What has Wikileaks got to do with sustainability?

People working on the environment, human rights, and social progress have not always had an easy relationship. The idea of “sustainable development” that first became popular 20 years ago was meant to bring them together. Instead, it has enabled an obsession with profit making to creep into thinking and practice in most areas of environment, rights and social progress. On the positive side, that has led to business and banks engaging with these issues more than they might otherwise – something Ive been involved in for the last decades. But what might have been lost in that process?

A speech on rights and media freedoms was the keynote at a festival to celebrate what an amazing future we have ahead of us if we embrace the transition to sustainability. In Sweden, at FuturePerfect, Wikileak’s editor in chief, Julian Assange, delivered a recorded speech from the Embassy where he has been given asylum by Ecuador.

SBS TV focuses in on laptop as Assange audio address played at FuturePerfect Festival

What has Wikileaks got to do with sustainability? Here are some highlights from the talk, and some reflections on what they mean for the “sustainability profession”, by which I mean those of us who have day jobs working on the social and environmental aspects of business, finance and economy.

Assange believes free media is critical to us understanding our society and what challenges we face. Thats key to enough people organising to promote sustainability:

“there is no civilisation, there is no society without media. That is: let’s take away all media, let’s take away all mediums, let’s take away all ability for humans beings to communicate with each other in the present and also it will learn from past experiences to teach the future. If there is no communication between people, if every person is entirely isolated like a tree in a forest, then clearly there is no civilisation and there is no society.”

“With the best possible communication, with the best possible ability to learn from our experiences, we have a chance of not simply doing the dumb thing. We have a chance of being more civilised to each other, we have a chance of avoiding pitfalls that have been discovered in the past.”

He also explains that our media is now so controlled by incumbent interests, that it marginalises critique, or those who want to see a transformation in society, such as towards a more sustainable one:

“Now the [corporate] media insofar as it is successful and is profitable and widely distributed, as an industrial body is inherently corrupt. And to understand where the corruption comes from, first of all see that an industrial body, an organisation that becomes powerful in influencing others, is able to manufacture consent and suppress dissent. As a result, the people who work within it, and those proprietors who own it, are invited to sit down at the table of power and are given certain concessions in their life and their business practices. They thereby become part of the very establishment that they are meant to be policing.”

The internet provides us with an opportunity to communicate and better understand our common predicaments, but not one that isnt being counter-acted by the amount of content produced by mainstream media:

“it is clear that most of the mainstream media outlets in Sweden are able to publish a truthful article on even perhaps the most controversial issues. But what they cannot do is show any sign of an institutional agenda to do so. They cannot publish in volume on those issues. Of course, when we are dealing with politics, we are dealing with perceptions en masse. And perceptions en masse are affected by communications en masse. It is not enough to simply reveal the truth in one isolated article or one isolated tweet; what is important is to have the truth revealed en masse, where people can see it en masse and where opinions can be affected en masse.”

The answer, Assange says, is therefore for all of us, in our personal and professional lives, to become engaged in developing and scaling up alternative media. Many people working on sustainability are working towards a better future, and can sometimes forget that may be taking for granted existing hard one freedoms and situations. Assange reminded participants at the conference of the situation facing many people today:

“We face a choice of  whether we can have something not just for our grandchildren but even  something for ourselves,” he noted. “We are rapidly approaching continuous war, in fact most of the Western countries have now been involved in war over 10 years and are being
increasingly involved. We see a tremendous increase in the size of intelligence agencies; the border between police and military is starting  to collapse, with the weaponisation of police; increasing amount of body armour that police have. Across the world we see a collapse in the rule of law, politicised and arbitrary justice, with U.S. assassination lists approved by the President in secret with no due process; the continued  detention without charge of children in Guantanamo Bay for over 10 years with no prospect of release.Mass surveillance being introduced into every country with no effective oversight by the population.  The linking up of international companies and networks of influential people of the banking people, all these people lifting up the democratic and electoral control of their respective population bases.”

In the past decades “sustainability” has become a profession, with people working in business, government and civil society on various aspects of the agenda. It is useful therefore, to be reminded of the insights of those who are activists, people who take personal risks and do not have to worry about their employer or client.

“We face a serious global crisis, so we must understand that this is not a choice about doing the right thing, this is not a choice about whether we
appear to be moral, this is not a choice about whether we make friends, or are approved as an effective member of society. We face a choice of whether we will have a civilisation that is civil or not.”

So what should sustainability folk do?

“first of all we must understand the problem, we must understand the severity of the problem, we must tell the others the severity of the problem, we must explain that it is not a choice, that is not something we could get out of, that there is a very real chance of a global technological and political dystopia appearing…”

Thats an useful reminder of speaking it as you see it, rather than worrying about how to frame your message in a positive tone that will help sell some products or votes.

