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Staying conscious

Profits and principles can be mutually reinforcing. But don’t underestimate the problems along the way
If there’s a danger with conscious capitalism, it’s that leaders can get carried away with all the vaunted ‘spirituality’ and ‘heroism’ of the movement’s ideals.
Helen Edwards

Helen Edwards has twice been voted PPA Business Columnist of the Year. She has a PhD in marketing, an MBA from London Business School and is a partner at Passionbrand.

You walk into a coffee shop, ask for a black americano, and hand over your nicely clean keep-cup to the barista. If the vaguest hint of a smile traverses your lips right now it’s not just down to the anticipation of the first hot drink of the day. There’s also the knowledge that by using your own cup you’re doing something small for the environment and that the coffee shop will reward you with a discount off the normal price.

Most do. Some go further, by donating small sums to environmental charities every time a customer declines a disposable cup. It’s the kind of step corporations are increasingly taking in their efforts to adhere to the tenets of what has become known as ‘conscious capitalism’: the idea that profits and principles can be mutually reinforcing.

But step back into that coffee shop for a moment and be conscious yourself of what happens next. Is this going to be one of those times when the barista doesn’t pour the drink directly into your own cup but instead pours it into a disposable first, then tips it into your cup, then throws the disposable in the bin?

It doesn’t happen every time by any means, but it’s something I’ve witnessed often enough, in places like Starbucks, Paul and Pret. And I’ve always wondered why. Is it that the barista isn’t sure the personal cup will fit into the machine space? Yet they invariably do. Is it easier to measure the drink in a standard disposable cup, thus saving a few precious microseconds in a hectic shift? Or is it, ironically, just an unconscious habit taking over and running the show, as it so often does?

If the ‘conscious’ bit has gone walkabout, our barista’s perverse actions aren’t great for the capitalism side of the equation either. The business still parts with the discount, the cost of the disposable cup is still a drag on the bottom line, and the job of ultimate disposal is now transferred to the shop, not the customer.

As examples of transgressions go, this is at the slight end of the spectrum. It’s not about so-called greenwashing. It’s not a corporation saying one thing and then deceitfully bending the rules when it suits. This is small stakes. But it is a wonderful insight into one of the paradoxes of staying conscious in corporate life: that an organisation needs to be aware of what’s going on not just in the wider planetary sphere but in the nether regions of its own corpus, too. In the same way that if you’re running a marathon for charity you need to be conscious when a tiny stone rubs against your foot. Whatever high ideals have put you in that race, it’s seriously bad news if you’re insentient to what’s happening inside your shoe.

If there’s a danger with conscious capitalism, it’s that leaders can get carried away with all the vaunted ‘spirituality’ and ‘heroism’ of the movement’s ideals and lose touch with day-to-day reality for customers and employees. And if there is one role that marketers can successfully play in the corporation’s quest to be better a global citizen, it is in the humble, yet vital, task of joining up the dots.

Humility may not be what you or the department craves, of course. I am often asked whether marketers can be leaders in sustainability and planet-sparing initiatives – and I am usually circumspect, at best.

If you look at the conscious capitalism movement’s number one principle, for example, you’ll read how everything derives from having a higher-order purpose. Well, that needs to come from a higher authority than the everyday marketer – and it should endure, no matter who happens to be running things right now. Purpose has no need for marketer ‘refresh’ talents.

Similarly, the calls for ‘conscious leadership’ and the creation of a ‘conscious culture’ are likely to actively involve only an elite within the marketing domain, beyond the scope of the routine marketer.

But that very same routine marketer is in the best position of all when it comes to the business of connecting the organisation with itself. They are the ones watching the research groups, taking notes – so they can pass on up the hierarchy the truth that consumers do want better environmental and humanitarian standards but will not sacrifice product or service quality for them.

And it is the routine, mid-level marketer who gets out and about and into the service and delivery aspects of the brand offer, understanding the realities on the ground, helping in the task of brand engagement and learning first-hand what it’s like to trying to manifest those well-intentioned but weighty commitments.

Every business has its own version of baristas – flight attendants, salespeople, cleaning crew, call handlers, reception staff, packers, mechanics, data crunchers, delivery teams. These are the people who can take an aspect of the brand’s ethical goals and make them relevant in consumer interactions – or get them wrong and leave customers disappointed and confused.

And it’s when it does go wrong – even if ever so slightly and for completely understandable reasons – that our humble marketer can perform the most valuable task. They can make leadership conscious, as it fixes its sights on the heroic marathon of creating a better world, that down here in some scarcely considered zone of the multi-layered corporate organogram, the organisation has a stone in its shoe.