Consuming for Christmas

How consumers can help shift management thinking

Christmas poses the problem of management in microcosm. Never mind the quality, feel the width. Factories, shops and delivery services straining every nerve to meet Christmas demand and deadlines – management as heroism. Yes, but going full tilt to turn out singing plastic fish, belly-button brushes, electric shaving-foam warmers and other such items that will be landfill before you’ve finished singing ‘The 12 Days of Christmas’ is management as absurdism. As Peter Drucker put it, ‘There is nothing so useless as doing efficiently that which should not be done at all’.

There was a time when abundance was in itself something to celebrate, the long climb out of penury a monument to human exuberance, imagination and betterment. But at least in the developed world, that innocent age is long past. The 100th segmentation of yoghurt or the 45th fragrance of washing powder is not an addition to human happiness or even choice – it’s a burden that, without getting too killjoy about it, oppresses consumers and the planet can no longer afford.

Up till now, management has been most concerned with efficiency, what we might call process. Goodness knows, given the misguided routes taken by so many organisations, there’s still vast scope for improvement on this score, particularly in resource efficiency. But as Russ Ackoff never tired of saying, doing the wrong thing more efficiently actually makes things worse. ‘Therefore, it is better to do the right thing wrong than the wrong thing right. This is very significant because almost every problem confronting our society is a result of the fact that our policy makers [and corporate managers] are doing the wrong things and trying to do them righter.’

It’s time, in fact, to give purpose back its central management importance. Writing recently in the FT, Janan Ganesh impatiently laid out the conventional view: ‘There are first principles that politicians must relearn. Business exists to make a profit within the law. It contributes to society by employing people and producing goods and services, not by attempting the modish fad of “corporate social responsibility”’. I’m pleased to say that he was then ticked off readers making the point that the role of business is to serve the ends of society and culture, not the other way round, and that in the aftermath of 2008 we are all contemplating close up the dire consequences of elevating profit into purpose. Purpose comes before profit: profit is what makes purpose possible, and the score as to how well it is doing it. Sorry; past success has so altered the present that a new formula is necessary. Producing goods, services and employment is no longer enough to outweigh the growing burden of externalities that business imposes on society in the sacred name of profit in terms of inequality, exclusion and financial and global warming.

Of course, Ganesh is perfectly right that this does represent the prevailing view, incorporated into governance codes and authorised by academic theory. He is therefore also correct that if politicians don’t like it (and they’re right not to), they’re being naive if they think that handwringing and begging Amazon, Google and Starbucks to please pay a bit more tax will do anything to change it. Management is a powerful paradigm, anchored by vested interest and entrenched ideas, and shifting it will require action on many different fronts – political campaigning, possibly some law changes, more rigorous competition policy, and, just as importantly, academic and other effort to build a credible alternative.

And consumers? Yes, we have a part to play too. There’s a chink of light in the reaction of Starbucks to consumer pressure on the tax issue, inadequate as it is, and Apple to revelations about the pay and conditions of Foxconn workers in China assembling iPhones. We can make a difference. To do so, we need to keep up that pressure, both vocally and in our buying habits. On ‘Buy Nothing Day’ (24 November, in case you missed it), the New Economics Foundation launched a manifesto and pamphlet for a New Materialism: How our relationship with the material world can change for the better – a call not for a rejection of stuff, but for a more adult, less spoilt relationship with it. The new materialism, says author and NEF fellow Andrew Simms, ‘is about an economy of better, not more. It is rich in the good quality work created by providing useful services, making things that last and can be repaired many times before being recycled, allowing us to share better the surplus of stuff we already have’.

The new economy is beginning to emerge in things ranging from furniture, to tools, cars, fridges, clothes and food. DIY chain B&Q is rethinking its business model around leasing rather than selling. Marks & Spencer is selling suits made for easy disassembly and recycling, and offering fashion lines made from recycled wool. M&S director of sustainability Richard Gillies says that the group is proceeding as fast as it can down this route, but it can’t get too far ahead of of its customers: it is waiting for unambiguous signals that we are ready to sign up for not a hair shirt but one that is made with care, to last, and then be cycled round again. Among the items on NEF’s work-in-progress manifesto: Cherish, tend and respect what you have. Look after it. If possible, make, buy and keep things that are designed to last at least 10 years. By buying well, and, just as important, refusing to buy badly, consumers can do their bit to send the old management paradigm packing and help a new and better one emerge.

I can’t think of a better Christmas present tp us all.

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