“Then we must link together with people with a similar understanding, we must invent new technological means to fight fire with our own form of fire, we must have absolute unity and determination in the response. If we look back at the previous resistance struggles, similar phenomenon that occurred in the past, that is what has held the day in the end. Unity, determination, understanding and creativity, looking for every possible venue where the forces of darkness can be held back, that is the only way that we are all going to survive that ongoing threat that is against everyone.”

So what has Wikileaks got to do with sustainability?

In a field in Sweden, I learned that we should, sometimes, ditch our silos, labels, and professional affiliations in order to get a better sense of the interconnected causes of the various problems we face. If sustainable development is to be a true integration of social, enviornmental and economic priorities, then we need to lose the blinkers that our desire for an easy life have given us.

You can hear the speech or visit the organisers of FuturePerfect to see more about this great festival project. Im proud to have been associated with the organising of it, and look forward to more conversations and celebrations of how to be fully awake, connected and hopeful in our work at these critical times.

Fashionably Hated: on social change, media and the self

I thought my mum and dad, and my colleagues’ family and friends, might be proud. It would be the 2nd time a report I co-wrote appeared in the Financial Times. The last one was Deeper Luxury, which 3 years ago helped kick off more engagement in CSR by some luxury brands. The new report is on jewellery, and the result of 18 months work, mostly pro bono by myself and my dedicated and inspirational colleague Ian Doyle. But I haven’t sent my relatives the FT link. The article patronised us, with arguments that our co-publishers Fair Jewelry Action have debunked point by point. Fortunately the report has been well-received in the industry press, with Diamonds.net doing a succinct overview.

When I read the FT article I was surprised. Surprised at how much I laughed! I thought I cared about being respected. We all do a bit, don’t we? But reading it seemed cathartic. For some years now, with my colleagues at Lifeworth Consulting, we have been trying to persuade some in the industry to be more ambitious in their responsible enterprise goals. We have got somewhere with some brands, but mostly its the start ups who get it and they don’t have funds to pay for our help. Managers from the big brands, however, often depress me with their fancy lunches, seminars and excuses. We offered this study for free to help those in larger firms who really want to lead, and we got trashed.

I recall the enlightened perspective of Chris Marsden when he worked at BP in the 1990s: “if Greenpeace didn’t exist Id have to invent it.” Not that we are Greenpeace – our report is far too boring, as its for industry and focuses on giving specific advice on business strategy. I suppose for every Chris Marsden there are a thousand corporate cogs. There are many proud cowards in luxury brand management.

A lesson I see for myself and anyone who works in social change within a professional context is to never confuse being respectful with being respected. To respect others and hear them out, understand their situation, is key, but to worry about being respected is imprisoning. We need more people in social change who don’t give a xxxx about being disliked and will risk their own situations to seek and then live by their unfolding truths. Its this sense of liberation that made we want to share experience here. Its important because there are now so many events of the eco-chattering classes about how to achieve systemic change, from Tallberg to Davos and beyond. By giving the mic to those with status they perpetuate the idea that those having a high status role have an insight rather than an affliction, and that calling for bigger changes is a means of change rather a way to let off steam by blaming others and situations before returning to normal life. Instead, we have to risk our acceptability, our respectability, our livelihoods, and the expectations of our families, in our daily lives at work, if we are to really explore how we can create systemic change.

But the FT article also made me realise something about journalism today. Real investigative journalism is disappearing from the mainstream press. I don’t mean the kind of illegal snooping on people to get gossip to print in tabloids, that has caused a lot of trouble in the UK just recently. I mean proper investigative journalism where issues of public importance are looked at in detail. Nick Davies did that at the Guardian to expose the phone hacking scandal, so it still exists, but is rare. The system of mainstream journalism, where owners want profits, desire happy (luxury brand) advertisers, and journalists need access to brands, and to pump out stories quickly to develop their online traffic for new ad revenue, means that the time and resources for investigative reporting have been crushed. Research has even found that many (mostly freelance) fashion journalists are also on the payrolls of PR firms and individual brands.

In that context its tough for a fashion journalist like Vanessa Friedman to write about our 58 page study one minute, and speculate on the Duchess of Cambridge’s dresses the next. The absence of investigative journalism is so accepted now that journalists can even complain about others not investigating enough, such as Vanessa complaining we didnt investigate further about Burmese rubies, without spotting the irony. Why don’t the journalists look into it?

