Forum on Natural Capital will bring together world-class speakers, cutting edge case studies and senior decision makers from different sectors, in order to turn the debate into practical action.
But if natural capital is not owned, how is it to be priced? How will the costs and benefits of its use be valued? How will inter-generational effects be taken into account? Will firms price natural capital voluntarily if doing so reduces their profits? Will firms willingly extend corporate social responsibility to include corporate environmental responsibility? Will governments be prepared to introduce taxes and subsidies to internalise the costs of using natural capital, even if the effects extend beyond a country’s borders? Will natural capital accounting measure purely the effects on humans or will broader questions of maintaining and protecting environmental diversity for its own sake be taken into account? These are big questions and ones that various organisations are beginning to address.
Despite problems of measurement and incentives, sometimes there are clear economic benefits from careful evaluation and management of natural capital. Julia Marton-Lefèvre is Director General of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). According to the first Guardian article below:
Her favourite example of natural capital working in practice comes from Vietnam, where “planting and protecting nearly 12,000 hectares of mangroves cost just more than $1m but saved annual expenditures on dyke maintenance of well over $7m. And that only accounts for coast maintenance: mangroves are also nurseries for fish, meaning livelihoods for fishing and source of nutrients … “
One organisation attempting to value natural capital is The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity project (TEEB). It also looks at what organisational changes are likely to be necessary for the management of natural capital.
Based on data collected from 26 early adopter companies (60% of them with $10 Billion+ revenues each) across several industry sectors this provides real life evidence on the drivers and barriers for natural capital management.
Pricing the environment is a highly controversial issue. Critics claim that the process can easily be manipulated to serve the short-term interests of business and governments. What is more, where tradable permits markets have been set up, such as the EU’s Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS), prices have often been a poor reflection of social costs and have been open to manipulation. As Nick Dearden, director of the World Development Movement (WDM), says:
It is deeply ironic that the same financial markets that caused the economic crisis are now seen as the solution to our environmental crisis. It’s about time we learnt that financial markets need to be reined in, not expanded. Pricing these common resources on which people depend for their survival leaves all of us more exposed to the forces of the global economy, and decisions about whether or not to protect them become a matter of accounting.
The measurement of natural capital and setting up systems to internalise the costs and benefits of using natural capital is both complex and a political minefield – as the following articles show.
Putting a value on nature: Edinburgh conference says business is ‘part of the solution’ Blue & Green Tomorrow, Nicky Stubbs (20/11/13)
Edinburgh forum says putting value on nature could save it BBC News, Claire Marshall (20/11/13)
Natural capital must be the way forward, says IUCN director general The Guardian, Tim Smedley (11/11/13)
Is ‘natural capital’ the next generation of corporate social responsibility? The Guardian, Tim Smedley (7/11/13)
Natural capital accounting: what’s all the fuss about? The Guardian, Alan McGill (27/9/13)
Put nature at the heart of economic and social policymaking The Guardian, Aniol Esteban (1/3/13)
Campaigners warn of dangers of ‘privatised nature’ The Scotsman, Ilona Amos (21/11/13)
Edinburgh conference attempts to ‘privatise nature’ World Development Movement, Miriam Ross (18/11/13)
Valuing Nature BBC Shared Planet, Monty Don (8/7/13)
Sites concerned with natural capital
World Forum on Natural Capital
TEEB for Business Coalition
International Union for Conservation of Nature
- How would you define natural capital?
- What are ecosystem services?
- Is social efficiency the best criterion for evaluating the use of the environment? What other criteria could you use?
- How would you set about deciding what rate of discount to use when evaluating the depletion of or enhancement of natural capital?
- How can game theory provide insights into the strategies of both businesses and governments towards the environment?
- What are the arguments for and against attempting to value natural capital and to incorporate these values in decision making?
On 5 and 6 April, there was a conference on conscious capitalism in San Francisco. In January, a new book, Conscious Capitalism: Liberating the Heroic Spirit of Business, by John Mackey and Rajendra Sisodia, was published. Many in the business world are enthusiastic about this seemingly new approach to business, which focuses on broader social, environmental and ethical goals, rather than simple profit maximisation.
As the Washington Times review linked to below states:
“Conscious Capitalism” promotes a business culture that embodies “trust, accountability, caring, transparency, integrity, loyalty and egalitarianism.” The management ideal of “Conscious Capitalism” contains four key elements of “decentralization, empowerment, innovation and collaboration.” Above all, this exemplary form of business practice relies on careful attention to four tenets: higher purpose and core values, stakeholder integration, conscious leadership and conscious culture and management.
