A home for the Conscious Business community in the UK


A Meaning Economy?

I’ve written before about what a Conscious Business is. And what it is not. But no man, and no business, is an island. Businesses live and operate in a market.

And what kind of market is that? At the moment, for example, we seem to have:

  • Web 2.0 people theorising about the importance of ethereal content over physical objects, of production versus consumption;
  • psychologists, and even the UK government, propounding the importance of well-being and happiness;
  • an ever-growing discussion of environmental sustainability;
  • the feminisation of the work-place;
  • the rise of long-term, inter-generational thinking;
  • and, of course, the rise of Conscious Business – in all its various shapes and forms.

Could this all be part of an even bigger trend for the market? A shift towards what we might call a “meaning economy“? We’ve had the information economy, and the knowledge economy. (Once I even heard talk of a “wisdom” economy.)

A meaning economy for me is one in which people’s basic needs are already met through the producing power of our industrial economy. And instead people start to change their focus towards gaining more meaning in their lives.

But what is meaning? Meaning is an answer to the question “why?”, not the industrial age questions of “how many?”, or “how much?. We know how to answer those questions and we know how to answer questions about “what”, “who”,  and sometimes even “when”. Why we want things, why we have things, why we do things: the answers remain much more elusive.

Put another way, is the overall market changing so that people are no longer satisfied with just goods, and no longer satisfied with shabby, or any, “services” – are they seeking instead to fulfil their higher values?

Of course this won’t mean much to the billion at the bottom of the pyramid. But for the aspirational 5 billion people in the world – is that where we are heading?

If so, this might mean different things in relation to each of the product types we are already familiar with, and we can see that some of these trends are already underway in some areas of the economy:

  • for a physical, tangible product it means valuing the associated brand and reputation more than just the product itself;
  • for a service it means valuing the associated relationships more than just the service itself;
  • for content it means producing something that deeply touches the heart and soul, not just the mind.

In business more generally it might mean shifting our emphasis as we try to build revenue and profitability. Shifting it:

  • from technological innovation to service innovation;
  • from growing functional value to growing relationship value;
  • from improving process quality to a focus on the quality of the customer experience;
  • from strategies that grow transactional volumes to those that grow loyalty and retention;
  • and even from strategies designed to reduce cost to strategies of investment;
  • and so on.

All of these things have been identified before, of course. And some would say that a knowledge economy leads to some of these things. So, I wonder, does it add anything to see this as a change in the market to meaning away from information and knowledge? What else might that ‘frame’ tell us?

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Consuming passions

I enjoyed listening to a talk at the RSA recently on consumerism. Five speakers gave an excellent introduction to the topic.

Neal Lawson, author and chair of the pressure group Compass suggested we need to more fully understand the impact on us of the “Consumer Industrial Complex”, and choose a point of balance that serves our real needs better. Neal had some very nice slogans such as “working harder for our Prada”. But, in the short time he had available, I thought it came across as rather reminiscent of “infamy, infamy, they’ve all got it in for me”.

Matthew Hilton, Professor of Social History, University of Birmingham, gave, for me, the best of the brief talks. He suggested that we should reframe our dialogue about consumerism towards a debate about the real choices we have. This would be a broader conversation about the bigger goals of our society as a whole.

That society includes, of course, people outside the developed world. In his view, “worrying about consumption is as much a part of consumer society as consumption itself” and we should really be considering just what kind of world to we want to live in. He celebrates both the cooperative movement and consumer movement (a la Which?) as movements which have always held these deeper goals – of fairness and equity – at their core: “Let’s call the poor all around the world consumers too”.

Daniel Ben-Ami, another journalist and author, then spoke. Daniel seems to see economic growth as the solution to all our problems. His argument seemed to be in more or less complete opposition to Neal’s, and seemed to lack any of the more systemic analysis of Matthew Hilton.

John Naish, journalist and author of Enough: breaking free from the world of more took the perspective of evolutionary psychology to again address the bigger system problems, pointing out that Barack Obama spent $9 billion dollars rescuing the current system, rather than invest anything in trying to evaluate and re-design a better system.

I especially liked his suggestion that dropping the illusions of choice with which we surround ourselves might also lead to a rather more “interesting” society than the one currently inhabit. I loved his choice of word.