INSEAD Professor Mark Lee Hunter told me the other day that investigative journalism is so undermined by the economics of media right now that non-traditional journalists, from bloggers and NGOs, will have to develop the skills of investigative reporting if we are to maintain some effective public discourse. He has produced a handbook with UNESCO to help. Perhaps hybrid models of media, where mainstream publications work with investigative bloggers, helping to guide and ensure their approach and credibility, will be one way of coping. What Jo Confino and colleagues are doing at Guardian Sustainable Business could be one indicator of such a situation. Other publishers may prefer to pretend they have it all under control and can produce credible articles without resources. Such pride will eventually turn them into PR agents’ megaphones.

These changes are bigger than any one person. Some may get all self-righteous about individuals at News of the World. But rather than single out individuals, we need to push for reforms in media ownership rules, so that there is diversity of owners as well as organisational types, with not-for-profit and community media having important roles to play.

We all get influenced by our colleagues and the day to day work. For instance, at Lifeworth Consulting, our desire to be helpful to people leading change in the industry may have blinded us somewhat. Rather than further investigating the issue of Burmese rubies, which was not our aim, or within our capability, when we found evidence that the EU embargo might be being broken, we should have referred this particular matter to law enforcement. Therefore I have started making the relevant enquiries about which parts of law enforcement should be informed.

So on reflection it is good that Vanessa Friedman paid the report some attention, despite the flaws we see in her article. I’m told the key thing in fashion journalism is you must not be ignored. In the rough and tumble of somewhat gossipy and cutting reporting: what doesn’t kill you… makes you more fashionable. So my real regret is that Vanessa didn’t speculate on what suit I might be wearing at my next speech.

If you are in the industry, or write about it, please read our report ‘Uplifting The Earth: The Ethical Performance of Luxury Jewellery Brands’

BBC implies in its “Fact of the Day”, that Indira Gandhi and Mahatma Gandhi were related!

In a schoolboy error the BBC confused J Nehru with MK Gandhi on its homepage today.  A screen shot follows below. In its “Fact of the Day” it says:

Gandhi’s father was State Prime Minister of Porbander in India. Two years before he died, when Gandhi was 13, he married him off to a 14-year-old girl.

“My father was a statesman. I’m a political woman. My father was a saint. I’m not.” INDIRA GANDHI

Ms Indira Gandhi was speaking of her father Jawaharlal Nehru. The juxtaposition of the two statements on the BBC suggests they see a relation between the two Gandhis.

While it’s good to see MK Gandhi mentioned on the BBC, it’s a pity its done with such sloppiness. It’s not uncommon for famous names to be mentioned and their lives and insights into life just assumed. So many people like to quote Adam Smith in defence of current forms of capitalism, without any knowledge of his writings about the role of values and the importance of up-close ownership and face-to-face accountability through the market. Even in India the life and work of MK Gandhi is not looked at very closely, and his own views on economic life are ignored or mis-interpreted. For instance, Gandhi wrote about “economic trusteeship” being his view of how capitalism should operate. Today those few business leaders who have heard of that concept consider it means a paternalistic responsibility to employees and communities. Yet it does not – it demands accountability of those who control assets to those who are affected by that form of control. Otherwise, property rights should be revoked. It is therefore a concept of capital democracy. I develop this in the latest Lifeworth review of corporate responsibility, called Capitalism in Question. I quote from it:

“Indian independence leader, Mohandas K Gandhi, articulated a concept of ‘trusteeship’ in some of his writings. This arose from his view that everything is owned by everyone, and wealth is owned by those who generate it. Thus the one who controls an asset is not an owner but a trustee, being given control of that asset by society. Gandhi wrote “I am inviting those people who consider themselves as owners today to act as trustees, i.e., owners, not in their own right, but owners in the right of those whom they have exploited.”1 In the Harijan paper his views on trusteeship of property were later documented to clarify “It does not recognize any right of private ownership of property except so far as it may be permitted by society for its own welfare” and “under State-regulated trusteeship, an individual will not be free to hold or use his wealth for selfish satisfaction or in disregard of the interests of society.” He also wrote that “for the present owners of wealth… they will be allowed to retain the stewardship of their possessions and to use their talent, to increase the wealth, not for their own sakes, but for the sake of the nation and, therefore, without exploitation.”2 Gandhi did not develop these ideas further, as he had other preoccupations, such as generating economic self-sufficiency, inter-communal understanding, and the non-violent expulsion of the British Empire. The concept there remains to be developed and applied further.”

If people are now even confusing Nehru with Gandhi, perhaps it really is time for another look at some of the great leaders and thinkers of the past century, and what they might tell us about the future of our societies.

