Does capitalism need saving from itself?

Does capitalism need saving from itself? My thoughts on Gillian Tett’s article for the Financial Times

The business case for beauty

Beauty is regenerative

The other day a business founder asked me if beauty could help his company become more profitable, I replied, ‘why would you want to do it any other way?’

We need to design and build businesses that regenerate our world. In the same way that nature works – regeneratively, creating conditions conducive to all life. No company could ever afford such a long-term investigation into what makes life thrive, evolve, shine, and grow. The amazing thing is nothing is wasted, not an atom. Ever.

Go on have swim in the ocean at, sunrise or sunset, walk in a forest, stand on the summit of a pine scented mountain and take in the view. Don’t you want your customers to experience your product and go, ‘wow’? Are these not things you want as a founder, when you imagine what success would like for you?

Beauty as an inspiration even, shows how to build businesses that are more relevant and much needed in the world we all live in today – that create legacy, that go beyond sustainability, that are places the best people want to work, that deliver outstanding customer experience, all of which translates into long-term growth and profitability.

Beautiful businesses are by their very nature regenerative because they take less, make better with less and waste nothing. They create legacy by existing as part of living systems rather than trying to disrupt or destroy them. We are already looking on our political and economic model of extraction and exploitation and wonder what on earth were we doing.

Geanne van Arkel, Head of Sustainable Development EMEA at flooring manufacturer Interface, explains, “We have no choice if we want to be in business in the medium and long term. We have changed our goals to become a company that is regenerative. This is what everyone should want, otherwise there is no beauty in the things you do – be it living, working or doing business”.

For example, Interface has built a supply chain harvesting fishing nets abandoned in the world’s oceans and is prototyping a product that delivers 2kgs of carbon savings for every metre of carpet tile it manufactures.

Beautiful unreason

Beauty flows from nurturing values, that evolves into a clearly defined purpose. Increasingly, successful companies are defined by their values-based worldview. Firms like Veja, Falcon Coffees, Interface, Patagonia who say, “we are in the business to save our home planet”, attract more talent, and become more effective in decision making and leadership, by inculcating those values into everything they do. These nurturing values shape long established businesses such as Produttori del Barbaresco where two of Italy’s greatest and most important wines Barolo and Barberesco are produced.

Produttori del Barbaresco were the very first coop founded in 1958, to pay farmers for quality over quantity in Italy. They set the standard for others to follow, La Marzocco established in Florence in 1927 still family owned to this day, who make the best hand-built coffee machines in the world, or Brunello Cucinelli show how to grow over time in the right way, for the right reasons. These values for some are hard to accommodate because speed and greed, growth at all and any costs, define what they are prepared to do. Until it costs everything. There is nothing wrong in being unreasonable.

Beautiful culture

Workplace cultures built on a foundation of generosity, create deeper engagement, wellbeing, community and trust. Artist, Olafur Eliasson knows this feeding his 120 staff working at his Berlin studio freshly cooked vegetarian food every day. Eliasson knows what it means to lead with generosity and how that generosity is reciprocated. When the CEO of La Marzocco was asked how the company, still family owned, had maintained its reputation as the makers and innovators of the best coffee machines since its inception in 1927, the answer was simple, “total dedication to our staff”.

Brunello Cucinelli has been making clothes since 1978. He pays his staff more than the average wage for their jobs, insists they work no longer than eight-and-a-half hours a day, and yearly gives away 20 per cent of his profits on what he calls “the gift”. He also runs an oversubscribed craft school.

His beautiful, listed company grows at 10 per cent every year. Cucinelli has developed a humanist business philosophy, “I would like to make a profit using ethics, dignity, and morals. Of course, I believe in a form of capitalism. I would just like it to be more human.”

He’s onto something. A survey published in 2019 showed that improved wellbeing in the workplace can improve productivity by up to 25 per cent.

Everything man made is designed

Design is not incidental to modern economies – it is integral. Everything man-made is designed: culture, products, services, code, farming, architecture, materials, the chair you are sitting on, the back lit screen you are reading this on, you name it. Good design always starts with a beautiful question – what is the social purpose of my business?

It is my belief when you truly find your social purpose you create a foundational business. Xero is a software accountancy platform that serves SMEs. It is well designed, answering the question, ‘why do I spend so much time on accounting?’ End-to-end, elegant, simple, intuitive, innovative, ethical – Xero also uses automation to deliver a consistently superior quality service to its customers, globally. Nothing like Xero existed before Xero, which today is valued at £4.7bn.

The design of outstanding products and services delivering customer satisfaction results in sustained financial performance. Good design has always been good business.

Beauty isn’t incompatible with rigour. It won’t hurt your bottom line or your return on equity to have a beautiful business with a beautiful culture, making beautiful things. Indeed, in the long term it could be one of your greatest assets. Beauty is the ultimate metric.

Journey further


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Beautiful Business helps people, teams and corporations deliver authentic, profitable restorative businesses through our Beautiful Leaders & Makers Programmes, and mentoring. For more information on how we can help you

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