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Article posted on The Guardian by Suresh Ariaratnam
n the heady rush for growth, the increasing damage to the Earth is likely to turn our gilded dreams into pyrite. We may all fly to the moon one day, but will there be much to come back to? It is not only about environmental degradation – our never-ending quest for material happiness is one of the most perverse tricks we’ve ever played on ourselves. And the benefits of material possession and wealth overrides other narratives like bindweed.
As Buy Nothing Day each November becomes obliterated by Christmas and the January sales, is the answer to be found in donning hair shirts and denying worldly goods? Let’s hope not. But a relationship with consumption that involves a myopic viewpoint of our place in the world isn’t such an attractive option either on a personal or planetary level.
If we are to recast our interactions in a more nuanced manner, a good place to begin is by remembering that we are relational creatures and we should look at ways in which to reinterpret those relationships. Individual and organisational identities – of what it means to be a business and of what it means to be a customer – should be seen as holistic; that is whole in themselves but also part of a larger system.
A business without customers is unlikely to succeed, but one that views customers solely as consumers is in danger of digging its own grave. In the long run no one wins – and what constitutes the long run is swiftly becoming shorter. On the other hand, what if we were to acknowledge that the relationship between business and customer is actually a far more complex and interdependent one, that doesn’t start and finish with a transaction predicated only on financial and material drivers?
A shared interest that goes beyond buying and selling might seem a crazy notion, but as history has shown, there’s something to be said for going against the grain.
Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, upends the old story of cumulative progress in scientific discovery. Instead, he posits a discontinuous dynamic that involves normal and revolutionary phases. Received wisdom and crazy wisdom, if you will, with the former giving way to the latter as what was once held as ‘true’ is no longer so. As an example, think of the Copernican revolution, in which the understanding of the sun at the centre of our solar system replaced the hitherto closely held notion that the Earth was at the centre of the galaxy.
In business as usual, the received wisdom binds all parties to outdated modes of behaviour. We are like the frog in the well, which remains oblivious to the existence of the ocean, playing out minor freedoms within a set of limiting patterns; thinking ‘this is it!’ and occasionally wondering ‘is this it?’
If, however, businesses were to engage with customers not simply as consumers but as citizens, it would be a meaningful acknowledgment of the existence of something much larger. On a practical level this might involve initiatives like Triodos Bank’s SRI Funds that were first launched in the Netherlands after requests from its retail customers for more socially responsible investments.
Given that the constituent human parts of a business are themselves citizens, businesses also have a vested interest in originating new ways of thinking about consumption.
One example is Lush, which encourages its customers to support the banning of animal testing in cosmetic products and recently inaugurated The Lush Prize to award individuals and organisations whose work helps bring about an end to testing.
Importantly, both of these endeavours not only expand the role of the customer within society but in doing so change the role of businesses too. Whether in responding to customer needs or asking them to reconsider their actions as economic agents, businesses are key to the wellbeing of society – and conversely implicit in its ill health too.
Initiating change often starts with small-scale action, whether around a boardroom, a water cooler, or a kitchen table (and a mindfulness that we are not exclusively bound to any of those settings). It does not have to depend on being part of a ‘socially progressive’ company either – and it is in businesses that are not as forward thinking, where change is most required.
As Michael Franti raps in Rock the Nation: “… In search for love, in search for cash/ everybody wanna be some fat tycoon/ everybody wanna be on a tropic honeymoon/ nobody wanna sing a little bit out of tune /or be the backbone of a rebel platoon.”
If you really do want to be forward thinking, or heard singing out of tune, isn’t one of the best places to be in the main body of the choir – whether in business or in society as a whole?
Suresh Ariaratnam is a literary agent for Surya Lumen, which covers non-fiction topics from Buddhism to the benefits of financially valuing the natural environment
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