1Gandhi, M K. Gandhi’s Philosophy On Trusteeship, http://www.gandhi-manibhavan.org/gandhiphilosophy/philosophy_trusteeship.htm

2Gandhi, M K. (1946) Harijan, 31st March pg. 63-64. http://www.mkgandhi-sarvodaya.org/momgandhi/chap53.htm

These are Financial Times for Sustainable Luxury

I just participated in a panel with Marco Bevolo from Philips Design and Timothy Han from the company that bares his name. We discussed whether luxury can be sustainable at the Net Impact conference in Europe. Marco and Timothy captivated the audience with their enthusiasm for how high end design can inspire new levels of product and service sustainability and responsibility. Marco’s book will be interesting (www.futurehighend.com). If you havent seen Timothy Hans products yet, then have a look at http://www.timothyhan.com

The day after the Financial Times quoted us both on the question of sustainable luxury. It links to the professional network I launched on this issue, www.authenticluxury.net

So, we are getting there. Next stop is a talk the International Luxury Business Association next week, and a keynote at the IHT luxury conference in India.

No (Luxury) Logo

When I saw a video of designer Tom Ford saying last week that he doesn’t have a logo in his menswear collection, it reminded me of Naomi Klein’s book No Logo. That might seem like a weird connection to make between an ex Gucci luxury designer and a famed anti-capitalist. In that book Klein wasn’t criticising the power of marketing and brands so much as the exploitative economic system they so effectively hide. Marketing is communication, and involves finding out what peoples needs are. And brands? We have used symbols since we walked upright. If brand marketing can promote awareness of the realities of production and trade then thats a good thing, because it’s our consumption habits that are chewing up people and planet and have to change. Its just got to be done authentically. That was one of the ideas behind the luxury industry project I worked on during 07 for WWF-UK. They spend the most on advertising and are the most aspirational brands… so if they could be the most sustainably and responsibly produced, traded, distributed, advertised and used, conscious consumption might spread further and faster. What follows is the press release put out by my company today on the reaction to the report so far…

Media Response to WWF-UK Report on Luxury Brands Could Be Tipping Point for the Industry.

(Media Update, Thursday 6th December 2007, Lifeworth, Geneva, Switzerland)
Last week over fifty newspapers and magazines from Britain, Brazil, Australia, New Zealand, Italy and Switzerland reported on the corporate responsibility of the world’s largest holding companies of luxury brands. For the first time they had been ranked on their ethical performance in the report Deeper Luxury: Quality and Style When the World Matters, which was published by environmental group WWF-UK. The news went ‘viral’ through trade journals and blogs on fashion, jewelry, and celebrities.
The report “could herald a huge change in the way global luxury brands operate,” states Fashion UK.(1) “The luxury goods industry looks like it’s having its own Nike moment,” suggests UN corporate reporting expert Dr Anthony Miller, referring to the mid-90’s criticism of labour practices in Nike’s supply chain that made the company invest heavily in its corporate responsibility programme. Within days, Just-Style.com reported that “PPR Group commits to improving sustainability” as a result of the publication.(2)
Leading industry executives speaking at the International Herald Tribune (IHT) conference on luxury, in Moscow, on the day of the report’s launch, portrayed a growing awareness of the importance of ethical performance. Laurence Graff, chairman of Graff Diamonds, and Yves Carcelle, chairman and chief executive of Louis Vuitton, spoke positively of their company’s responsibilities. However, in Conde Nast Porfolio.com, Lauren Goldstein Crowe contrasted “the words v. the reality,” citing the WWF-UK report as an opportunity for needed leadership on this agenda (3). Not surprising then that IHT had earlier refused an offer to launch the report at their conference. The newspaper did not feature the report, with the international business coverage being scooped by Vanessa Friedman at the Financial Times.(4)
“Press coverage has focused on the ranking, and on what these companies are failing to do right for the environment,” noted WWF-UK’s Anthony Kleanthous in The Guardian. “However, the main thrust of the report looks to a future in which the very definition of luxury deepens to include not only technical and aesthetic quality, but also environmental and social responsibility,” says the co-author of the report.(5) The longest chapter in the report focuses on the business reasons why that new approach to luxury is commercially viable. “We examined key commercial challenges facing the industry and found that greater depth and authenticity is a strategic response to many of them,” explains Dr. Jem Bendell of Lifeworth Consulting, the responsible enterprise consultancy contracted by WWF-UK to manage the research project and co-write the report.

