Friday, June 19, 2015

Summer Reading: Conscious Capitalism


Recently, I finished reading Conscious Capitalism, written by Whole Foods Market co-CEO John Mackey and Babson College professor Raj Sisodia.

The book is much more “popular press” than academic, as should be clear from the splashy subtitle “liberating the heroic spirit of business.” There is a bit of academic influence in the appendix and notes, but it is mostly social business advocacy and story telling. In fact, the authors state that the primary purpose of the book “is to inspire the creation of more conscious businesses: businesses galvanized by higher purposes that serve and align the interests of all their major stakeholders.” (pg. 8). The book is interesting, passionate, and may accomplish its primary purpose.

The authors paint a compelling picture of Whole Foods Market and similar companies like Trader Joe's, The Container Store, Costco, and Southwest Airlines. These companies appear to take a long-term view and consider what is best for all their stakeholders. I would have appreciated, however, more attention to the struggles the companies must have faced in attempting to satisfy all of their stakeholders. After finishing the book, I was left wishing the authors would have spent more time discussing how to make decisions in situations where certain stakeholder interests irreconcilably conflict. 

I may have more to say about this book in future posts, but as someone who has been researching in the social business area for a few years, I continue to be amazed at the proliferation of terms. The authors describe four tenants of their term “conscious capitalism”: (1) Higher Purpose (beyond just generating profits); (2) Stakeholder Integration (“optimizing value creation for all of them”); (3) Conscious Leadership (leaders “motivated primarily by service to the firm’s higher purpose and creating and creating value for all stakeholders.”); (4) Conscious Culture and Management (culture and management centering around traits like “trust, accountability, transparency, integrity, loyalty, egalitarianism, fairness, personal growth, and love and care.)  (pg. 32-35)

The authors try to differentiate their term of “conscious capitalism” from similar terms, as discussed below. While some of the distinctions make sense, I wish that these various social business movements would agree on a common vocabulary and work together more consistently. Unfortunately and ironically, many associated with the social business movements seem especially territorial. Perhaps, the lack of focus on financial returns causes some to seek personal returns in the form of recognition and influence. Quotes in the bullet points below come from pages 38, 291-97 in the book.  

  • Corporate social responsibility. The authors note that CSR is often “grafted onto traditional business model, usually as a separate department or part of public relations," but for Conscious Capitalism “[s]ocial responsibility is at the core of the business.” The authors are not the first to note this difference between CSR and the more recent social business movements, and I think it is a fair distinction, at least in some cases.
  • Natural Capitalism. According to the authors, “Conscious Capitalism included the valuable insights that natural capitalism offers about the environment and transcends them with a more comprehensive view of the entire business and economic system.” The authors seem to suggest that their term is more holistic, not merely focused on the environment, and more focused on human ingenuity than simply preserving the environment.
  • Triple Bottom Line. The authors seem to think that Conscious Capitalism has a more inclusive view of stakeholders than TBL’s “people, profit, planet.” I don’t think the authors make their case for this distinction, failing to note stakeholders that don’t fall in one of TBL’s three buckets. The authors then note that their theory pays more attention to “purpose, leadership, management, and culture.” I also think this is stretching for distinctions; most of the TBL proponents I know recognize the importance of “purpose, leadership, management, and culture.” The authors admit that the TBL movement is "a fellow traveler," but I think TBL and Conscious Capitalism are roughly synonymous. 
  • Shared-Value Capitalism. SVC, championed by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer, focuses on creating economic value for shareholders and all of society. Conscious Capitalism, the authors claim, does not only focus on economic value like SVC, but expands to human values and includes “emotional and spiritual motivators” lacking with SVC. 
  • Creative Capitalism. Bill Gates popularized this term in 2008 at the World Economic Forum, claiming that certain companies can use variable pricing to make products affordable to those at the “base of the pyramid” and still make a profit. The authors claim Creative Capitalism seems like an “add on” similar to CSR, only applies certain companies, and over-focuses on the reputational benefits, rather than changing the core business purpose. 
  • B Corporations. The authors do not seem optimistic about “[certified] B corporations” which they unfortunately use interchangeably with “benefit corporations,” even though the two terms are distinct. The main reason the authors offer for their pessimism toward B corporations is that “B corporations appear to violate the important principle that owners [shareholders] should ultimately control the corporation.” Most legal readers will notice problems with that statement. First, shareholders don’t control corporations, boards of directors do (see, e.g., DGCL 141(a)). Second, to the extent the authors are talking about aspects of corporate governance like the shareholders’ ability to elect the directors and bring derivative suits, those powers remain for shareholders of both certified B corporations and benefit corporations. Giving the authors (neither of whom are legally trained) the benefit of the doubt – perhaps they are talking about the deprioritization of shareholders in the benefit corporation statutes (shareholders are simply one of many stakeholders that the board must consider in its decision making). The authors seem concerned that shareholders, the most vulnerable of the stakeholders (according to them), will be relatively unprotected. This is a fairly common concern, but the Conscious Capitalism model seems to deprioritize shareholders as well, and even in traditional corporate law, the business judgment rule provides significant protection to the board of directors. Delaware law does give shareholders more power in the M&A context, but benefit corporations and corporations committed to Conscious Capitalism that are incorporated in a constituency statute state seem like they would operate similarly, even in the M&A context. In short, the authors do not clearly express a strong grasp of the benefit corporation statutes, and throughout the book the authors actually seem to advocate operating corporations in line with the benefit corporation statutes (considering all stakeholders in decisions). 

While I am a bit critical in some of my comments above, I did appreciate learning more about Whole Foods Market and similar companies. The companies discussed are some of my favorite companies and are certainly making the world better for many of their stakeholders. The book also made a number of claims that spurred additional thinking, for which I am grateful, and which made reading the book worthwhile.

Books, Business Associations, Corporate Governance, Corporations, CSR, Haskell Murray, Social Enterprise | Permalink


Will definitely add this to my list of books to read. And thanks for the great insight.

Posted by: MARCIA NARINE | Jun 19, 2015 10:01:55 AM

Great post, Haskell. I read this one last year for a program I did at the Knoxville Public Library. The podcast can be found at Like you, I am critical of the book. But it's well worth reading in any case. And you do make some excellent points here.

Posted by: joanheminway | Jun 23, 2015 10:55:50 AM

Love the podcast, Joan. You provide an eloquent, balanced review of the book. And what a great public service; I will have to see if the Nashville Public Library does something similar.

Posted by: Haskell Murray | Jun 23, 2015 12:29:06 PM

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