On Sustainable Capitalism

by | Jan 9, 2013

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As part of the discussions on the interrelationship between sustainability and economics referred to in the last article, an interesting report, titled “sustainable capitalism,” popped up. The report was prepared in early 1012 by Generation Investment Management, LLP, a UK firm and can be accessed free at their corporate link. One must always read such reports prepared by folks with a particular view toward industry, capitalism and investment, carefully. But, it is interesting and, for sure, we all have our views!

To quote directly from the executive summary of the report:

“The challenges facing the planet today are unprecedented and extraordinary; climate change, water scarcity, poverty, disease, growing inequality of income and wealth, demographic shifts, trans-border and internal migration, urbanisation and a global economy in a state of constant dramatic volatility and flux, to name but a few. While governments and civil society will need to be part of the solution to these massive challenges, ultimately it will be companies and investors that will mobilise the capital needed to overcome them.

“To address these sustainability challenges, we advocate for a paradigm shift to Sustainable Capitalism; a framework that seeks to maximise long-term economic value creation by reforming markets to address real needs while considering all costs and stakeholders.

“The objective of this paper is twofold. First, we make the economic case for mainstreaming Sustainable Capitalism by highlighting the fact that it does not represent a trade-off with profit maximisation but instead actually fosters superior long-term value creation.”

They go on to recommend five specific actions that they suggest will accelerate the “mainstreaming of Sustainable Capitalism” by the end of this decade.

These are (summarized from the report):

1. IDENTIFY AND INCORPORATE RISKS FROM STRANDED ASSETS – they define “stranded assets” as “those with a value that would change dramatically, either positively or negatively, under certain scenarios such as a reasonable price on carbon or water, or improved regulation of labour standards in emerging economies.”

2. MANDATE INTEGRATED REPORTING – this is intended to allow more comprehensive insight into companies which is now lacking in spite of increases in the volume of information made available by companies and the frequency with which it is produced.

3. END THE DEFAULT PRACTICE OF ISSUING QUARTERLY EARNINGS GUIDANCE – it has long been argued that relying on quarterly earnings statements creates incentives for short term management at the expense of the longer-term, more meaningful measure of sustainable value creation.

4. ALIGN COMPENSATION STRUCTURES WITH LONG-TERM SUSTAINABLE PERFORMANCE – since most current compensation schemes reward  short-term actions disproportionately they fail to hold corporations accountable for the ramifications of their decisions over the long term. Financial rewards should instead be paid out over the period during which these results are realized, and

5. ENCOURAGE LONG-TERM INVESTING WITH LOYALTY-DRIVEN SECURITIES – This practice encourage long-term investment horizons among investors and facilitate stability in financial markets, therefore playing an important role in mainstreaming Sustainable Capitalism.


These actions would substantially change the business climate around the world if carried out. What the likelihood of this happening is not known. But to start, the report goes on to describe these ideas in greater detail and includes additional “broader ideas” among which are “integrating sustainability into business education at all levels.”

Of course, if one accomplishes that, it will be up to the product designers and manufacturers to execute the business functions at the production level to make this work.

That is, of course, if the company actually “makes something.”

The service industry or other non-manufacturing sectors generate less than one dollar of economic activity for every dollar of sector output – unlike manufacturing and agriculture which return more in economic activity than the sector output alone – see the US Government’s Bureau of Economic Analysis for more data. Manufacturing and agriculture return $1.35 and $1.20, respectively, in economic activity for every $1 of sector output. Construction, transportation, info tech, finance, etc are less than $1 and as low as $.55 for the retail trade sector.

So, if you want to “leverage” the economy to drive sustainable capitalism – start with manufacturing and agriculture.

Now, if you’d like another perspective including a view of the past and and how we got where we are today and how to become sustainable, I suggest you check out this link to a UK company called RSA Animations. In this animation, titled 300 Years of FOSSIL FUELS in 300 Seconds, a lecture with some very clever animation outlines some ideas for a sustainable world (in spite of capitalism!). I recently came across a number of very interesting animated lectures by RSA while visiting a friend and attending a conference in Brazil. The one I first saw was on capitalism and you can see it by googling RSA Animation and capitalism.

David Dornfeld is the Will C. Hall Family Chair in Engineering in Mechanical Engineering at University of California Berkeley. He leads the Laboratory for Manufacturing and Sustainability (LMAS), and he writes the Green Manufacturing blog. Additionally, the Green Manufacturing Facebook page is constantly updated with tidbits on the topic of green manufacturing, anecdotes, examples and stories of interest.

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