“Modern technology means that what’s on the catwalk today can be copied and in the shops tomorrow, so brands need to offer something deeper than purely appearance. The same goes for counterfeiting.” says Bendell. “Sales growth in societies with high social inequality means that luxury brands face a crisis of legitimacy and a regulatory backlash, so their products will need to benefit the local economy with good jobs. The increasingly youthful profile of luxury consumers means luxury brands need to find ways to build in value to casual fashion items, without making them non-casual, with sustainability and ethics an obvious approach,” he explains. “The increasing availability of luxury items means that brands must find new ways of maintaining their cachet, rather than relying on the memory they were once scarce and exclusive. Deeper luxury is the strategic answer to all these challenges.”
Also an Associate Professor of at Griffith Business School in Australia, Dr. Bendell stresses the need for a paradigm shift in corporate strategy: “Consumer awareness should no longer be assumed as the only commercial driver for ethical excellence. Though counter-intuitive to traditional corporate strategists, this shift in thinking is fundamental to the contemporary business environment of global communications, where successful brands are behaving more like social movements.”

Tom Ford, the former Gucci top designer said on the eve of the report’s publication that “we need to replace hollow with deep.”(3) Ford’s business instinct rather than telepathy is key, according to Bendell. “There’s no one better than Tom Ford for spotting trends in consumer mood. The report details a variety of strategic commercial imperatives for deeper luxury. If executives don’t get it, that could be because they’ve had it so good for so long and have become complacent.”

At the IHT conference Tom Ford explained his emphasis on depth means that his own clothing label does not carry – a label. “In the report we explain that ‘no logo luxury’ is a growing trend that responds to consumers’ desire for authenticity as well as responding to the availability of counterfeits,” says Dr Bendell. If luxury is having its ‘Nike moment’, then “executives could do well to hire expert advice on the stages of corporate response to social challenges over the past 10 years, to learn from the experience of others,” says Sao-Paulo based sustainable enterprise advisor Roland Widmer. “Lifeworth is working with research and consulting partners to offer solutions to those executives in the luxury industry who really believe in achieving social and environmental excellence as part of the identity of luxury brands” says Dr Bendell.

And what of the reaction? “Some executives might be stung by the coverage, and some environmentalists confused,” notes Lala Rimando of the Authentic Luxury Network. “But WWF-UK should be applauded for sticking its neck out by publishing this report” says the Manila-based business journalist and consultant. “The scale of the environmental challenge is so great and pressing, and the reach of NGOs into Asian societies currently so limited, that if the brands that affluent Asians love can excel in sustainability, then awareness of sustainable living may grow in emerging economies fast enough to offer a chance of curbing global consumption and pollution within environmental limits.”
Lifeworth has launched the Authentic Luxury Network to bring together executives, designers, analysts and entrepreneurs who want to lead the creation of more sustainable and ethical luxury (http://www.authenticluxury.net). The company has also launched a site for people to keep up to date with celebrity reaction to the report and its proposal of a Star Charter for responsible brand endorsement (http://www.starcharter.net).

Dr Jem Bendell will be presenting his analysis on the future of luxury at seminars in Singapore (in January 08), Manila (February 08), Brisbane Gold Coast (April 08), Dubai and Geneva (May 08). To be invited email luxury(at)lifeworth.com. In addition, a few places are available at a CSR Geneva dinner on sustainable luxury on December 10th 2007 (email tiago.pintopereira(at)gmail.com).
To download the report: http://www.wwf.org.uk/deeperluxury

To contact Lifeworth Consulting: http://www.lifeworth.com

1) http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/dbe49fbc-9dda-11dc-9f68-0000779fd2ac.html

2) http://www.just-style.com/article.aspx?id=99314

3) http://www.portfolio.com/views/blogs/fashion-inc/2007/11/29/luxury-and-ethics-the-words-v-the-reality

4) http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/dbe49fbc-9dda-11dc-9f68-0000779fd2ac.html

5) http://commentisfree.guardian.co.uk/anthony_kleanthous/2007/12/brand_awareness.html
Press coverage of the report includes:
FT Online


Tribune de Geneve




The Telegraph


BBC Airbus-ting


Most days I look at the BBC website. This week I found theyve started carrying advertising. But not any old advertising… no less than adverts saying that flying Airbus is the greener thing to do. See the screen shot below at the foot of this posting. The inaugural flight was from Singapore to Sydney. I didnt know you could drive. Perhaps Toyota brought out an amphibious Lexus while I wasnt looking, complete with storage tanks for weeks at sea.

So I sent their Global advertising person the following email:

Dear Phu,

I would welcome your advice, as the contact on the BBC website for global advertising.

Do you check the scientific credibility and clarity of the claims made by advertisers on your website?

If so, what is your evidence for the claims from Airbus, regarding comparison of flying a full aircraft with driving a car (perhaps single occupancy car)? This is disingenuous because people do not drive from Singapore to Sydney, for example, and flying makes such travel much more possible, and thus increases people’s potential carbon emissions. A comparison with a ship or train would be the only useful comparison for such long distances. The science of these claims was previously challenged in a refereed academic journal in 2002 (Journal of Corporate Citizenship: see http://www.jembendell.com/lw2002/spring4.html)

I would also welcome information on how promoting flying through advertising on your website as viewed by people outside the UK is compatible with:
a) the specific text and general spirit of the BBC Charter.
b) the role of the BBC world service in promoting British international interests, which the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is clear now includes global action on carbon emissions
c) a coherence between editorial and advertising, given the current climate change programming on BBC World.

