Natural Capital

by | Brighton, UK

Sunday, 12 February 2012

tags: emergence, europe, making sense

Recently, after I wrote a piece of copy on Corporate Responsibility for a global company, I was asked to take out the word ‘fair’ on the grounds that it was ‘too philanthropic’. I was surprised: don’t ‘fair’ and ‘philanthropic’ mean something quite different? We generally think of ‘fair’ as referring to an abstract system of equality and justice, while philanthropy is more about the subjective, personal feelings of the donor.

Perhaps my client put the two concepts together because, however contrasting, they’re both now inimical to the way Corporate Responsibility is heading. While justice and philanthropy may carry different meanings in ethics, they’re equally ‘in excess’ of the corporate world's newly internalised and systematised take on ethics.

Broadly speaking, the language of Corporate Responsibility now describes ethics as a direct profit driver, integrating it into core business activities. It's an attempt to 'own' ethics, remedying the way it's previously stuck out like a sore thumb in business symbolism.

For example, residually speaking, Corporate Responsibility is about ‘philanthropy’. In practice, that means companies give money to their favourite charities. It’s an add-on: a nice thing to do that’s more or less arbitrary and subjective. It has only a tangential and inessential relationship to business.

Dominant symbolism sees a turn from philanthropy to justice. The idea of Fair Trade comes in – casting doubt on old-fashioned ‘charity-giving’ as top-down, patrician and unsustainable. Companies start offering consumers ethical options, based on giving suppliers and workers a fair deal and fair conditions.

It sounds good – but ideas of justice and fairness still don't fit. They continue to trouble business by referring to an ethics grounded and legitimised outside the corporation itself. After all,  ‘fair’ applies to everyone, everywhere: it’s an idea based on a transcendent, public and shared sense of what’s right and wrong.

Just as old-fashioned philanthropy represented something ‘in excess’ of profit (subjective feeling), so does the idea of fairness: it belongs to a public language that’s not reducible to the corporate realm.

The emergent term in Corporate Responsibility – ethics as a growth engine – seeks to cut off these uncomfortable ‘sore thumbs’ (philanthropy and fairness) and integrate ethics into the internal symbolic system of business. Now, companies are talking about ethics as the way they’re going to drive growth – not as a nice add-on (philanthropy), or as an incursion of public value systems into their thinking (fairness). From now on, ethics isn’t going to be anything ‘other’ to business: it’s going to be reclaimed as inherent.

For an example, we can turn to a concept now in vogue in Corporate Responsibility: ‘Natural Capital’.

‘Natural Capital’ means seeing the planet itself as an asset: we can either tend it carefully so we can live sustainably off its interest, or just erode its capital worth, as we have been doing. The symbolism here also means seeing the earth as a ‘service provider’ which gives companies the air and water they need to do business, just as Apple supplies them with laptops.

What’s interesting about the symbolism here is the way it erodes all distinction between ‘ethics’, ‘nature’ and ‘profit’. All terms find themselves reduced to the language of the corporation itself, which can now claim independence from external symbolic systems and values.

Responding (1)

Leave a Comment