Joseph Wan, chief executive of the luxury goods store Harvey Nichols, seemed to suggest that consumerism, even extreme consumerism, is an inevitable human characteristic – and something that we cannot avoid manifesting. This, for me, seemed to be another version of a “there’s nothing we can do about it, so we might as well go along with it” mantra. A big element of raising consciousness is, for me, about intervening in our future. So that kind of (convenient?) determinism doesn’t sit very well with me.

What next? As ever, with this event, the RSA has done a great job of raising my consciousness of the debate around consumerism. Which is an excellent thing; conscious consumerism seems to me to be about increasing our awareness of the impact of our purchasing decisions on the environment and our lives in general. About introducing “intentionality” into our purchasing.

And, of course, business produces many of the products and services we purchase.

So what, then, is the role of conscious business in consumerism?

Matthew Hilton, amongst others, pointed out the importance of focussing on the bigger picture, and on the broader objectives of the system.

This is something I touched on just recently in another post. I wondered what business would be like if we set as our overall goal leaving a better world for the next generation.

If we were to do that, as businesses:

  • Just what kind of consumers would we want?
  • What kinds of products and services would we offer?
  • What kinds of needs would we try to meet?
  • What kind of regulatory framework would we want?
  • How would we go about it?

And most of importantly, what kind of overall system of production and consumption would suit us all?

I’d love to hear your views.

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Service or product?

I was planning to post on the topic of purchasing decisions today, when by coincidence I saw Jeremy Litchfield’s interesting post on consumer responsibility. Isn’t it great when things fit together like that?

One aspect of taking this responsibility is whether we decide to buy services or products. I was faced with a choice over the weekend of buying a “thing” or a “service”. Both served exactly the same function (to make some of my data safe).

Products clearly have a quite different environmental profile from services. A product requires energy and raw materials to manufacture and transport. A service, delivered over the internet, for example, has low transportation cost. And the incremental cost of providing it may be small because of economies of scale and the fact I share the tangible components with many other people.

I considered the environmental impact of both – and the service won hands-down. But I still felt myself so drawn to the “thing”. A strong emotional pull that I couldn’t fully locate, but I knew was real. What was this all about?

The thing was nice and shiny and I could imagine it arriving and the fun of unpacking it. The service was a software download – and pretty intangible and almost “grey”, in my mind.

Something about “having” the thing – on my shelf, in my house – was also attractive. I guess this is the same thrill that collectors have. Not something I thought I suffered from, but I when I looked I could really experience it.

There were some additional benefits to the service – the “thing” would quickly become obsolete. Whereas someone else would have the problem of ensuring the service always took advantage of the latest technological advances. And, of course, if the “thing” broke I’d be the one dealing with the problem.

But I also felt some fear around the service – the idea of tying myself into a long-term contract was getting under my skin. My preference is not to load myself with financial commitments. I guess I am not alone in that, especially right now.

In this case the burden of owning the “thing” seemed negligible; whereas I felt I was imprisoning myself in the service deal – probably for life.

In the end, I found another way and bought neither. Hooray for a simpler life!

But my point is that there are habits around this kind of purchasing decision. Perhaps my example was trivial. If we are talking about the difference between car ownership or car sharing, then yes, as Jeremy points out, we need to take responsibility.

But, in my opinion, we need to do that fully: we as consumers, and also the businesses that serve us, need to become aware of these emotional and psychological factors if we are to have any collective hope of changing our behaviour. Some clever people are already looking at this – look at Live|Work’s work for Streetcar, for example.


Lifestyle blogging

My friend Nigel of Nigel’s Ecostore (provider of all things eco) gave me a Christmas present this year: 4 Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferris. As a huge fan of Ricardo Semler’s Seven Day Weekend I was intrigued but sceptical.

It is fairly easy to rubbish the author’s approach: basically he suggests stopping deferring the good life life now for the fantasy of a great life later.

For him this means jacking in the day-job, setting up a business selling anything (“nutritional supplements” in his case), and automating the running of the business so that you can take advantage of disparities in global incomes and live at South American prices, pay a wage bill in Indian Rupees, and earn income in US dollars.

It’s easy to rubbish because I guess we all hope that disparities in global incomes are temporary; and hence this New Rich lifestyle is not really sustainable, unless you keep hopping from poorer to poorer countries. He puts a complete ban on the whole African continent by the way; too scary perhaps?

