Is your company or brand seen as greedy, or generous? Self-serving, or people-serving? Is your company seen as part of the problem, or part of the solution? A cause or a cure? A gangster or a doctor?
How you see status may be the deciding factor in how the public would answer those questions.
One of the things we have noticed that gets in the way of generosity is status, depending on how it is interpreted. We all crave status of one form or another, and there is nothing wrong with being respected and thought well of by one's peers. But it is how status has come to be interpreted in mainstream culture in recent decades that can shut off empathy and impair generosity, and make your company look like a greedy part of the problem, rather than a service-oriented part of the solution.
When we look around at the mainstream culture we have inherited, what we see is that for many people STATUS means money, power, fame, clothes, jewellery, cars, etc, We even elect people who embody this kind of status, which has contributed to the rise of authoritarianism world-wide.
In this self-centered interpretation of status, generosity can be seen as taking the focus off oneself, or even as a sign of weakness.
Sure, some new clothes or fancy new gadget can make us feel good, just as a bunch of "likes" on social media make us feel good. At least for a while, but then we have to buy the next new thing to regain the feeling, and like a drug it takes more and more.
This fits right in with the single-bottom-line, shareholder-centric, quarterly-growth version of the capitalism. We are fed fast fashion and fast food, which creates waste, child labor and many other problems, yet are always made to feel the need for more. And the focus on ourselves, and making ourselves feel better, causes us to be more self-entered, which in turn amplifies our own problems.
But status doesn't have to be interpreted this way. Think back a half-century or so to the example of a small town doctor. They were often among the wealthiest people in town. They were usually well respected, even deferred to. But they were not begrudged their wealth, because they were part of the community and served a higher purpose in the community.
They cared for people, made house calls, occasionally accepted alternate forms of payment like chickens or a bushel of vegetables, and occasionally took no payment when it was not possible. It was these other actions, these generosities, that provided them with a much deeper form of status than their big house, nice clothes, fancy car and high social position.
Their status was rooted in their respect for their Hippocratic oaths: First, do no harm.
Notice how the Hippocratic Oath doctors took is very similar to many of the most progressive companies' purpose and mission statements.
Care is an art that places science, warmth, sympathy, and understanding over technology. Care first, technology only when necessary.
Why talk about status in terms of a small-town doctor?
Because the world is in need of companies who derive their status the way small-town doctors did. (I'm using this as a metaphor, of course, but it fits pretty well.)
Many companies pride themselves on providing the best service possible. Yet we live in a world of many physical and psychological illness, many caused by businesses who gain their status from their single-bottom-line shareholder returns, and from the profits gained from providing their service. But who are they really serving? Service is about meeting needs, not creating needs.
Right now the world is in pain, it is suffering an illness caused by greed, by the search for the wrong kind of status, by companies serving their shareholders bottom line over their stakeholders—all people on the planet.
In the take-make-waste model of capitalism we have endless choice, but little choice to not consume in a wasteful way. Sustainable, eco, or bio products may not be available in many areas, or priced out of range of many people.
Living healthy sustainable lives should not cause financial pain. Like the Hippocratic Oath, it can not be only for rich people, it has to be for everyone.
If average-income people can’t afford your product, it is NOT sustainable.
This does NOT mean give it away, or don't make a profit—that also would also not be sustainability. It means that a well designed product or service includes consideration of price and availability to lower and middle income people.
If your higher purpose truly is to make the world better, then keeping your prices affordable for the greatest number people is necessary. It is good business, and fits well within the capitalist model, especially the Circular Economy version of capitalism.
Here is an example. Penny Market and Lidl provide an important service to many more thousands of people than some of the fancy and expensive bio shops or packaging-free stores in city centers. Imagine how fast change would happen if all the people who shop at Penny and Lidl started living more sustainably, by having reduced packaging and reduced waste options.
Like a good doctor, to serve a higher purpose, we sometimes need to put our energies and services where it is needed most to effect the greatest change.
Both Penny Market’s parent company REWE, and Lidl, are putting in place changes to make their stores, products and packaging more sustainable. REWE has developed a PRO PLANET sustainability label, Lidl has announced commitments to great reduction in packaging and plastic.
How to realign your company's status in terms of generosity.
The way for your company to be seen as part of the solution, rather than being part of the problem, is like that of a doctor seeking prevention, over cure: Seek to remove pain and treat the cause first.
Healing is a form of generosity. Healing is the process of restoring an unbalanced, diseased or damaged organism to health. Right now the Earth and people are damaged and diseased (obesity, anorexia, narcissism). Doctors do what they can, with what they have, to remove the pain. They do what they can to remove the cause, or change the system.
Redefine success in terms of higher purpose and Tripple Bottom Line accounting (TBL or 3BL), which includes increasing stakeholder value, rather than the traditional single-bottom-line shareholder model which only seeks to raise shareholder value.
Get out of the competition mindset. Many people and companies derive their status by winning over "the competition". There is nothing inherently wrong with competition, it is a great motivator, but there are times to compete, and times when it is wholly inappropriate.
If someone is having a heart attack, no body wants two doctors to be competing over who gets to save them. Right now the Earth and all the people on it are on the verge of a metaphorical heart attack. The first job is to save the patient. Do it right and we will all be winners, and your status will rise because of your leadership.
And finally, we do understand that going from a bottom-line only profit-driven company to being one that is part of the solution—one that is seen as a generous, caring doctor—is often a difficult, frightening, and even risky transition. But that is what we do at B&H, we help make this transition easier and less risky. And there is tremendous risk in not making the transition to a more sustainable business model sooner rather than later. Because it is coming.
Butterflies & Hurricanes will be happy to partner with you and do all we can to make the transition easier!
Michaela Thomas is owner and design director of Butterflies & Hurricanes design studio in Prague, Czech Republic.