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Friday October 31st 2014

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Economics based on Beauty and Community: Putting Aesthetics back into the Economy

by Gregory Wendt, CFP

Right before I boarded a plane after a green business conference last year, I noticed a Body Shop store in the terminal next to the gate. The Body Shop was founded by the late Anita Roddick who was a very influential and inspiring thought leader who was one of the pioneering business people who incorporated social and environmental values into her operations.

As I thumbed through my reading materials I found an article in Resurgence Magazine by Roddick entitled “The Currency of Imagination.” This eloquent article laid out some of her guiding principles and reflections on being one of the only CEOs in the crowd of human beings who raised their voices against the globalization paradigm represented by the 1999 WTO meeting in Seattle.

In the article she laid out a new vision for society, a vision which I share, where we establish community and beauty as driving values for our individual and institutional decision making. I have learned that for any successful endeavor in new economic thinking to work, it must be built on a culture of trust and collaboration amongst the participants. Such ideas have inspired me in the efforts I have made in my region. I am the co-founder of Green Business Networking in Los Angeles, a monthly networking event which brings together entrepreneurs and professionals committed to greening our economy through their businesses and the Green Economy Think Tank which convenes sustainability leaders to evolve solutions for a green economy.

Somewhere along the line we picked up a virus in our culture’s source code. This virus misguided us by placing money and power as the central measuring sticks for success, all fed by a rapacious economic operating system driven by the gospel of consumerism. The ethos of our economy has become largely devoid of beauty and community, transactions have become ”complex, opaque, [and] anonymous based on short term outcomes” according to Don Shaffer, President of RSF Social Finance. Instead, he states our transactions need to become “direct, transparent and personal, based on long term relationships.” On a similar theme, Judy Wicks, founder of the White Dog Café, who is also a co-founder of the very successful movement “Business Alliance For Local Living Economies” lives these principles. She says that her business was built on the principle of “maximizing relationships” rather than “maximizing profits.” As a result of her focus, her business thrived with the satisfaction of higher sales, and happier people.

In the wake of the recent financial crisis, and the significant ills facing our world, it has become clear to many people that the prevailing economic paradigm is no longer working to improve the wellbeing of all of humanity. With climate crisis, declining ecosystems, billions in wretched poverty, food riots, childhood diabetes, etc. individuals and institutions are experiencing the severe ramifications of an avaricious and predatory economic model. However, there is another way.

Let’s take a moment to inquire into the nature of the latent economic opportunity of which Roddick spoke — that which incorporates improvement of the quality of relationships founded on beauty and community into the economic equation. I am keen to discern the most effective and coherent actions necessary to transmute our current economy of waste into an economy of thriving abundance, conservation and renewal for 100 percent of humanity. Our economic paradigm utilizes debt manipulation and consumerism as a short-sighted means to an unforeseen dead end and endless gluttony for a few at the top of the heap.

Here’s what Roddick said:

“Consumerism doesn’t care if we buy in beautiful or ugly surroundings. Few aspects of the global economy provide beauty or community and, worse, in many ways it drives them out by deliberate manipulation of debt, which is as powerful a motivator as has been invented in human history. Providing for vital needs like beauty, creativity and community requires another kind of economy altogether.”

Sadly, and with far reaching consequences, our current economy has failed to value these essential components of quality of life. Roddick pointed out that the economist John Maynard Keynes “talked about the hideous waste of an economic system that could not recognize art or beauty…. In a speech to the Irish government in 1933, he urged politicians and economists to raise their ambition, and spend the money on beauty.”

The economy of beauty that we need transcends and includes the artful beauty of which he speaks. It is a culture of thriving community and high strong relationships built on trust: people inspired by, evolving and learning from others and from the beauty that surrounds them.

How do we recognize and create such a vibrant community as the foundation of a successful economic paradigm?

Such a community has “deep connectivity” between participants. An economic system that encourages such “deep connectivity” would have to be based on the currency of relationships. An interesting example is the deeply successful Mondragon Cooperative movement, a community-based economic system successfully operating in the Basque region of Spain. It started during the Great Depression in the 1930s and thrived amid the oppressive Franco dictatorship. Mondragon succeeded in such a fascist context “by avoiding confrontation, not by being passively servile but by doing what was for the good of all.”

In his book “The End of Money and the Future of Civilization,” author Thomas Greco made an important point that the success of the Mondragon experience is replicable, but only in conjunction with the simultaneous weaving of a strong social fabric. That effort need not necessarily be centered around ethnic identity and culture, but could be based on other common factors between the participants such as religious affiliation, geographical proximity, shared values, or other factors that create common interests (but with concern for the greater common good always foremost.)

It is precisely this inherent characteristic of wishing to be part of something greater than ourselves that has given humans a sense of meaning since time immemorial. This heroic sense of contribution and sharing for the common good is a key principle of true success.

Consider: has there ever been a time in history when this kind of collective heroism is more important than now, when the stakes are as high as they can get?

Mondragon scholar Terry Mollner makes a distinction between the declining ‘Material Age’ and the emerging ‘Relationship Age,’ and concludes that the [Mondragon founders] ‘set about building a Relationship Age society by extending into more sophisticated realms the Relationship Age values which were already present in Basque society.’

Along the same lines, Roddick concludes “We will succeed to the extent to which we encourage human connection and conversation. We will succeed also to the extent to which we spend the small change of imagination – the human stories about people and places and what they aspire to do.”

Although it has been said before – we are at a critical juncture where our global circumstances require each of us to embrace a kind of global responsibility in every relationship we have. We share the responsibility to manifest the “Relationship Age” right where we are. A Relationship Age of artful living in deep connectivity is the evolutionary catalyst to shift our current economic operating system towards the creation of shared well-being for all of us on spaceship Earth.

Gregory Wendt is Vice President of Sustainable and Responsible Investing for EP Wealth Advisors (www.epwealth.com). Greg advises clients who want to align their wealth through investments that reflect their priorities and concerns for a better world. Greg is one of the nation’s leading experts in Sustainable and Responsible Investing. Mr. Wendt is the founder behind Green Economy Think Tank (www.greeneconomythinktank.org) an series of conferences to convene sustainability leaders to evolve solutions and actions to fuel green economy efforts around the country. He is also the co-founder of non-profit Green Business Networking (www.greenbusinessnetworking.org) a community of nearly 4,000 individuals in the LA Region who’s mission is to connect business owners and decision makers of socially and environmentally conscious businesses by providing a space and time for connecting, dealmaking and networking. You can learn more about Greg and his work at www.gregwendt.com and what is on his mind at www.sustainablewealth.blogspot.com.

And special thanks to Leland Lehrman Special who provided editorial support for this article. Leland is a Managing Partner of Fund Balance (www.fund-balance.com) who’s mission is to capitalize and catalyze change at the intersection of environmental and social policy and investing.

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