Because while Ferris does suggest longer stays than most travel writers (months, not days or weeks) there’s undoubtedly a lot of carbon-generating international air travel involved in the process (who am I to talk: I work with a business travel company amongst others).

And mostly because, while there’s a section at the end about giving something useful back to society, for Ferris that’s a step to take after having lived it up and made your money – it seems to me that’s another form of deferral. Why not get on and do what seems most worthwhile right now, and let money and lifestyle find you?

But that all said I did like the book (so thanks Nigel). Yes, you could say it’s shallow; but then so am I sometimes. It’s well crafted, his youthful enthusiasm is infectious, and it’s full of ideas and practical suggestions. Is it a bad thing that he won Wired Magazine‘s “Greatest Self Promoter of All-Time” prize in 2008? If he uses it to generate money for charities through his LitLiberation project?

Who knows what he’ll do next? The combination of promotional skills using social media and charitable inclinations is probably a good one.

And at least reading the book has made me question some of my assumptions about these things and others, and that is surely always worthwhile.

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Begin at the bottom

Lewes, where I live, is a Transition Town. The Transition movement led by Rob Hopkins and Ben Brangwyn and based in Totnes in the UK  is a very interesting movement.

It’s different from some environmentally focussed groups in that it’s not a protest group – it’s not against anything. Rather it’s focussed on creating positive solutions in response to climate change and “peak oil“.

It’s different because it’s local too, and is really more about community, and community resilience, rather than looking at the world top-down or from a global perspective. Instead, it’s a truly bottom-up way of looking at the world.

In fact, I’d argue it operates from the real bottom – me. My perspective and my behaviours as a member are the first and most important place where things can change.

I also like the way the Transition network is structured. It is a network not a hierarchical organisation. Each Transition Town, Village or City can choose how it operates locally, as long as it at least considers following the network’s broad principles.

Being involved leads to some interesting local debates, which I believe have resonance with the broader world too.

Firstly, we have debated whether it’s better to take a positive or negative view of global trends, particularly climate change and peak oil. Is changing our lives as a result of these things bad or good? I, for one, think a world with less oil where we care for the planet more could be a lot better, and in lots of ways.

Secondly, there’s an argument about resilience in the face of change. Who is more resilient, us in wealthy surburban Britain? Or people in developing countries who haven’t forgotten how to live simply. I realise there are shades of grey in this debate, but still can’t help wondering what all the real fuss is about for us more wealthy folk.

Thirdly, there is an argument about hysteria, about getting people into a state of panic. Plenty of the rich world’s population appear the opposite – almost frozen and immobile – in the face of the things that are happening to us. Ecosystems in collapse, species (including our own) under threat, and we continue to shop, drive and so on. As if there was no tomorrow.

I am sure there is a place for hysteria in getting people to sit up and take notice. For jogging people out of their comfort zones. But ultimately I think, as the story of the boy who cried wolf suggests, it’s really not constructive.

The world is simply too unpredictable. Anyone who uses hysteria to garner action risks becoming simply unbelievable.

So, what other strategies might there be to shake people from their immobility? A psychologist, and friend of mine,  Ben Fletcher, has a suggestion: Do Something Different.

Ben’s suggestion is that people stay the same largely because of habits. Because of habits people behave incongruently with what they believe. For example, we know we should recycle more but we don’t because it’s not our habit.

So randomly and consistently breaking habits should allow us to behave more congruently.

Then all the publicity and knowledge and “facts” which fly around about the environment should properly drive us to take corrective action.

Does it work? Yes, I think so, from having tried one of the DSD programmes. It seems to have the same kind of results as behavioural disputing – where our actions can prove that thoughts we hold to very dearly aren’t actually correct.

Changing our thoughts, beliefs and attitudes allows us to move on – to change our behaviour and create the world anew. That’s a bottom-up change. Something transition is all about.


Little things count

My son has recently learnt to read. What a wonder and a joy. A whole new world of ideas magically available to him – the wisdom of the ages, and access to dreams of the future.

I went into Habitat to buy him a reading light. I saw a nice little light. I noticed it had a small, low energy bulb. I took a boxed one to the counter. Bought it and took it home.