I copy this to colleagues who are interested, as well as Simon Derry at BBC Trust and Kevin Marsh of the BBC college, who presented this summer at a UN event on media responsibilities.

Although I realise you must be getting many questions on this matter at this time I would welcome an answer that is specific to the issues I raise. Please note I will be posting this email and your reply on my personal and company blogs, and including it in my column in the academic journal I mention above.

Dr Jem Bendell
Director, Lifeworth
Associate Professor, Griffith Business School
Visiting Fellow, UN Research Institute for Social Development
www.lifeworth.com / www.jembendell.com
jem@lifeworth.com / +44 (0)2078707594

The Law of Distraction

Heard about the Secret? I watched the DVD at a meeting of a ‘book club’ in Geneva. After an hour I started to get a bit uncomfortable… and as others got excited about it, I wondered how much of a party pooper I was going to be. Something just felt really wrong about this DVD… especially so given that it featured brilliant people like Michael Beckwith saying some great things, but weaving it all together in the most selfish and compassion-free worldview possible.

The film has became a publishing phenomenon — helped by being featured on two episodes of Oprah, I guess. And the use of Da Vinci Code style branding. It reached number one on the Amazon DVD chart in March 2007. A book version, also called The Secret reached number one on The New York Times bestseller list. For much of February through April both the book and DVD versions were #1 or #2 at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Borders.

I thought ‘The Secret’ was a commercialised and hocus-pocus repackaging of the simple fact that we see things as much as we are as they ‘actually’ are. This has never been a secret. “We see things as we are not as they are” is in the extremely non-secret Jewish Talmud.

The implications of this are taken much further than ‘the law of attraction’ does, in Buddha’s teachings about peace and happiness arising from our transcending the need to bring anything into one’s life at all, because flow and change is inherent in all reality, and so suffering comes from becoming attached to things that will inevitably flow away. Another dimension to Buddha’s teachings are that things are ultimately one. The ‘law of attraction’ as presented in that film doesn’t approach this properly, being stuck in the selfish separative ego mind of the individual that wishes to receive more and more from the outside world for their own purposes. Indeed this hyper-egoism is illustrated by the idea that everything in the world happens because of us… i.e. we think good things, we get them, we think bad things, we get them.

Both Buddhism and ‘law of attraction’ approaches can fall into spiritual solipsism… meaning that we think that our own state of happiness means that the world outside our minds is doing fine, or is irrelevant. When spiritual teachers sometimes imply that we should ignore the negative, like famine and war, they are focusing on a separative view of humans. It is another thing to focus on why we don’t like famine and war, and frame our concern as an aspiration for what we do want. But that still means that the pain of reality at odds with your aspiration is still present. The goal is then for a sense of peace to persist while one is engaged in what is an often painful world. We need spirit in the world, the messy troubling reality of the world, not spirit found away from the world, on top of a mountain, in a corporate self-help course, or in front of a DVD.

Faced with problems we might unfortunately move from denial to despair. Neither is positive. However, we need to move from denial to action. For those who are not able to make the choice to act on problems facing humanity, it can be easier to block these out, and to chose to believe that this blocking out of others pain is somehow ‘right’ in some spiritual way… for instance by suggesting that we will even make more hunger occur by focusing on it! Nuts.

That is the real danger of the ‘law of attraction’ stuff – it offers a way of removing ones subconscious sense of guilt for turning ones back on the world and focusing on ones mental peace. In this sense the message of The Secret almost appears as the ultimate temptation – called ‘the devil’ in some cultures. So perhaps it highlights a ‘law of distraction’ – that people seek to distract themselves from their fundamental unity with everything and the inevitable passing of every pattern they identify with, including their own lives.

Don’t bother buying it. Use peekvid.com or somesuch to check it out. If you want to buy a DVD combining spiritual wisdom and the latest science, I’d recommend “What the Bleep do we know”… a bit cringy, but worth those moments of grimacing. see: http://www.whatthebleep.com

These vids might indicate a trend… spiritual tv. Which makes me wonder… I live in Geneva, the Rome of the Reformation. We host one of the first English language bibles ever, next to the church I can see from my window. It was the printing press that made the Reformation possible… it meant the translations could be shared around Europe rapidly and cheaply. The internet is as important a communications leap as the printing press. So…. the conditions are right for a spiritual renaissance, a transformation of assumptions concerning our place in the universe. I’m quite excited.


