Will Corporations Really Question Capitalism?

Mock Coke capitalism shirt photo
CC BY 2.0. @boetter

@boetter/CC BY 2.0

I received an email today from the UK-based Forum for the Future. It outlined the key trends to watch out for in 2012. From anger over rising energy prices to a continued growth of peer-to-peer sharing and collaborative consumption, there was plenty of familiar territory for TreeHugger readers.

But one prediction caught my eye in particular. Corporations will, says the Forum, begin to question capitalism as we know it:

Paul Polman, CEO at Unilever, has publicly said he wants an equitable, sustainable capitalism. Iain Cheshire of Kingfisher is talking about a paradigm shift. Even the Harvard Business Review has called on CEOs to “fix the system”. From our own conversations with business leaders, we know that some are privately questioning the basic model of individualistic consumption. The Occupy movement is the popular version. They have been painted as anti-capitalist but really they are anti-this capitalism. If companies are not careful, they could get stuck as the defenders of a broken status quo. If they are smart, sustainability leaders can show what a better capitalism might look like.

It's a fascinating prospect, and not entirely unrealistic. Very few corporations have an interest in a system set to self-destruct, so as the urge to rethink our basic economic assumptions becomes louder, those who will continue to prosper will be those who adapt to the times. Resilience will become increasingly important as sustainability becomes more about covering your ass than simply doing the right thing.

From Patagonia's plea to not buy their jackets to bank advertising that demands less greed, more happiness, there are already business leaders out there forging a different path. Whether it is enough to right an admittedly very off-course train remains to be seen. But it's good to see people trying.

From no-growth economics through a plenitude economy to a world powered by 100% renewable energy, we are not short of grand visions. And while some would prefer to scrap the entire system and start up from the grass roots, I suspect most of us recognize that the corporate world has vast resources and technology that may prove invaluable in pulling us back from the brink.

If only they can be stopped from pushing is toward that brink at the same time...