How frustrating – when I opened the box there was no bulb.

For the first next couple of days I ranted and railed at anyone who would listen about the salesman’s failure to up-sell me. As I have said before anything to do with selling seems to have a bad name but it’s poor selling I don’t like, not selling itself.

Why is up-selling important?

Increasing the size of a transaction is directly related to the company’s profitability. Here was an opportunity for the salesman to increase the sale value by 10%. At very low additional cost to the company. They offer low-energy bulbs. All he had to do was ask if I wanted one.

More importantly, imagine how angry I was when I got home and discovered there was no bulb in the box.  What use is a light without a lightbulb? That salesman and his company upset my feelings and those of my disappointed child. Upset my feelings and I will not only be angry next time I go near the store, but I will tell as many people as I can what a bad experience I had. Not great for the company’s profitability.

Is profit king? For me, yes. Profitability is a direct measure of the value the company gives to its customers. Profit is used to develop and grow the company, invest in people, training and capabilities – and ultimately in giving a better service to customers. People complain about profit but what they are usually complaining about is what is done with profit (excessive executive pay, greedy shareholders etc) not profit itself.

Lack of profit is not good from the employee’s and the economy’s point of view either.

And what about the environmental angle? Maybe I shouldn’t have bought this light at all. My view is less extreme – we all need to live, and while I will do my best to reduce my carbon footprint and help others do the same where I can, life without some of its basic joys seems grim indeed.

If I am going to buy the light, then I am the kind of consumer who’ll pay extra for a low-energy bulb not an old-fashioned one. I’ll happily pay extra for anything that assuages my conscience in this area. I hope Habitat’s record on sweat shops and human rights is OK. I hope they have a “Plan A”.

So what happened from an environmental point of view? The failure to up-sell caused a wasted trip to replace the bulb, with all it’s environmental consequences. Of course I can time it so that I am in town anyway, but you get the point. Failure to up-sell can be environmentally inefficient too.

When I went back to the store a few days later, I was still fuming a little.  Maybe that’s why I wasn’t thinking well. I told the guy I needed a bulb for the light. I nearly started talking to him about up-selling but bit my lip. As I said, I was still a little angry. He sold me a bulb. I popped it in my bag and took it home.

The end? Not quite. When I opened the box, I discovered an old-fashioned bulb not a low-energy one. The display lamp had a low-energy bulb. I’d assumed that’s what I’d get. The new sales guy got me something else.

If I had any hair, I’d tear it out. Good selling to me is about understanding needs. I had a need. A need for a light bulb, yes. But also a need to feel good about myself. To do something better for the environment. To confirm my self-image as a good citizen.

This poor sales guy failed. He mis-sold me. He’s damaged the reputation of the company. He’s reduced its turnover. He’s reduced its margin (I swear there’s more profit on a low-energy bulb than an old-fashioned one). He’s made me very unhappy.

And maybe he’s contributed to damage to the environment – maybe I’ll use the old-fashioned bulb? Or should I make a third trip?

OK, I wasn’t clear enough about my needs. That’s clearly my responsibility. But the company also contributed to the problem, because the salesman didn’t ask me what I needed.  Because the company didn’t teach him how to sell well. Such a little thing.


New ways to consume

Another solution to over-consumption is simply that we stop consuming so fast! Slowing down makes a lot of sense to me, especially when it leads to a better experience as in the Slow Food movement. Yum.

And another is to create a rental business.

One example that has been around a really long time is video rental. Why does everyone have to buy a video, causing one to be manufactured, when a perfectly good business model exists for renting them? As we have seen the model does work well – it’s stood the test of time and evolved from shops into postal rental services like DvdsOnTap which became Lovefilm and so on. Maybe it will be replaced by electronic downloads, but so far I am surprised by how resilient the model seems. Maybe there’s more to these services than just selling the same physical item over and over again?

Another more recent example are the car clubs popping up everywhere (Streetcar, WhizzGo, CityCarClub to name just a few). It’s the same business model – buy one car and let many people use it.

I wonder what other goods could be provided in this way?

If you do go down this route, of course, differentiating yourself becomes more interesting. It has little to do with the product itself – differentiation comes from the way the service is offered. It’s good therefore to see more and more consultancies emerging specialising in this area – I came across the Engine Group just today.