Stakeholder theory represented by Edward Freeman and others says that business should consider the interests and claims of the stakeholders and manage its activities accordingly. In this view the effective management of stakeholders is a strategic activity that is necessary for business success as it adds value to shareholders and ensures the long-term survival and sustainability of the firm. Ignoring stakeholders is dangerous, not just because it is morally inappropriate, but also because it does not make economic sense.
We see two interrelated problems with this approach. (i) the narrow conception of stakeholders, and (ii) the fallibility of the stakeholders concerning their own well-being.
The current unsustainable state of the Earth is largely caused by business so reconsidering the role of business in society-and-nature is crucial. Without transforming business into a progressive social institution which respects nature, future generations and the common good of society there is no chance for achieving a Sustainable Earth.
Social innovation has a vital role in the sustainability transformation of business and society. Environmentally non-harming and regenerative business solutions can be developed in close collaboration with local societies and societal organizations where the bottom line is value creation for all the stakeholders. Democratic participation in creating new, community-oriented governance mechanisms may foster the required value-shift in business, policy and technology development.
In his article “From Western Marxism to Western Buddhism” philosopher Slavoj Žižek argues that “although Western Buddhism presents itself as the remedy against the stressful tension of capitalist dynamics, allowing us to uncouple and retain inner peace and Gelassenheit, it actually functions as its perfect ideological supplement.” He adds that “one should (...) ‘let oneself go,’ drift along, while retaining an inner distance and indifference toward the mad dance of accelerated process, a distance based on the insight that all this social and technological upheaval is ultimately just a non-substantial proliferation of semblances that do not really concern the innermost kernel of our being.
In 2014 we celebrate the 50th anniversary of Karl Polanyi’s death. The Hungarian-born Polanyi -who was professor at Columbia University in New York – was the founder of what he called „universal economic history”. He became famous by his book „The Great Transformation” in which he describes the process by which market takes over society and colonizes every segment of the life-world of people. However, he developed economic ideas which are even more important than this.
The Monitor Group, the consulting firm founded by the business guru, Michael Porter became bankrupted in November 2012. Monitor was unable to pay its bills and was forced to file for bankruptcy protection. I think it is a good development.
In his famous book Economics of Love and Fear, Kenneth Bolding suggested that business is a peaceful alternative to war. This might be true in principle, but today business, especially mainstream global business, seems to be at war with society and nature. Striving for profit and competitiveness, mainstream business produces monetary results at the expense of nature, society and future generations. With its exclusive focus on profit-making, mainstream businesses violates the integrity and diversity of natural ecosystems, the autonomy and culture of local communities and the chance that future generations will lead a decent life.
World renowned organizational scholar, James March of Stanford University once said that undermining the self-interest doctrine may be the most important project of the 21st century. Self-interest is at the heart of economics, politics and everyday life. People and organizations are encouraged to pursue their own self-interest without paying attention to the wider and longer term consequences of their choices and actions. However, the extreme focus on the self by economic actors leads to the destruction of both material and non-material values.
The last words of the last public lecture given by the great philosopher Hans Jonas were as follows: „It was once religion which told us that we all are sinners because of the original sin. It is now the ecology of the planet which pronounces us all to be sinners because of the excessive exploits of human inventiveness. It was once religion which threatened us with a last judgment at the end of days. It is now our tortured planet which predicts the arrival of such a day without heavenly intervention. The latest revelation (...) is the outcry of mute things themselves that we must heed by curbing our power over creation, lest we perish together on a wasteland of what was creation.”
The recent economic and financial crisis shows that business ethics lost its credibility and relevance. It became evident that business ethics teaching did not change the general attitude of managers in mainstream business. Ethics and compliance programs were not able to prevent major banks and big corporations to enter into questionable practices and make dirty businesses all over the world.
Mainstream corporate business lost credibility and trust worldwide. Conventional legitimizing arguments for corporate business do not work anymore. Referring to efficiency or job creation is not enough for stakeholders who are angry with corporations destroying livelihoods, displacing people, and destructive of communities and nature.
The basic assumptions of the corporate management model became questionable. The dominant model of today's corporate business is based on a materialistic conception of man. Human beings are considered as creatures having only materialistic desires and acting out of solely egoistic motivation.
The painting by Paul Klee represents the angel of ethics for me. The title “Senecio” refers to the botanical name for a genus of plants that includes ragwort and other plants with round flower heads. One interpretation is that there is a parallel between the flower being the crowning glory of a plant and the human face being the flower of the human body. As this genuine and transparent face sees us, we can feel a deep spiritual inspriration for honest living and acting in the world of lying and deception.
The Occupy Wall Street phenomenon clearly shows the crisis of the materialistic management paradigm. Materialistic management is based on the belief that the sole motivation of doing business is money-making and success should be measured by the generated profit only.
Psychologists have discovered the serious side-effects of materialistic value orientation. In his book "The High Price of Materialism" Tim Kasser demonstrates that the more people prioritize materialistic goals, the lower their personal well-being and more likely they engage in manipulative, competitive, and ecologically degrading behaviors.
I was active in fighting agains the Bős-Nagymaros Dam project in the 1980s and 1990s. The project aimed at constructing a huge, artificial system consisting of a canal and two dams for electricity production. It was not only highly destructive in environmental and cultural sense but also economically irrational because it required about USD 3 billion for the completion, but this investment would never recovered through the benefit of electricity production.
As a student (and later as a professor) of economics and business I was not ready to accept the centrality of self-interest in motivating business actions and evaluating the performance of companies. I have never shared the belief of mainstream economists and businessmen about the benefitial effects of the "invisible hand" of the market. I always felt that something fundamentally wrong with the self-interest doctrine.