Can you make capitalism useful for society?

Capitalism can eradicate poverty and mitigate climate change within a generation - if it evolves to embrace a longer-term outlook, a stronger sense of purpose and more partnership. So says global business leader Paul Polman. But, he asks, are we willing to put the common good ahead of our own interests?

Arguing that capitalism has served society well during many periods in history, Polman says it does so best when it evolves to meet the needs of the times.

Three Men

While two decades of globalisation has helped to lift one billion people out of poverty, the current crisis in capitalism is due not so much to a lack of regulation, but more to a lack of moral framework.

From a business perspective, Polman highlights key challenges thrown up by the trends shaping our highly uncertain and stressed world:

  • A world population projected to rise from 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050
  • Consumers increasingly in charge as they use technology to connect, access information and demand change.
  • A growing awareness of the limits of planetary boundaries.

Three Women

Left alone, the market forces of current capitalism simply aren’t delivering for everyone. “Any system where too many people feel they are not fully participating — or even are excluded — will result in rebellion.” says Polman.

As an integral part of the capitalist system, businesses, he insists, must step up to the plate. They can help capitalism to evolve by taking a long term view, by being better stewards of nature and by increasing inclusion.

Mother and Child

Doing business today implies broader responsibility than ever. What that means is that if you are in the food business, you have to be co-responsible for deforestation. Why? Because half of deforestation is driven by demand for food.

Polman sees today’s young people as key drivers of change in business. Another driver is economic reality because the cost of doing nothing is becoming greater than the cost of acting. And transparency, he says, is a powerful tool for building trust that is currently so low.

Paul Polman

Leaders in the new era of capitalism need skills which include long term-ism, a higher level sense of purpose, and working in partnership. Women, says Polman, are well placed to lead the evolution.

Change is in our hands, but it depends on putting ourselves on a higher level of morality.

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