The Secret was well produced and wonderfully marketed. And the exposure it gave its producer Rhonda Byrne, helped us to see just how nutty and superficial her view is. In an article on how to lose weight, she wrote: “If you see people who are overweight, do not observe them, but immediately switch your mind to the picture of you in your perfect body and feel it.” http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/17317691/site/newsweek/page/2/. Yeah, fat boy, get out of my face, you’re expanding my waist!

That article came out the same week Newsweek ran a story on climate change being a hoax. If only by forgetting about climate change it would go away. If only. Sadly it won’t. And, sadly, neither will The Secret, or Rhonda or her secret-suckers if I just ignore them. But it’s tempting…

Check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Secret_(2006_film) for more on the saga of the Secret.


There’s alrady a whole industry out there in helping people apply this stuff. For starters, there’s the “6 Week Extreme Life Makeover” e-book that aims to “Flood Your Life With Riches, Fulfill All Of Your Hearts Desires, And Start Living The Life Of Your Dreams – In Just 6 Weeks!”, closer followed by the Revolutioniz” which says its “The Most Complete Resource On The Law Of Attraction And Reality Creation” and the more sober sounding “Reality Creation Secrets” which provides the “Most Powerful Knowledge In The World About How To Create The Perfect Reality You Desire And Manifest Super Riches, Total Freedom And Extreme Happiness!” Nice. Perhaps they’re even more nutty than the Secret. If you check one out, let me know.

Down to the bottom dollar

In the next couple of months I’ll be adding some material from the past 3 years of pre-blog-life that’s still relevant (or so I think). The following features me in the Sydney Morning Herald squaring up to strategy guru CKP … kinda.

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald

Pubdate: Wednesday 27th of April 2005

Edition: First

Down to the bottom dollar, by Wendy Frew  

As big companies look for ways to sell to developing countries, Wendy Frew asks if they’re doing right by the poor.

NEELAMMA, from the town of Kuppam in south-east India, is one of the
US computer giant Hewlett-Packard’s least lucrative customers. But she has become one of its most valuable customers in terms of public relations. The 27-year-old rents a digital camera and printer from the company at market rates, and makes a living charging about 90 cents to take pictures of fellow villagers.

Although Neelamma is from one of the poorest regions in the world, she is presented as the future of Hewlett-Packard’s revenue growth. “Neelamma joined the HP Village Photographer program in
India, using a solar-powered HP camera and printer to record events in her rural community and take photos for a government program,” its promotional material says. “She has expanded her work, ultimately doubling her family’s income.”

Neelamma and 4 billion people like her are the target of a Hewlett-Packard division called “Emerging Market Solutions”, which recognises developing regions “as one of the most significant business growth opportunities of the 21st century”. The 10 biggest of these emerging-market countries spent nearly $US77 billion ($99billion) on computer equipment in 2003. IT sales growth averages 12 per cent in these economies, compared to 5 per cent in developed countries.

Elsewhere in India, entrepreneurial villagers can rent a Hewlett-Packard “Digital Rural Theatre”, with a video projector, DVD player and speakers, to show movies in local neighbourhoods. Poor communities can also buy cheap wireless computers that use “cantennas” – antennas made of discarded tin cans – to cut costs.

Other multinational companies are following suit. Hindustan Lever, the Indian subsidiary of the world’s largest whitegoods maker, the Dutch giant Unilever, distributes soaps and detergents to villages across the country. The soaps are the same as those marketed to wealthier communities, but are sold in small packages to save costs. Sales representatives drive trucks around the villages, spruiking the products over a microphone.

In Brazil, the whitegoods retailer Casas Bahia provides credit to consumers with low and unpredictable incomes. In
Mexico, Cemex, one of the world’s biggest cement suppliers, has set up a scheme to help the poor save and invest so they can afford to buy the materials to extend their homes.

Is the Western world stooping to a new low in exploiting poorer countries? Or are these enlightened multinational companies figuring out how to help kick-start undeveloped economies and make a buck at the same time? Leading the debate is the US academic and business consultant C.K. Prahalad, whose new book, The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits, promotes the idea that companies can make money and help create jobs in developing countries by doing business with the poor.

Prahalad’s views carry weight because he is considered a member of the elite business academia, alongside gurus such as Michael Porter and Gary Hamel. His ideas, which centre on the buying power of the poor, have been described as visionary by some in business and political circles, and were on the agenda at several World Economic Forum seminars.

However, sceptics in aid and development circles describe his thesis as simplistic and possibly environmentally unsustainable. But even critics agree his work has started a fresh debate about how to tackle world poverty.

