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Why African entrepreneurs need to be thinking about ‘Conscious Capitalism’

“I am a complete capitalist.” This is how John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, opened his talk on Conscious Capitalism (also the title of his recently launched book) at this year’s SXSW.

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However, as Mackey explains, we tend to forget that capitalism has not been around that long. Two hundred years ago it didn’t even exist and 85% of the world lived on less than a dollar a day — that figure is now 16%. Despite this, there is a massive paradox, because although business and capitalism has helped lift humanity up, it is intensely disliked.

In America, the two least trusted institutions are big business and congress. In South Africa, we can relate to this on a broader scale. Our myriad of public and private enterprise issues, from telecommunications and basic service delivery to mining and food company collusion, have spread to a severe mistrust — and sometimes even hatred — of large companies and parliament.

In the twentieth century battle between ‘capitalism and democratic freedom’ versus ‘communism and government control’, capitalism won the ideological battle, but failed to capture the hearts and minds of people, especially socially-minded intellectuals.

According to Mackey, humanity is progressing, yet our prosperity and economic freedom is in decline because business is not trusted. “Google and Facebook didn’t even exist 15 years ago. Huge evolution has occurred but what hasn’t evolved – and needs to evolve – is business,” says Mackey

As one of the founders of America’s most successful organic supermarket chain, Mackey pioneered the idea of fresh and sustainable produce long before it was fashionable. It may seem counter-intuitive that a man responsible for something so green would be an ardent capitalist and well-known libertarian, but this uniquely positions Mackey to champion what he calls the movement of Conscious Capitalism.

This requires each business to discover its higher purpose. Mackey points out how entrepreneurs understand this. “Money is not what drives most entrepreneurs. They have some kind of dream, some kind of passion. They’re highly creative individuals with a higher purpose.”

“Business will never be trusted when it talks about maximising profits, but it will be when it talks about creating value,” says Mackey.

Whole Foods is the obvious example of this. It has created value for suppliers, investors and employees while minimising environmental impact. According to Mackey, conscious businesses have cultures that are fundamentally trusting and these businesses tend to be more authentic. He also says the tough exterior of business has to change. “Metaphors used in business tend to be war metaphors, such as, ‘We have to destroy them!’ And, as a result, care and love are in the closet.”

Looking at the South African context, this outdated approach to business is still very evident. Working in the advertising industry gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the operations of many companies — from financial institutions to FMCGs — where fear and hierarchy frequently still rule.

It’s apparent that the need for integrity, trust and loyalty in business has never been more evident locally as well as internationally. “Whole Foods has the same benefits for every employee from the cashier to the CEO,” says Mackey.

“Capitalism has lifted humanity out of the dirt. Business is good and noble and heroic. But capitalism and business are hated and mistrusted — and until business changes this narrative, that won’t change.”

And this is the overarching objective of Conscious Capitalism — to change the narrative about business. “Business has the greatest potential in the world to help and create value,” says Mackey, “It can elevate humanity and end poverty, but business will not be loved until it finds its higher purpose.”

With our problematic labour relations and prescriptive business regulations, South African companies would do well to heed this message sooner rather than later. It could be an important part of the solution in managing these issues.

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