So how realistic is this vision of caring capitalism? There may be a few inspiring businesspeople, truly committed to improving the interests of the various stakeholders of their business and society more generally, but could it become a model for business in general? And if so, does this require education, monitoring and regulation? Or can a libertarian approach to business generate an environment where conscious and caring capitalists flourish and succeed better than those with a more narrow focus on profit?
The following videos and articles discuss conscious capitalism and the arguments of those, such as John Mackey, founder and co-CEO of Whole Food Market, who advocate it.
Conscious capitalism The Economist, John Mackey (15/3/13)
Conscious Capitalism: Heroes of the Business World Conscious capitalism, April in San Francisco (5/4/13)
It’s Not Corporate Social Responsibility Conscious capitalism, John Mackey (Jan 13)
Articles, reviews and information
Conscious Capitalism: Creating a New Paradigm for Business Whole Planet Foundation, John Mackey
Companies that Practice “Conscious Capitalism” Perform 10x Better Harvard Business Review, Tony Schwartz (4/4/13)
4 Ways to Become a (More) Conscious Capitalist Inc., Francesca Louise Fenzi (8/4/13)
The New Management Paradigm & John Mackey’s Whole Foods Forbes, Steve Denning (5/1/13)
Book Review: ‘Conscious Capitalism’ Washington Times, Anthony j. Sadar (20/3/13)
Book Review: Whole Foods Co-CEO John Mackey’s Conscious Capitalism Huffington Post, Christine Bader (28/1/13)
Chicken Soup for a Davos Soul Wall Street Journal, Alan Murray (16/1/13)
Conscious business Wikipedia
- What are the features of conscious capitalism?
- Do firms “get the shareholders they deserve”?
- How might firms that are not pursuing conscious capitalism be persuaded to become more conscious and more caring?
- How does conscious capitalism differ from corporate social responsibility?
- What would you understand by “conscious consumers”? How might their behaviour differ from other consumers?
- Why might firms engaging in conscious capitalism become more profitable than firms that have a simple aim of profit maximisation?
- What reforms, both internal within a firm and in the legal environment, does John Mackey advocate? Do you agree with his suggestions? What else do you suggest?
A particular issue that has received much attention recently is the difficulty of getting loans. One sector that has found this especially hard is those organisations that are part of the so-called ‘social sector’. Organisations that try to do some good in society while achieving a financial rate of return often find finance impossible to obtain and, as such, the economy is allegedly losing out on billions.
The Big Society is an integral part of the Conservative’s mission and the launch of the Big Society Fund is a key stepping stone in ‘supplying capital to help society expand’. Sir Ronald Cohen, who is Big Society Capital’s Chairman said:
“It will allow an organisation which today is trying to deal for instance with prisoners who are being released and ending up in unemployment then back in prison… to get the capital to increase the size of their organisation and to improve the lives of these prisoners.”
It is hoped that this innovation will help the economy grow through new investment, but will also bring wider benefits to society. One such example is Social Impact Bonds in Peterborough, which aim to help prisoners return to work once they are released from jail. The idea is that rather than being left to their own devices, the scheme helps them integrate back into the community, such that they don’t re-offend, which does tend to be a big problem and creates a big cost for the local community and society at large. In essence, this new bank will simply be providing loans to new social enterprises that demonstrate they can generate an income stream and also provide societal benefits. The financial return will encourage investors, as will the idea of doing some good for society. The following articles consider this new social innovation.
Unclaimed bank cash to fund ‘Big Society’ Sky News (4/4/12)
Big Society Fund launches with £600m to invest BBC News (4/4/12)
’Big Society Bank’ to start providing capital Financial Times, Sarah Neville and Jonathan Moules (4/4/12)
David Cameron unveils Big Society Bank to help savers invest in good causes Telegraph, Rowena Mason (4/4/12)
David Cameron launches £600m ‘big society fund’ Guardian, Nicholas Watt (4/4/12)
The Big Society Promise that has yet to deliver Independent (4/4/12)
- Where is the finance for the big society bank coming from?
- Do you think the financial return from investments through the big society bank will have to be equal to the financial return on business investments?
- Explain the relevance of externalities to this new social innovation.
- To what extent do you think funding through the big society bank is simply a way of replacing direct government funding of the welfare state?
- Do you think the amount of money this bank is enough to make any difference?
- Why do you think social projects find it difficult to obtain funding through traditional lending?