Meaning Conference: 5 Economic good news stories worth celebrating

It’s one of life’s pleasures: attending an event and leaving with lots of new, exciting ideas. And Meaning Conference, held every November in Brighton, gave me that very feeling.

Meaning Conference brings people together to discuss purpose-led business, the economy and the future of work. This year, speakers presented examples of progressive ideas. In particular, it focused on the ability of business to address the economic, ecological and democratic crises we face.

The conference acknowledged the challenging political environments we inhabit today. But there is plenty of good news around too. And if we as a community keep these ideas alive long enough, they might take hold. Here are our best picks.

1. It has never been easier to convene people who want to do business ethically

Meaning Conference packed with leaders from progressive business support networks. For example, we heard from the founder of Zebras Unite, Jennifer Brandel. Zebras Unite is a network for entrepreneurs wanting to take on the toxic culture of startups and venture capitalism. It is promoting new standards for healthy ways of working and collaborating.

The idea that stuck with me from Brandel’s talk was the idea of collaborative advantage, as an antidote to competitive advantage. Collaborative advantage, funnily enough, is the survival strategy of zebras in the wild, hence Zebras Unite.

Also in attendance were the convenors of progressive business communities like Losing Control, the movement and Citizen Shift. Progressive business movements and networks are flourishing. That’s a reason to be cheerful.

You can watch Jennifer Brandel’s talk here:

2. We’re moving beyond binary debates about capitalism vs. socialism

Armin Steuernagel took to the stage and immediately confessed to being an unashamed capitalist. Shock horror. But Steuernagel does oppose the particularly dysfunctional form of capitalism we see today. That being the shareholder model of capitalism.

He believes in ‘steward ownership’ and wants to delegitimise absentee ownership in business. Trustee capitalism, or steward ownership, ensures companies can’t be sold off for private benefit. This boosts the chances that businesses have smart, active owners. And it helps employees feel more fulfilled at work.

Steuernagel’s talk was refreshing. It broke away from the binary capitalism versus socialism arguments that we too often slip into. And it presented a new solution which could work today.

3. It has been an incredible year for green action and green economic thinking

Extinction Rebellion co-founder Clare Farrell gave a provocative talk at Meaning Conference. She showed how they have succeeded in raising public consciousness about the ecological crisis. Then, New Economics Foundation CEO Miatta Fahnbulleh followed up with an impassioned talk outlining the potential benefits of a Green New Deal. When you consider the year we’ve had, there’s plenty for progressives to be cheerful about.

Watch Fahnbulleh’s talk here:

4. Community wealth building is alive and kicking

Community wealth building takes various forms. Think local currencies, local procurement practices and community energy. The Brixton Pound, or the Preston Model spring to mind. At Meaning Conference, we heard from two key pioneers in this space.

Sarah McKinley helped design ‘The Cleveland Model’. It’s a model of co-op businesses working with public institutions to boost their locality. She gave an inspiring talk on the true potential of these approaches. Plus, we heard from community energy pioneer Agamemnon Otero. He discussed the ability of communities to self organise and create change, away from the usual corporate players and tech entrepreneurs.

Watch McKinley’s talk here:

5. Citizens’ Assemblies and deliberative democracies are on the up

Brett Hennig has a novel idea: getting rid of politicians altogether.

What would replace them, you ask? A randomly selected group of citizens, no less. It’s a process called sortition, and it’s part of what is called deliberative democracy. The logic goes that if you have fairer forms of democracy, you’ll end up with fairer economic policies.

One form this sort of democracy takes is Citizens’ Assemblies. The UK will hold its first official Citizens’ Assembly on climate change next year and they’re springing up all over the world.

Watch Hennig’s talk here:

A provocation: growing the movement

Ethical business conventions ought to be the norm, but they’re the exception to the rule. And one thing which strikes me as a barrier to the growth of ethical business is the language and frames we’re using.

BBC journalist Simon Jack asked whether it is ok for business leaders to do the right things for the wrong reasons. In his article, Unilever’s CEO said its sustainability drive is about ensuring its products remain popular with consumers, is that ok? Does the motive matter if the outcome is the one we want?

Would we see more ethical behaviour if we demonstrated the selfish case for it? Reports like The Competitive Advantage of Racial Equity show the money-making case for ethnic diversity amongst a firm’s employees. And ethical businesses often enjoy reduced hiring costs, higher employee engagement and reduced marketing costs. But it can makes our community uncomfortable.

This approach has been employed in other cause areas. Take What Would Jesus Drive? the campaign to promote electric cars to Christians. Or the popular Gamechangers documentary, which shows top athletes discussing the competitive advantage they gain by following a plant-based diet. This documentary spends more time on health and performance benefits than it does on environmental or animal welfare concerns.

Granted, the highly-influential cognitive linguist George Lakoff, author of Don’t Think Of An Elephant, says that it’s a mistake to active the opposition’s frame. But still, there’s something refreshing about campaigns which use unusual language and different messengers to spread ideas amongst new audiences. It is difficult to make the selfish case for ethical practises without being shunned but perhaps we need to change our stance. Could we unleash more ethical business practises if we were more tolerant of different motives?

I also think there is a strong argument for promoting new meeting styles and formats to encourage more participation. In my view, the Powerpoint-fuelled, one-to-many meetings which we so often convene in the business community will not unleash the ethical business practises we need. I wish more events would enable connections between everyone, not just between the speakers and their audience. Coffee breaks aren’t enough.

And yes, the odds may be stacked against ethical businesses succeeding in today’s environment. Traditional systems are entrenched. So it’s little wonder it’s not so widespread. But that shouldn’t stop the ethical business community asking what else it can do to open up.

Let us know what you think needs to change to grow the ethical business movement via Twitter @socialchangeag

(Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash.)

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