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The B Team say they want to change the world. Great, but don’t let them rule it.

Brendan Martin, 14 June 2013

I know that cynicism is an enemy of progress, but sometimes it’s hard.

Yesterday, having accepted an invitation to take part in the launch of a new charter for more responsible global business, I turned up hoping that scepticism would give way to enthusiasm.

But the more I heard from Mo Ibrahim, Shari Arison, Strive Masiyima, Richard Branson and the rest of the self-proclaimed B Team, the more my attitude went the other way.

The mantra of the Plan B initiative is People, Planet, Profit. The aim is reconciliation of social, environmental and economic sustainability -- or, as John Elkington put it two decades ago, the ‘triple bottom line’.

Does it matter that there is nothing new in the group’s aims? No, obviously the point is that these business leaders have accepted that what they call Plan A -- the prevailing model of global capitalism -- has been harmful and needs to change.

And some of those involved have indeed modeled better ways of doing business. Paul Polman is CEO of Unilever, which has set high standards of devolving power within its own structures, and Jochen Keitz, who co-chairs the B Team with Branson, led Puma's pioneering work in corporate social responsibility.

But let's be careful about consenting to be led in our quest for an alternative model of global economic development by even the more acceptable end of the international corporate elite. They are setting an agenda that should start with the needs, aspirations and voices of the least powerful.

It is rather telling, perhaps, that their chosen vehicle for this initiaitive is a non-governmental organisation run by themselves. You could see this as symbolising the emergence in recent years of a sort of liberal plutocracy composed of increasingly blurred lines between the political, international institutional, corporate and NGOs leaders who gather from time to time to tell us their plans for the world.

“Plan A -- where companies have been driven by the profit motive alone -- is no longer acceptable,” states the B Team’s grand Declaration. “Our mission is to help develop a ‘Plan B’ that puts people and planet alongside profit.”

Note the “alongside” there, rather than “before”. I know businesses have to make profit -- I run a small one myself -- and the ‘triple bottom line' is a useful device to reform accounting principles and corporate governance.

But that doesn’t mean we can equate people with profit. That makes as much sense as to equate people with any other instrument of sustainable business: they are totally different categories, and the issue is which will be the servant and which the master.

The “ultimate aim”, say the B Team, “is to get millions of business leaders committed to a better way of doing business”. Great, but the arrogance that got us into this mess won’t get us out of it, and yesterday’s event smacked more of asserting than of releasing power.

The new business model must pay attention to “employee welfare”, says the Declaration, but not a word was said about guaranteeing the bare minimum of working people’s rights -- the International Labour Organisation’s core labour standards -- let alone a living wage or workplace democracy.

Some will say that we should welcome what the Declaration does say rather than bemoan what it doesn’t. That’s fine -- up to a point. And the point is that omission of such fundamental principles as employment rights and democratic governance leaves Plan B looking rather too much like Plan A, because it leaves corporate power relationships unchanged.

The B Team know they have put themselves in the firing line, and they pledge to ‘start at home’ and ‘to do our utmost to ensure we meet the principles of better businesses’. Yet, when asked what they had in mind, each pointed to something their company was already doing, rather than what they would do differently in future.

So the message boiled down to an appeal to other businesses to change. Richard Branson even had the nerve to demand an end to subsidies for carbon-producing energy suppliers, without even mentioning the aviation industry’s reliance on externalisation of its environmental costs!

It’s certainly welcome that the more progressive end of business leadership has decided to apply more pressure on the more regressive end. Two cheers for that, and I hope it works.

But it’s one thing to welcome the B Team's resolve to change the world. That doesn’t mean we should let them rule it.

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