The Indian-born academic, who works from the Stephen M. Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan, says the developed world should stop thinking about the poor “as victims or as a burden, and start recognising them as resilient and creative entrepreneurs and value-conscious consumers”.

“Four billion poor can be the engine of the next round of global trade and prosperity,” Prahalad says. “It can be a source of innovations … Market development at the bottom of the pyramid will also create millions of new entrepreneurs at the grassroots level – from women working as distributors and entrepreneurs to village-level micro enterprises.”

Prahalad defines the bottom of the period as the 4 to 5 billion people in the world who live on less than $US2 a day. Instead of assuming their plight can be alleviated only through aid, businesses should consider them as worthwhile customers. He says the challenge is in finding ways of profitably selling to this group using a combination of high-technology solutions, private enterprise and co-operation between business, government and non-government organisations.

To succeed, business has to rethink how to produce, package and distribute goods to the poor, who have volatile earnings and little disposable income. For example, Prahalad says, in the case of consumer goods such as shampoo, the poor are unlikely to be able to afford a standard-sized bottle but will buy a one-wash sachet on an irregular basis.

In many countries, the poor are paying up to 30 per cent more for basic necessities because of poor distribution networks, fragmented markets and corruption. The rural poor are particularly disadvantaged because of their distance from markets and the lack of affordable transport to those markets.

It is also near-impossible for them to borrow money except at extortionate interest rates from local money lenders.

Prahalad concedes the biggest risk to his vision is convincing the business world to change its attitude to the poor. “To approach this market, we have to fundamentally challenge our existing cost assumptions. That means the existing way of going to market is not sacrosanct. That creates some doubt about whether this is possible because we don’t have economic models on how we can create the same features and functionality [for products sold in undeveloped markets]. But once you cross that, the solutions are more obvious than people think.”

Success in marketing to the poor will also depend on approaching them as valuable consumers. “The [bottom-of-the-pyramid] consumers get products and services at an affordable price, but, more important, they get recognition, respect, and fair treatment,” writes Prahalad in his book. “Building self-esteem and entrepreneurial drive at the bottom of the pyramid is probably the most enduring contribution that the private sector can make.”

Statements such as these have attracted the sharpest criticism from development experts. Atul Wad, a sustainable-business consultant, says Prahalad’s argument that the corporate world needs to go beyond corporate philanthropy is compelling. However, many of the world’s poor suffer not just from a lack of money but from everything from the HIV/AIDS epidemic to civil wars and natural disasters.

“These people are not even close to being active participants in any marketplace … selling shampoo to them is not the solution,” he wrote in an article on the website SustainableBusiness.com.

“Though the collective purchasing power of the poor is enormous, buying decisions are still individual. By rampant marketing, a rural household may well end up spending its small disposable income on inappropriate products … It is morally reprehensible to see people as purely consumers for shampoo and beer.”

Dr Jem Bendell, a consultant to the United Nations and professor of management at the University of Nottingham’s International Centre for Corporate Social Responsibility, says Prahalad’s focus on the poor as consumers overlooks the damage multinational companies could do to employment in poor communities if they do not manufacture locally. Selling goods in much smaller serves also increases the amount of packaging, which puts pressure on environments. “It’s good Prahalad has opened up the door [to such discussions], but we need more work on it.”

He says Prahalad risks joining those academics whose main contribution to debate is presenting complicated ideas in a sexy, simplistic package, but that may not help solve long-term problems. “You need a much more critical examination of how corporations can help the poor but still make money.”

The chief executive of Opportunity International Australia, Paul Peters, agrees there is money to be made from poorer markets if products are well-priced. “If you go into any slum, the people there buy products at many times the cost that you and I pay here … there are just so many more middlemen in the process. If you just look at the sheer number of people … there is a lot of money being transacted.”

However, Peters, whose group aims to create jobs and stimulate business by providing micro-finance to the poor, says businesses face several challenges: finding the right models for the markets they target, and finding local staff with the appropriate skills and a commitment to serving the poor.

It is not enough to inject cash into the top of an economy. “Coke can put a bottling plant anywhere. The question is, does the economic benefit of that just sit with the shareholders? Unless you are doing things that will get to the bottom of the market or create wealth at the bottom [it won’t make much of a difference],” he says.

Prahalad contends his book was not meant as a solution to all the ills facing the world’s poor. “What I am suggesting is that leaving people in abject poverty without giving them a sense of hope and opportunity creates all kinds of disturbances,” he says.

“[The book] provides a fresh perspective to the biggest development challenge we have faced in the past 50 years: subsidies, foreign aid, philanthropy and corporate social responsibility can only take us so far.

“We have tried it but the sustainable solution that seems to work is when business gets involved and creates markets.”